Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Almost every environmental organization uses this quote at some point. Mead’s organizing truth is comforting to those laboring in the activist vineyards, but it is almost precisely opposite the actual approach we have taken, which would more appropriately be written …

It goes without saying that a small group of thoughtful, committed program officers and professional staff can mold public opinion and shift voting patterns, which should change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing liberals have ever been known to do.

Recent polls show an abrupt decline in public support for environmentalism and concern about global warming, which undercuts the two central assumptions of US environmentalist strategy:

  1. our main audience is the general public, to whom we must present a watered down climate story, and
  2. our natural base of support is liberal Democrats.

Public support for protecting the environment, according to the recent Pew Center for People & the Press poll fell “precipitously,” from 56 to 41 percent in one year, while global warming continued its downward slide, from 38 percent in 2007 to 35 percent in 2008 and 30 percent this year.

Most striking, support for environmental protection by liberal Democrats dropped 17 percent, from 74 to 57 percent, roughly the same rate as Republicans, down 19 percent, and independents, at 15 percent, and significantly higher than the 9 percent drop among moderate Democrats.

If environmentalism is best advanced within the rubric of progressive politics and global warming is most effectively communicated through optimistic messages addressed to the general public, then why were we just abandoned in droves by liberal Democrats and why, in a year of upbeat news about “green jobs,” did public support continue to nosedive?

A new chart, Selected US Global Warming Trends 2004-2009, presents the Pew poll data against two measures of media attention to climate and the frequency of Google searches for “global warming.” Though not statistically valid, the comparison does tend to indicate a correlation between media coverage and public curiosity and concern. Most interestingly, the surge in media attention occasioned by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth begins to decline just as bolstering scientific news — particularly release of the IPCC 4th Report and dramatic, visceral evidence as a Northwest passage opens for the first time — is released.

Even the reduced levels of support identified by Pew should be considered highly suspect, when compared with open-ended national polling which shows that neither “the environment” nor “global warming” are yet identified by any significant number of Americans when asked to volunteer the most important problem facing the nation or highest priority for the government.

As I have argued before, our attention to wide but weak public support is misplaced, leaving us vulnerable to the cycles of an ADD media and alienating our potential core. It is increasingly evident that the vast scale of climate risk provokes a number of numbing psychological responses — pre-conscience cognitive dissonance and buffering in various forms — which exacerbates the usual forces of diffusion.

The only means by which a worldview and solution that is significantly at odds with majority public opinion may be driven onto the public agenda is through the agency of “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” — in other words, a determined, partisan core.

Our history is littered with examples of ostensibly important matters — advanced by effective advocates, resting on high moral ground, and commanding broad public support — that did not ignite until a determined core took action as, for example, the effort to end slavery languished for over a century in the hands of Abolitionists until Kansas and Harper’s Ferry.

Where there is no core or it is disconnected, disheartened, and divided (as are the very worried few with whom we are not holding a proper conversation) political power rests on the flimsy platform of public opinion driven by mass media and depends upon, rather than drives, the agendas of politicians. Broad-but-thin public support is a will-o-wisp that collapses quickly when it comes into conflict with firmly held values, or when media attention falters — the double-whammy we just experienced. Liberal support, which many U.S. environmentalists consider synonymous with environmentalism, dropped like a stone because climate is secondary to social justice and economic security.

One more note: Many believe that we do have a climate core. There is, it is true, a very worried group of people out there, many of whom are our members and supporters, but these folks exist in an existential hell, trapped between two flatly incompatible visions of reality:

  • Either we are facing collapse of the very systems that sustain life on the planet, with a terribly small chance of avoiding cataclysm if we manage to fundamentally reshape global society in four years, as climate scientists acting from a precautionary view advise;
  • or, climate change is a most serious problem and getting worse, but we have made major progress and there’s considerable room for hope; indeed, climate change provides us an opportunity to rebuild our society along more sustainable and equitable lines. U.S. environmentalists have an effective plan of action and, while it will be not easy, we can count on President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, in the end, to put our solutions in place.