It takes effort to suit up in the quasi-business/academic garb of the professional environmentalist and enter the lion's den of DC politics or the state houses. Our beliefs are so fundamentally at odds with the very fabric of civic life that it requires an effort of will, particularly in the early years, not to scream bloody murder and run for the door. Over decades, layers of accommodation and polite behavior have built up by accretion, while our rough edges have been worn down. The net result is a worldview -- we may call it the "Climate Policy Paradigm" -- that is so universally accepted that it goes unnoticed, yet its power is so great that we have abandoned the precautionary principle, environmentalism's central guide for action, with barely a murmur when the two came in conflict. Two hundred people turned out to hear Ross Gelbspan speak at the Jamaica Plain Forum a couple months ago. He gave us an hour of unvarnished truth, summarized recent climate science, and drove home the reality that nothing short of immediate, transformative, global action is sufficient. Climate campaign staff followed up at a "Global Warming Café," presenting our standard three-part story: first, we can turn things around, indeed we are already starting to do so; second, sound energy policy is good for America, because it will reduce dependence on foreign oil and create green jobs; and third, there are two things individuals can do: urge members of Congress to support emissions reduction bills and reduce our own carbon footprints. The audience joined in small group discussions, contributing their own tips on mulching and insulating hot water pipes, but the disparity between the terrible picture Ross painted and the flimsy action activists were invited to take left a palpable pall in the auditorium.
This is a speech I delivered on Earth Day, April 20, 2008, at the Unitarian-Universalist First Church in Jamaica Plain, Mass. A software glitch prevented its publication on that day, but I believe it's still worth sharing. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "I wish I could bring light ... but there is no light. Everything is going to become unimaginably worse. If I lied to you about that, you would sense that I'd lied to you, and that would be another cause for gloom, and we have enough causes already." It is true that there are fewer bald-faced lies being told about the state of the earth -- even our president now admits that climate change is, well, shucks, kind of a problem -- but fewer lies does not mean that there is more truth. Jim Hansen, the world's foremost climate scientist, is circulating a draft paper arguing that the climate "tipping point" must be reset at 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon, a point we passed two years ago. If we do not immediately return below that level, Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves will collapse, with a catastrophic rise in sea levels. From the study of ancient ice cores and sea sediment, we now know that sea level change is episodic and quick ... measured in feet per decade, rather than inches per century. Neither civilization nor global ecosystems can adapt to change this rapid. Hansen sketches a solution of appropriate scale: immediate halt to burning coal; crash Marshall program to replace it with renewables; limit oil and gas use to known, economically viable reserves; full-scale reforestation and adoption of carbon-storing agricultural practices. Nothing that we are doing, nor even seriously contemplating, comes anywhere near such massive a transformation, yet every actor on the political stage -- including major environmental organizations, "green" corporations, and presidential candidates of both major parties -- downplay the terrible realities and trumpet small-scale solutions wrapped in upbeat rhetoric. We are racing toward the end of the world and have no plan of escape, but it is considered impolite to acknowledge that fact in public.
This is the last U.S. election. Have we taken stock of the implications? There is no room for incremental thinking. The storm will fall on whomever we elect president (and isn't there a case for McCain?). Among the startling implications of breaching the 350 ppm limit is the likelihood that this is the last U.S. presidential election during which there remains a slim opportunity to take decisive global climate action. All the ordinary rules and habits of elections and campaigning have been summarily and unexpectedly tossed out the window. Building party power, advancing political careers, and addressing climate incrementally are no longer plausible strategies. We must now concern ourselves with electing leaders of character who will rise to the challenge as the crisis begins to unfold and political systems are stressed. Comparing campaign climate policies, in this context, is not the best measure of candidates. The differences between Clinton, McCain, and Obama on climate are minuscule compared to the gulf between the state of U.S. civic debate and the scale of response required to avert cataclysm. Furthermore, a simple head-to-head comparison of policy takes no account and gives no credit for the key indicators of political grit and integrity: context and history. John McCain may espouse the weakest platform of the three, but he adopted his position early and at high potential political cost. Both Clinton, who logged more dinner time with Al Gore then almost anyone, and Obama, a N.Y. PIRG college intern who credits LCV with his surprise victory in his first Senate race, were positioned to be strong climate action advocates but did not do so.
Hey, environmentalists! You passed the energy bill -- what're you gonna do now? Here are 12 things that could be undertaken with present resources:
Jerry Falwell, President Moral Majority Lynchburg, VA December 25, 1978 Dear Jerry, It is altogether fitting and proper that we should be meeting at this holy time of year. Attached is the final version of the focus group analysis. Nothing new in the numbers, but we have added several recommendations since the last draft. What we are proposing is controversial, and we expect a lively discussion at the Executive Committee meeting. Also enclosed please find our fourth quarter bill. Note that we have yet to receive payment for the first three quarters. As you know better than we, miracles are infrequent and the rent must still be paid! Sincerely, Ted Nordhaus Michael Shellenberger
Passing an energy bill at any cost made us look weak, reduced climate change urgency, handed a significant victory to President Bush, and accomplished little of significance. If we had chosen an alternative path -- to take a stand with the fledgling U.S. renewables industry and challenge the obscenely rich oil and coal behemoths -- we would have lost, to be sure, but would have built political power, introduced a novel story, and strengthened ties with an important ally. In acquiescing to a stripped-down energy bill, U.S. environmentalists lost an opportunity to reshape our climate story, strengthen our relationship with the renewable energy sector, and draw a bright line that distinguishes genuine supporters of functional climate action from fair weather friends. Instead, we opted for scraps, gaining emissions reductions of small significance compared to the global problem, displaying political weakness in place of principled courage, and handing a propaganda victory to a president who is singularly responsible for blocking international climate action. Even environmentalists damned the final Senate version with faint praise. The "landmark" hailed by UCS also, in their words, "failed to take a giant step." NRDC called it a "down payment toward fighting global warming," and was "disappointed," and Environment America (formerly the environmental arm of U.S.PIRG) called the measure "historic," even as they observed, "big oil and big coal succeeded in stripping out ... very important parts of the bill." Press and editorial reactions were less equivocal, as this sampling of headlines shows:
The difficulty with assessing candidates by how they address climate change is that policy statements and tailored speeches give little insight into the relative importance each candidate places on global warming as compared to other issues. It is particularly difficult to distinguish between Democratic candidates, who employ an almost identical language of urgency when addressing environmentalists. Tom Harkin, senior Senator from Iowa, hosts an annual barbecue. The September 16 event drew six major Democratic candidates -- Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson -- who spoke between 8-15 minutes each to an attentive crowd of 12,000. Each candidate's speech is displayed in the accompanying chart (below the fold) in the form of a bar, with red indicators of when and for how long climate change was addressed (CNN feed available at YouTube). It should be noted that when the issue was raised, the Harkin Steak Fry crowd responded enthusiastically, so there is little reason to think that candidates trimmed their climate sails for this particular venue.
The first round of grants (PDF) from the $100 million climate fund established last year by the Doris Duke Foundation were announced last week. Funding priorities and grant recipients were identified in an exhaustive 18-month process of extensive literature reviews and interviews with more than 75 distinguished scientists, economists, environmental leaders, investors, energy industry representatives, and public policy experts. The result? A total of $3.6 million will be distributed to five environmental organizations -- ED and NRDC ($500K), Pew Center on Global Climate Change ($395K), World Resources Institute ($750K), and Resources for the Future ($750K) -- and two universities -- Harvard ($750K) and MIT ($500K). Three climate action strategies will be pursued: devise "optimal domestic and international pricing policies for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases"; develop policies "that bring available technologies to market more quickly"; and, "identify adjustments" to reduce climate-change impacts. That the $100 million Duke Foundation fund will be expended on a decades-old strategy that has not worked is no surprise, as no coherent alternative to our present approach is available. However, the Duke Foundation announcement may portend change in two important respects.
The most important and relevant research for U.S. environmentalists is being conducted by Jon Agnone, a sociologist at the University of Washington. Agnone studies sources of environmentalist power -- the first social scientist to undertake a systematic analysis. His comprehensive findings are summarized in "Amplifying Public Opinion: The Policy Impact of the U.S. Environmental Movement" (PDF), appearing in the June 2007 issue of Social Forces. Agnone compared the relative impact of public opinion, institutional advocacy, and protest on passage of federal environmental legislation between 1960-1998, using a sophisticated analytical model and data drawn from The New York Times. Three key findings in this first-ever quantification of environmentalist power upend conventional political wisdom: Protest is significantly more important than public opinion or institutional advocacy in influencing federal environmental law. Agnone found that each protest event increases the likelihood of pro-environmental legislation being passed by 1.2 percent, and moderate protest increases the annual rate of adoption by an astonishing 9.5 percent. Public opinion on its own influences federal action (though less than protest), but is vastly strengthened by protest, which "amplifies" public support and, in Agnone's words, "raises the salience of public opinion for legislators." Protest and public opinion are synergistic, with a joint impact on federal policy far more dramatic than either factor alone. Institutional advocacy has limited impact on federal environmental policy. Agnone's findings demonstrate that protest is neither a historical phase of the environmental movement nor a peripheral tactic: it is the central basis of environmentalists' power. As Agnone notes, "these results lead to an important conclusion: when both protest and public opinion are at high levels, they jointly influence policy makers in ways that would be impossible if each existed without the other." When we stopped protesting, in other words, and began to rely on advocacy and mobilizing pubic opinion alone, we threw away our single most important lever of influence. The accompanying chart shows the correspondence between declining trend lines of environmental protest and passage of federal environmental law:
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