When Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus left off in “The Death of Environmentalism,” environmentalists were “head-down and knee-deep” in a wide and wild river. We were invited to clamber back onto the shore and envision a new path for the crossing.

Shellenberger & Nordhaus argue that an out-of-touch environmental movement has failed to reshape its program in the face of an shrewd challenge from the right wing. Our issues are wonky and our stabs at reframing completely miss the target. Our leaders are mired in ancient history and our policies are hopelessly inadequate to the scale of the challenges. S&N report that we are losing our grip on the imagination and allegiance of the majority of Americans. They point to the New Apollo Alliance as a model new approach and, in a startling leap of logic, propose to do away with environmentalism.

Maybe I am being too literal, but it is not clear to me how the “death” will occur. By murder? Suicide? Benign neglect? Presumably, given their chief audience, S&N contemplate death-by-denial of grants.

There are no obvious roadblocks to New Apollo-type program.[1] If such work offers a more robust political solution to climate change, it will certainly be emulated. It is hard to see how going this route requires knocking off the existing green groups, nor what base of support would replace them. What, for example, would draw the Steelworkers into the New Apollo Alliance if the Sierra Club were disbanded? Although the language clear and emphatic, the call to dismantle environmental organizations is mere rhetoric.

S&N have done a useful service by opening a discussion on the gulf between the current environmental agenda and the real level of political power and social change needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Few of the responses to “Death” challenge this assessment.

Most replies take S&N to task for their narrow definition of environmentalism and the simplistic solution they offer; I thought Paul Watson was particularly eloquent on these points. However, no real alternatives have been offered by the critics other than a defense of the status-quo. Even Watson concludes that we are screwed no matter what we do, an existential stance that is no different in effect from “stay-the-course”.

If we accept the possibility of even moderate projections for climate change and honestly face the scale of the effort humankind must undertake to avert catastrophe, this single problem jumps to the top of any rational list of global priorities. It is an uber-issue for which we have no precedent other than the threat of a global nuclear exchange during the height of the cold war — not a particularly comforting comparison.

Even environmentalists have trouble accepting the implications of climate change, something I learned giving talks on college campuses. In telling the climate-change story, I got used to seeing audiences shift from agreement to doubt. This barely perceptible audience “click” usually occurred when I mentioned the predictions for sea level rise should the West Antarctic Ice Shelf begin to float on the ocean.[2] The future toward which we now rush is unbelievable, even though the evidence of retreating glaciers, massive ice break-ups at both poles, and a melting permafrost is before our eyes.

I am no exception. Our family moved to Massachusetts two years ago and we bought a house in Hull, a seaside community. I did ask our realtor to check the elevation of the properties we looked at, but we ended up in a house on the tip of a peninsula which, although unlikely to be underwater, may well be an island in 20 or 30 years.

It may not be within the realm of the possible for individuals, even those with access to the most convincing data, to truly accept the scale of the catastrophe we face, but it is possible for institutions to do so. The insurance industry, military planning units, and The Netherlands have accepted this reality.

Homeowners near the coast can even track the exact rate at which the insurance industry is adjusting its assessment of climate-change risk. When we purchased our home, the deductible for wind damage was $300 per year. A year later it rose to $2,000. This year it is set at $10,000 per event and is expected to rise again next year. Statisticians somewhere are getting to the truth at a level utterly absent from the public conversation.

I do not think this phenomenon can be understood completely in political terms or is due solely to political influence of the fossil-fuel lobby. Our civic failure to come to grips with the threat of catastrophic climate change has root causes that are deeper than the pecuniary. The prospect is awful, the evidence easy to overlook, and the solutions overwhelming and uncomfortable.

To understand where we are and what we might do, there are few guides to turn to. Barbara Tuchman is one of the few who have even addressed the problem we face. She wrote:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history, regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be.

The opposite of wisdom, wrote Tuchman, is folly.[3]

It is folly on a global scale that we must prevent and it is no wonder that we sometimes quail in the face of the prospect.

I share with S&N the view that our movement is failing to truly come to grips with a threat that, ironically, we were the first to identify. I admire their urgency and agree that the circumstances do not permit a gradual evolution of praxis. The danger is unquestioned and actions we must take should be swift, focused, and massive. Having traveled this far in agreement with S&N, I must then part ways. If the future toward which we rush is folly, their solution is foolishness.

In the next sections I expand on this critical view, list factors not mentioned by S&N which contribute to our hobbled state, and describe a campaign which might have a shot at affecting climate change policy in the U.S.



Ken Ward has 25 years leadership and campaigning experience with the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, Greenpeace USA, Public Interest GRFX, and the National Environmental Law Center. He was a cofounder of the Fund for Public Interest Research, Environmental Endowment for New Jersey, and Green Corps.



[1] The New Apollo Project is presented as offering “big solutions to frame the problem.” The “big” aspect of the New Apollo approach is the size of government funding envisioned. The policies listed in the New Apollo Agenda are similar to several existing energy independence agendas. As S&N acknowledge, the New Apollo approach has yet to be tested in any political arena.

[2] “If Earth’s climate continues to warm, then the volume of present-day ice sheets will decrease. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet would result in a sea-level rise of about 8 meters. The West Antarctic ice sheet is especially vulnerable, because much of it is grounded below sea level. Small changes in global sea level or a rise in ocean temperatures could cause a breakup of the two buttressing ice shelves. The resulting surge of the West Antarctic ice sheet would lead to a rapid rise in global sea level.” — US Geological Survey

[3] To qualify as folly, a course of action must meet three criteria. It must be perceived as counterproductive in its own time, a feasible alternative course of action must be available, and the policy must persist beyond any one political term or lifetime. — The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman.