ObamaDelaying a decision on Keystone XL doesn’t redeem Obama’s failure to take advantage of his opportunity to turn the tide of climate change.Photo: The White HouseIt goes without saying that politics is a dirty system. It’s so dirty that I believe there are only three reasonable approaches to politics: apathy/despair, overthrowing the system, or playing dirty to win. I’ll assume that the apathetics either aren’t reading this or will soon stop reading to go watch cat videos on YouTube. The second option, revolution, is growing more plausible, and the climate movement should fully support those efforts. The occupations of Wall Street and D.C. have found a weak spot in the wall of corporate power that keeps people out of the halls of influence. Everyone needs to push that spot until we break through the wall and have a new constitutional convention to establish a democracy in this country.

But this is actually about the third option, playing dirty, and it’s intended for those of you who intend to vote next year. I know lots of smart, engaged people who don’t participate in politics because they don’t want to play dirty. I understand their position as a sensible one. What I don’t understand is the large percentage of liberals who avidly engage with the political system but refuse to win.

It has become quite clear over the last few years that the climate movement does not have any real political power. That sad reality has been revealed by the Waxman-Markey bill, Copenhagen, and the complete lack of policy response to Upper Big Branch, Deepwater Horizon, and Fukushima. Kicking the Keystone can down the road does not redeem Obama’s failure to take advantage of his unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to turn the tide of climate change. Take a look at Rolling Stone‘s recent article about 10 things Obama can do for the climate. If you really expect him to do many of those things, here’s some cat videos while you wait. The question is: How does the movement gain power?

Special interest groups don’t have political power because of their nice personalities and good looks. Groups with power got it by demonstrating they were willing to take politicians out of office. That’s why Barack Obama needs to lose in 2012, and he needs to know that it was our fault.

The refrain from Democratic apologists is, “What are you gonna do? Vote Republican? They would be even worse.” Imagine this kind of reasoning being used on the other side. Let’s say Texas Republican Joe Barton allows a meager $10-per-ton tax on carbon, then tries to explain it to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson by saying, “But Rex, if there was a Democrat in my place, it would have been $50 a ton.” It’s unthinkable. Even though Barton has light crude flowing through his veins, Tillerson would Temple-Of-Doom-punch Barton’s oily heart right out of his chest and nail it to the office door of his Democratic replacement as a warning to others. People like Tillerson know there are no friends in politics, only those who fear you enough to do what you want.

A good first step toward gaining political power for the climate movement would be to primary a few fossil-fuel-friendly Democratic representatives. With just three primary challenges and hopefully one victory, the climate movement could establish itself as a serious force. (It’s not too late and you’re not too unprepared. In November 2009, a few activists who knew nothing about elections decided to challenge Blue Dog Jim Matheson using a Criagslist help wanted ad. We split the delegate vote and forced a runoff primary that cost Matheson $1.2 million.) While we tend to focus a lot of attention on Obama’s failures on climate change, congressional Democrats have been equally pathetic in their failure to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, especially when they controlled the majority in the House.

The climate movement could also rock the boat by campaigning for Jon Huntsman right now. Aside from playing dirty, I genuinely believe that Jon Huntsman would make a better president than Obama. While Huntsman was my governor, I saw him show integrity in the face of a Utah state legislature that makes the U.S. House look sane. Huntsman took very public steps to address climate change even while the legislature passed a bill that literally said the science of climate change was a U.N. conspiracy to limit human population. He has guts, which is more than anyone can say for Obama, who has demonstrated the wisdom of Edward Abbey’s words, “Without courage, all other virtues are worthless.” If Huntsman wanted an endorsement from a lefty activist felon in prison, he would have it.

Of course Huntsman can’t win his party’s batshit crazy primary. But building political power is all about looking beyond the next election. Very public support for Huntsman from the climate movement could create some interesting public discussion about how the Dems have failed to address the climate crisis. Campaigning for Huntsman might also scare Obama enough that he takes some steps over the next year to try to win us back.

But come 2012, the climate movement will still face that arrogant taunt, “Whaddaya gonna do? Let a Republican win?” If this movement is ever going to get serious political power, the answer needs to be yes. This is where things get dirty. Like any abusive relationship, this movement will always be taken for granted if it’s not willing to turn its back on Obama. He needs to lose, and everyone needs to know it was us. Instead of making phone calls for Obama, those who helped him get elected should make phone calls to Obama explaining why they turned. Much of the youth climate movement has already announced that it won’t actively campaign for Obama as it did in 2008, and logically this is no different than voting for his opponent. By not knocking on doors anymore, each activist affects dozens of votes, whereas voting for someone else is just one vote. But emotionally it feels like a much bigger leap. It almost feels dirty. 

Perhaps that’s part of why so many people are in the streets, not trying to sway politicians, but to overthrow them. To step into the current political arena, we have to play dirty if we’re going to make any progress. Then again, there’s always cat videos.