An in-depth response to “The Death of Environmentalism”
There Is Something Different About Global Warming
Dear Environmental Grant-Maker:
You may have recently received a memorandum entitled “The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.
I was one of the twenty-five people interviewed for this piece. While I personally was treated fairly, I am still deeply disappointed and angered by it. I share the thesis that some fundamental changes are needed in the way environmentalists approach the challenge of global warming. But I believe that their paper, because it is unfair, unclear and divisive, has actually muddied the water and made the task of figuring out a comprehensive and effective set of strategies more difficult.
Points of Agreement
Summed up, Shellenberger and Nordhaus (S&N) argue three relatively established points:
a) We are making inadequate progress on global warming.
b) We have inadequately mobilized public concerns and values to create political pressure. As a result decision makers have not been forced to confront the need for fundamental changes in the way our society uses carbon (and other greenhouse gasses).
c) This inadequacy is related to a common set of failings and weaknesses which afflict progressive social movements in general, by contrast with the reinvigorated and more strategically integrated efforts of the hard right.
I agree with these three points; indeed, it is hard to find anyone who doesn’t agree with them. These concerns are widely and broadly shared among both environmental advocates and funders. The results of the election undoubtedly reinforced this consensus. There is nothing particularly new or striking, or controversial, about these points.
Where We Diverge
But Shellenberger and Nordhaus frame these three points within a very troublesome and divisive set of conclusions about the broader environmental movement. These conclusions do not flow from their interviews. They are not documented or justified in their paper. My fear is that these conclusions are so fundamentally flawed that they may distract us from the real work at hand — to craft a set of understandings and approaches that will move us forward towards global warming solutions.
What They Overlook
Environmentalism is a broad, diverse and robust movement. It has provided some of the deepest and most questioning analysis of our ethical relationship to other species of our era. It deploys a wide variety of advocacy paradigms — policy based interest group analysis is one, but there are also placed-based, values-driven and rights-rooted traditions and models to draw upon.
Environmentalists have found it difficult to mobilize public support around global warming issues — even in times and places when public outrage over issues like mercury poisoning or clear-cutting has been boiling over. There is something different about global warming.
Environmentalism is part of a broader progressive movement, which the right has invested enormously in undercutting for the past thirty years. As part of that broader movement, we do have some work to do — but dying does not seem a particularly helpful form of that work.
Their overall thrust, unfortunately, is summarized by the title of their paper, “The Death of Environmentalism.” The arguments are internally contradictory, but the logic runs something like this:
i) The leadership of the environmental movement, overall, are a bunch of narrowly focused and politically blinded policy wonks — individually smart but collectively stupid.
ii) This blindness is the result of the very definition of environmentalism. “The environmental community’s belief that their power derives from defining themselves as defenders of “the environment” has prevented us from winning major legislation on global warming at the national level.”
iii) The environmental movement is in denial about the challenges it is facing. “In the face of perhaps the greatest calamity in modern history, environmental leaders are sanguine that selling technical solutions like florescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars will be sufficient to muster the necessary political strength to overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C.”
iv) The history of both Kyoto and CAFE standards reveals a consistent failure on the part of the environmental movement to comprehend that effective strategies to decarbonize the economy must take into account the priorities and needs of other players — the American auto industry, auto workers, labor in general, and the broader progressive community.
v) The environmental movement is incapable of responding to the challenge because its leaders are mired in the successes of the 1970’s. “It was then, at the height of the movement’s success, that the seeds of failure were planted. The environmental community’s success created a strong confidence — and in some cases bald arrogance — that the environmental protection frame was enough to succeed at a policy level.”
vi) As a result, we must consider junking the institutional framework of the environmental movement. “We need to take a hard look at the institutions the movement has built over the last 30 years. Are existing environmental institutions up to the task of imagining the post-global warming world? Or do we now need a set of new institutions founded around a more expansive vision and set of values?”
vii) The existing leadership is bankrupt and incapable of responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century. They should step aside to allow a new generation of leaders to take over. “Most of the movement’s leading thinkers, funders and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing.”
viii) Indeed, the environmental movement itself should pass from the scene. It’s time has come and gone. “We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”
Do Shellenberger and Nordhaus Make Their Case?
This second set of arguments makes a very large set of claims, indeed. Given that they wrote their piece in a few months after only 25 interviews, it may not be surprising that Shellenberger and Nordhaus failed to adequately buttress such a far-reaching set of assertions. It is not clear what possessed them to try to build such an ambitious premise on such a flimsy foundation. Boldness and hubris are closely related.
Their case is not only flimsy, it is internally contradictory and misleading. I still think it is important to address their arguments because, unchallenged, they may distract us from a set of very real challenges which require extending and rethinking our approach to global warming advocacy, not junking modern environmentalism.
Who Are Environmentalists?
S&N assert, “the environment is a category that reinforces the notions that a) the environment is a separate “thing” and b) human beings are separate from and superior to the “natural world”. The two major ethical streams in modern environmentalism are deep ecology and environmental justice. Neither accepts either of these notions. Who were they thinking of when they made these statements? They offer not a single quote to suggest that anyone they interviewed believes that human beings are “separate from and superior to the natural world.” Not one.
It would be hard to think of a social movement struggling harder to free itself from these two “notions” than environmentalism. But it is environmentalism whose death they advocate.
In other places, S&N appear to define the environmental movement as the 25 people they interviewed. When they urge that “environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be,” they utterly ignore such leaders as Wendell Berry, Paul Shepherd, Thomas Barry, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Leopold. They interviewed 25 policy people, and then complain that they got only policy expertise from their interviews. Environmentalism has both poets and wonks; you don’t go to your legislative counsel for a sonnet, nor to your troubadour for a reply brief.
Is the Definition the Problem?
S&N complain that “Most environmentalists don’t think of ‘the environment’ as a mental category at all — they think of it as a real “thing” to be protected and defended. They think of themselves, literally, as representatives and defenders of this thing.”
Without being too precious, the environment is a real thing. There is a global carbon cycle, human interventions are a small if meaningful part of the evolutionary process, homo sapiens depend upon a complex web of both geochemical and biological processes. Natural processes — eutrophication, competition, speciation, nutrient cycling, sequestration — continue around us according to their own dynamics. We influence, but do not control, the climate. Of course our understanding of these phenomena proceeds through mental constructs which are not the phenomena themselves — we’ve known that since Kant.
But I don’t think that the definition of what constitutes an environmental problem is the arbitrary and troublesome source of weakness that S&N suggest. They have erected, and then blown aside, a straw man. For example, they assert that “the environmental movement’s failure to craft inspiring and powerful proposals to deal with global warming is directly related to the movement’s reductive logic about the supposedly root causes (e.g., “too much carbon in the atmosphere”) of any given environmental problem.”
This charge does not explain why this same inadequate definition of what constitutes environmentalism has proven potent when applied to wilderness preservation, mercury in our waterways, or sewage in our basements. Environmentalism has failed with regard to global warming precisely in contrast to its success in mobilizing public passions on these other problems. This strongly suggests that we need to look not at what these problems have in common — the movement’s definitions of the environment — but what is unique or different about global warming.
Are Environmental Leaders Clueless and Naive?
S&N argue that environmentalists are living in lotus land about how they are faring. In addition to the claim that our movement believes that better light bulbs will solve the global warming problem, they maintain that “environmentalists are particularly upbeat about the direction of public opinion thanks in large part to the polling they conduct that shows wide support for their proposals. Yet America is a vastly more right-wing country than it was three decades ago. The domination of American politics by the far-right is a central obstacle to achieving action on global warming. Yet almost none of the environmentalists we interviewed thought to mention it.”
I spend a great deal of my time with environmental leaders. I know of none that I would describe as “sanguine” that technical solutions will solve the problem of global warming. I have participated in dozens of debates about the meaning of public opinion polls, none of which were particularly “upbeat.” I can testify that environmental leaders like those S&N interviewed think about the power and success of the right almost obsessively. I seriously doubt that S&N asked any one of their interviewees if they thought this was a problem and got the answer, “No, nothing to worry about.”
A Flawed Argument From History
S&N then make an argument from history, saying that there have been no epoch making big wins in recent decades like those of the late 60’s and early 70’s. They specifically criticize environmentalists for a series of strategic and movement building failures, narrating the history of global warming advocacy since the 1980’s. But again they fail to show why if the problem is environmentalism, labor and social justice movements have also done very poorly since 1980.
On the specifics of global warming, their historical narrative is sadly incomplete and riddled with inaccuracies and internal inconsistencies. I and the Sierra Club have been part of the CAFE battle longer than any of the sources S&N cite in their history. But in our interview they never asked me any questions about the history of the environmental movement’s engagement with either the auto companies or the UAW on fuel efficiency. As a result, they got the story almost entirely wrong.
For example, the Sierra Club has consistently understood CAFE as a program which needed to be used to preserve and enhance the US auto industry, the very point they attack environmentalists for ignoring. As early as the Carter Administration the Sierra Club sought an alliance with the UAW on domestic content legislation to free the union up to become again an advocate for change among the domestic manufacturers. Environmentalists have also continuously and intensely explored ways to make the program work for both the unions and the domestic manufacturers by offering tax credits or other mechanisms to finance the necessary catch-up by Detroit.
The authors claim that in the 1990’s, “having gathered 59 votes — one short of what’s needed to stop a filibuster — Senator Richard Bryan nearly passed legislation to raise fuel economy standards in 1990. But one year later, when Bryan had a very good shot at getting the 60 votes he needed, the environmental movement cut a deal with the automakers. In exchange for the auto industry’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, environmentalists agreed to drop their support for the Bryan bill.”
This is rubbish. This statement appears to be based on a quote in Keith Bradsher’s book drawn in turn from an earlier work by Jack Doyle. The reality is that Senator Bennett Johnston of Louisiana, to get an omnibus energy bill which included drilling the Arctic beyond a Senate filibuster and into conference with the House, included a 37 mpg CAFE standard as part of that bill. Auto companies opposed the bill, making it clear that the CAFE proposal would not survive conference with the House. Environmental groups opposed it because it was clear that drilling the Arctic would survive such a conference and would end up on the President’s desk to be signed. Senator Bryan, far from being abandoned by environmentalists, was one of the first Senators to sign up for the filibuster against the Johnston-Wallop bill.
Johnston offered repeated carrots in exchange for drilling the Arctic; there was never any evidence that he had the capacity or intention to deliver on any of them; environmentalists, wisely in my view, rejected them all.
Not only is this rubbish, it is dangerous rubbish. Because already, two weeks after the 2004 election, there are discussions that once again environmentalists should abandon their battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in exchange for some forward progress on reducing carbon emissions.
What none of these discussions acknowledge is this: It is the carbon lobby that wants to drill the refuge. It is the carbon lobby that does not want to reduce carbon emissions. If the oil industry, the Bush Administration and the state of Alaska have the votes to drill the Arctic, they will do so — they have no reason to give environmentalists something in exchange.
If environmentalists had the votes to do something to reduce carbon emissions, they should do so. They wouldn’t need to trade the Arctic, and they shouldn’t. This is not a market where one party owns the Arctic and can sell it in exchange for more fuel efficient trucks. The policy logic of drilling the Arctic and the policy logic of reducing carbon emissions are diametrically opposed. So this is not a rational public policy debate about how to craft a better energy policy by combining different priorities.
This is a power struggle about which way to go — more carbon or less.
Are We Mired In the Past?
The authors assert repeatedly, but never document, that the environmental movement is still approaching things as it learned to do in the early 1970’s. All that the authors offer to buttress this crucial claim is the following:
“By failing to question their most basic assumptions about the problem and the solution, environmental leaders are like generals fighting the last war — in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago. It was then that the community’s political strategy became defined around using science to define the problem as “environmental” and crafting technical policy proposals as solutions.
“The greatest achievements to reduce global warming are today happening in Europe…..
“Environmentalists are learning all the wrong lessons from Europe. We closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible.”
We do need to examine the European experience. But when we do, we find the same definition of global warming as an environmental problem, and the same technical policy solutions. What is different is the politics of carbon. European nations have been carbon importers for much longer than the U.S., and most have nationalized those industries so that they are no longer independent political actors.
Should We Junk Our Institutions?
Here’s where shoddy research is so damaging.
S&N assert there is a void needing to be filled. “If, for example, environmentalists don’t consider the high cost of health care, R&D tax credits, and the overall competitiveness of the American auto industry to be “environmental issues,” then who will think creatively about a proposal that works for industry, workers, communities and the environment? If framing proposals around narrow technical solutions is an ingrained habit of the environmental movement, then who will craft proposals framed around vision and values?”
Good questions — IF. But the full record, as I mention above, shows that environmental groups have incorporated competitiveness into their thinking for 26 years. They continue to do so. In the summer of 2002 the Sierra Club joined the Steelworkers in calling for federal action to relieve steel companies of their legacy pension and health costs. This action, which the authors call unthinkable, was fairly routine for us. Contrary to the author’s stated assumption, no one in the environmental movement was critical of the Club for taking this stance. In fact, we got a lot of praise.
The perception that the movement is overly obsessed with technical solutions appears to be an artifact of S&N having focused their interviews on the movement’s technicians. Again, to make such a claim about leaders like Randy Hayes or Dave Foreman is absurd — but neither of them was interviewed. The author’s entire edifice thus rests on sand. The tide is still coming in and out, and the environmental movement, leaders and institutions both, are still growing and changing like the ecosystem they are.
Is the Problem Generational?
The authors start out with an almost ritualized obeisance to earlier generations of environmentalists:
“Those of us who are children of the environmental movement must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us. The clean water we drink, the clean air we breathe, and the protected wilderness we treasure are all, in no small part, thanks to them. The two of us have worked for most of the country’s leading environmental organizations as staff or consultants. We hold a sincere and abiding respect for our parents and elders in the environmental community. They have worked hard and accomplished a great deal. For that we are deeply grateful.”
They then move on to an almost equally ritualized sacrifice.
“Most of the movement’s leading thinkers, funders and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing.”
An anthropologist would be thrilled to find patricide still servings its ritual purpose.
Having framed the basic issues as generational, they spend the rest of the paper savaging their “parents and elders.” (It’s not clear who delegated the two of them to speak for the children in this generationally divided family they have hypothesized.)
Yet there’s simply no evidence in the paper that there are any consistent differences on the crucial issues between different generations within the environmental movement. I freely grant that there are, and should be, different generational leadership styles, different understandings of how to advance environmental change, different political strategies. But there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever in the S&N paper that on the key issues they raise the differences are generational. Do younger environmental ethicists see issues differently than their predecessors? Is there less interest in the technical issues of carbon trading among younger economists within the environmental movement? Do older environmental justice advocates fail to see the need to be more inclusive?
S&N have taken the normal, important, and inevitable segmentation within the environmental movement, and pretended that it can be explained as a matter of generational succession — without an iota of evidence.
The End of Environmentalism?
Perhaps the most self-serving and damaging paragraph in the paper is the following:
“At the same time, we believe that the best way to honor their achievements is to acknowledge that modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis.”
I say self serving because, given that the chosen audience of the paper was the funders, it will be hard for many readers to avoid the suspicion that the not so hidden message was “fund us instead.”
And I say damaging because by mingling the issue of the need for deeper and more effective global warming strategies with an ill-thought out assault on environmentalism, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are likely to create defensiveness, not receptivity; resistance, not movement; back-lash, not progress.
Do They Offer a Better Way?
If the paper offered a clear and constructive path forward, the internal contradictions of the analysis would matter less. They would be offering a better reasoned “what” instead of merely suggesting themselves as “who.” Instead, they have offered a hodge podge. They are clear, as others have been, that focusing just on tactics is not enough, that we need to engage people as moral beings and tap into their deepest values. They join the chorus which has pointed out that alliances need to be based on true mutuality, and that environmentalists and progressives need to follow the example of the hard right in doing long range thinking and work. These are all very useful, if not strikingly new concepts. But in their zeal to deconstruct the concept of modern environmentalism, and to proclaim their readiness to offer a better way forward, Shellenberger and Nordhaus failed to provide their own answers to some very basic and troublesome questions.
They do not seem to have sorted out whether they think we should abandon or embrace the “tell the world how many of its problems are due to global warming frame” or what role technological optimism should play in our efforts and communications strategies. They do not touch the thorny question of how they stand on the long dialogue among social change theorists about whether incremental behavioral change leads to newer and eventually larger changes in thinking, which then enables new behavioral change or whether it is essential to first create new mental maps which enable behavioral change.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus defend their failure to come up with a new vision by saying it would be premature and presumptuous:
“We resisted the exhortations from early reviewers of this report to say more about what we think must now be done because we believe that the most important next steps will emerge from teams, not individuals. Over the coming months we will be meeting with existing and emerging teams of practitioners and funders to develop a common vision and strategy for moving forward.”
Unfortunately, by failing to offer their own ideas for scrutiny they rendered their report nihilistic — able to destroy but not create.
An Alternative View
Shellenberger and Nordhaus do make one extremely compelling point:
“Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 1990s is that, in the end, the environmental community had still not come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that a majority of Americans could get excited about.”
And buried in their paper’s misguided deconstruction of environmentalism are some extremely useful clues they picked up from their interviews about where we might go:
1) Environmental advocacy has been dramatically less effective dealing with global warming than with clean air, clean water, wilderness or wildlife. That suggests that part of the problem is not a generic feature of environmentalism, but some specific differences between global warming and these other problems. Such differences are not difficult to identify. The environmental challenges which gave rise to the reforms of the early 1970’s, on which the progress of the next 30 years rests, had tangible, local, and immediate consequences for the public. Lake Erie was dying under the boats of fishermen, the Cuyahoga River could be seen to burn by Clevelanders, New Yorkers had to change their shirt in the middle of the day, and children in Los Angeles could not go out and play hundreds of days a year.
The problems that environmentalism has failed to get a grasp on, or develop a deep public commitment and attention to, by contrast, are intangible, global and future oriented. Global warming, habitat fragmentation, and the loading of global ecosystems with persistent but toxic and disruptive industrial chemicals are simply harder for an opportunistic, reactive primate species to understand as threats.
2) Environmental advocacy has been less potent in the 1990’s than in previous decades. So has advocacy for the broader progressive community agenda — for justice. We have made some progress on the individualistic side of the progressive ledger — public tolerance for racial diversity has increased, the gay and lesbian community has made dramatic strides.
But on questions of justice progressives have been losing. The labor movement, advocates for health care reform, tax justice advocates have all fared as badly as or worse than environmentalists. So whatever ails environmentalism ails these other movements as well.
The landscape on which politics has played out has changed radically. Faced with what one commentator called America’s first “anti-enlightenment President” sound science alone will not carry the day. We ARE in a culture war, and rational collective self interest IS an inadequate approach.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus are thus, it seems to me, correct when they say that environmentalism is falling short because it shares with the rest of the progressive movement a set of increasingly outmoded organizing, advocacy and political approaches. It is strategically disadvantaged when confronted with value based, longer range, and more carefully framed hard-right advocacy. But this is a case for modernizing the left, not for killing environmentalism.
3) One element of the left’s weakness is its emphasis on technical policy analysis, not values. This weakness goes right back to the technocratic emphasis of the Progressive Movement, and of early conservationists. This approach — interest group politics — was codified in the 1920’s by Walter Lippman and refined after World War II by writers like John Kenneth Galbraith.
Interest group politics assumed that American political parties were loose coalitions, and that the congressional and presidential branches of each party were competing for power. Interest groups could thus recruit support from individual policy makers regardless of their ostensible partisan ties. As American politics, if not the American constitution, has been moved by the right in an ever more parliamentary, party-driven direction, interest group policy advocacy becomes increasingly impotent.
But working backward from this last weakness, it is important to remember, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus do not, that policy-based interest group advocacy is only ONE of the major organizing frameworks the modern environmental movement has employed.
Much of environmental advocacy has been place based, not policy driven, and involved creating a community vision of the desired state of a landscape, and then creating institutions charged with achieving that set of goals. (The National Park System and the Wilderness Act on the one hand, and such institutions as the California Coastal Commission on the other are prototypes.)
Other environmental advocacy has been values driven, with certain “wrong” industrial practices or technologies banned or eliminated. (Most of the current work around genetic engineering is a good example of this, as was the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980’s.) And some of the most successful environmental work has aimed to create new forms of rights, so that citizens could assume more control over a wide range of decisions impacting them. (The National Environmental Policy Act, citizens suits provisions, the right-to-know movement, California’s Prop 65)
These other forms of environmental advocacy are full of promise for global warming.
A striking example of one strategy to transform the global warming debate using a different, but entirely familiar form of environmental advocacy, would be to apply the well established values frame of the “polluter pays” principle.
From this perspective, at its heart, the global warming debate is not complicated. It is simply very difficult because it is about who is going to pay.
Kyoto is an attempt to start down the road that everyone knows will have a very large bill, without ever deciding who will pay for the bill. Which is why, in my view, Kyoto has gone nowhere in the U.S. Confronted with a potential liability, as long as I think I won¹t have to pay the bill, I’ll hire my lawyer. That’s what the US carbon lobby has done. They know carbon is a liability. They don’t want to pay the bill.
This understanding that global warming is mainly a problem about who is going to pay — which in turn depends on who we assume owned the sky to begin with — has been articulated on the left by Peter Barnes and on the right by Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago School of Law — normally one of environmentalism’s major opponents.
But if we frame global warming as pollution, and assert that the polluter should pay, then suddenly this otherwise completely abstruse, overly technical problem becomes much easier for the public to understand.
We can then get people to recognize that you shouldn¹t be electrifying villages in India by hanging copper wires between them. You should be electrifying them with methane generators and windmills — and the polluters, the emitters of carbon, ought to be paying for them.
We know that if we lay this necessity on the table, the other side will respond with their own values frame — one focused on accommodation, not prevention. Here S&N seem to miss the point completely. They again fall back on their lament that the problem is the definition of the environment:
“What do we worry about when we worry about global warming? Is it the refugee crisis that will be caused when Caribbean nations are flooded? If so, shouldn’t our focus be on building bigger sea walls and disaster preparedness? Is it the food shortages that will result from reduced agricultural production? If so, shouldn’t our focus be on increasing food production? Is it the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream, which could freeze upper North America and northern Europe and trigger, as a recent Pentagon scenario suggests, world war?
“Most environmental leaders would scoff at such framings of the problem and retort, ‘Disaster preparedness is not an environmental problem.'”
In fact, in refusing to accept accommodation as a proper response, environmentalists have been doing exactly what S&N advocate — organizing around values. In rejecting accommodation, environmentalists are choosing prevention over compensation, prudence over risk. Environmentalists have repeatedly pointed out that the right’s choice of “accommodation” instead of “prevention” as a response to atmospheric greenhouse gas overload is futile — not because it is not environmental, but because it won’t work. We simply won’t build a sea wall around Florida, much less around the Gangetic Delta in Bangla Desh — and a sea wall won’t stop a hurricane, or save coral reefs.
There is a deep values conflict between the modern hard right on the one hand, and traditional conservatives and environmentalism on the other. It has to do with the conflict between prudence/prevention vs. risk/retaliation. Environmentalists have been pretty consistent in taking the side of traditionalism — prudence, the precautionary principle, prevention — against the hard libertarian right. We need to do this more explicitly around global warming.
But again, environmental discourse gives us tools we can use effectively to move the public conversation on global warming — even though they are not the tools of interest-group lobbying.
Following this one line of possible alternative reasoning, how do we frame global warming as pollution? More particularly, how do we frame burning fossil fuel as pollution, because that is how the ordinary person will encounter this issue? Here’s where it’s not enough to think of global warming as a policy, or even a political problem. It’s a conceptual problem. And it’s a conceptual problem that environmentalism dealt with before, when it encountered the early view that “the smell of pollution is the smell of money.”
As long as we view developing oil, coal and gas as development, as a form of economic advancement, it will be very hard, simultaneously, to say that we should charge people lots of money for doing so — it feels like a punishment for success.
That’s yet another reason why conventional interest group advocacy won’t work on this issue — it’s more than the new power of the right. Neither moderate Republicans nor Democrats have been able to shake themselves loose of the regional power of the carbon lobby. No one, environmentalists or some broader group that S&N might imagine, will be able to solve the problem of global warming by persuading members of the House and Senate that there are good alternatives, and that if we do the right things we can get rid of oil and coal and still have a good economy with lots and lots of stuff to consume. That case has been made aptly and effectively, in DC (and elsewhere).
What the environmental community must grapple with is, “How do you deal with the reality that not everyone in Washington thinks a world without oil and coal is a good thing?” America’s leaders think that, overall, producing fossil fuels is a form of progress. And they have ample incentives to keep on thinking that way. That’s why, in my view there is no elite solution. You can’t bring the world’s leaders together to solve this problem. The world’s leaders are the problem.
We need to start talking about our current pattern of consuming ever more carbon as a public health problem not an economic solution. A hundred years ago open sewers were common. Today, if we were to see an overflowing open sewer, and someone said make it twice as wide to handle all the new sewage, we would not think that was a good thing (and a mayor who proposed that would be in trouble).
We won’t make progress as long as we conceptualize fossil fuel consumption as a good thing (along the recent lines laid out by the World Bank) instead of presenting fossil fuel consumption as our century’s open sewer. But once we start thinking about fossil fuel consumption in this way, we need to recognize that the political problem gets bigger before it get smaller. We have to deal with the reality that there are win-win solutions for the economy as a whole, but not for Exxon — (or the Saudis.) We should acknowledge that it’s not a win-win for Exxon. (There can be win-wins for General Motors.) The conversation we are having should be about an entirely different energy future, one which will mean a dramatic reconfiguration of the world’s wealth. Now how will we get that done?
Fully exploiting the potential of the pollution frame is, again, only one potential course for reframing the issue of global warming.
Another is to take advantage of place-based environmentalism. One of the major global warming issues is that there are a huge number of coal fired power plants being proposed in the US — about 112 gigawatts. If approved and built, these will have operating lifetimes in excess of 60 years. Their carbon dioxide emissions alone will drastically impair the US’s ability to cut its emissions. They will also preempt the market for wind and solar. So if they are built, we are cooked.
But they must be built somewhere. Wherever they are built there are place based advocacy tools to resist, which have been used quite successfully, say, in Colorado, as part of an integrated campaign to encourage wind and solar. So here is another example of reshaping an existing advocacy approach from the traditions of the environmental movement to make effective forward progress on global warming.
Again, I would say we did something much like that in the late 60’s or 70’s with pollution, in the 80’s with nuclear power, and have been having surprising success doing it in the last decade with genetically modified foods.
Global warming is a more abstract, distant problem; the economic transformation required is bigger; it needs deeper, more robust, more sustained collaborations; it needs to be harnessed to a broader vision of a new economic order. There is more than enough hard work to go around. We ought not to get distracted by conversations about “the death of environmentalism”; we should avoid allowing ourselves to be divided by glib generalizations about generational divides; we should above all be creative, not destructive.
Confusion With the Apollo Alliance
Because I am one of the co-chairs of the Apollo Alliance, and because S&N referred so heavily to the Alliance, I went to the trouble of checking with the other leaders of Apollo to see what their involvement in this piece had been. Their response makes it very clear that Shellenberger and Nordhaus were speaking only for themselves, and that the Apollo Alliance as a whole had not even seen this document before it was distributed:
Another unfortunate aspect of the paper was that it left the impression that the Apollo Alliance sanctioned the substance, criticism or tone of the analysis. In fact, Alliance partners such as my fellow Alliance co-chair Leo Gerard (Steelworkers), as well as key partners Robert Borosage (Institute of America’s Future), Dan Carol (CTSG), Joel Rogers (Center on Wisconsin Strategy), as well as Alliance Executive Director Bracken Hendricks did not see a copy of the paper until it was released for EGA, nor were they aware of its existence before its release.
Of particular concern to Alliance partners is the suggestion in the paper, real or implied, that the Apollo Alliance’s model green jobs investment plan released last year, was, in any way, a complete “solution” to the climate change challenge we face. The Apollo vision is animated by the strength of environmental values and the vitality of a popular movement that is one of the great hopes for re-tooling the nation’s policies to create clean energy jobs, a sustainable economy, and a safer world.
Most disturbingly, to me and the Apollo team, was that the paper was not in the spirit of our project, which has been seeking for the last two years to evangelize and create innovative new alliances and partnerships for tomorrow — not practice the “push-off” politics of the past.
These at-times painstaking efforts have sought to balance the passions of many, many stakeholders; and so it was disappointing to me and the Apollo team to see the passions of a few, however well meant, to raise their voices over others. It is not how we operate, and it’s surely not how we will succeed together.