Environmentalists need to fundamentally change their climate change strategy
Pro-fossil fuel forces are pursuing an effective strategy that engages the attention of climate action advocates and obscures the vigorous expansion of fossil fuel supply now underway. How is it possible for the world’s best informed governmental and private sector leaders to proceed with this course of action when the consequences are known? An answer, of sorts, is visible in the business plans and statements of fossil fuel sector leaders.
In their view, the effort to reduce fossil fuel use is a fool’s errand. It is therefore both profitable and the best climate change strategy to ramp up oil gas and coal supply to accelerate economic development. Developed nations are more energy efficient and faster adopters of new technology, slowing emissions.
Most important, only an expanding global economy will be able to afford the huge capital demands of fossil fuel extractions in increasingly remote and costly environments, pay for the next generation of energy efficient products and technologies, and fund the massive carbon sequestration projects needed to tide the world over (other, less savory technological responses may also figure into the thinking). In this worldview, addressing climate change is best understood as a race between carbon emissions and capital accumulation.
Environmentalists have articulated no strategy to address climate change within the <10 year timeframe for global action. Most resources of U.S. environmentalists remain invested in a “Kyoto-Lite” collection of emissions reductions/renewables programs conceived as an end-run around the Bush administration, advancing to meet international treaty targets by environmentalists’ own direct efforts. The opportunities afforded by Democratic control of Congress and heightened media attention have been met by advancing the existing agenda of U.S. domestic policies. Nothing of consequence, it is understood, will be won this year, but our agenda, negotiated down a bit in the details, will be winnable in 2009 under a new administration.
Our approach of the last decade, from which our present agenda is a linear and logical step, is based on assumptions that have been orthodoxy for so long that we forget what a radical departure they are from what may be termed the “fundamentalist” ethos of environmentalism. When stated simply, the inherent flaws and contradictions are easy to spot. As presently presented, our climate agenda states or implies that:
- solving climate change is not incompatible with expanding fossil fuel use;
- the goal of U.S. climate action is to reduce U.S. carbon emissions;
- building momentum in measurable steps is more important than defining the precautionary standard of global action and driving toward it; environmentalists are most effective acting as policy experts and problem solvers, not protesters and rabble rousers;
- reasonable people will eventually take reasonable and responsible action, pessimistic and alarmist pronouncements are unhelpful in bringing them along, and conflict must be avoided; and
- climate change is bigger but not fundamentally different than other environmental issues and does not require structural, strategic, or narrative changes in order to address it.
What other course of action is available to us? It is helpful to remember that environmentalists chose to head down the road we are traveling. The decision was taken at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit when mandatory emissions reductions were removed from draft Kyoto Protocol language and environmentalists did not to walk out. We accepted a toothless framework for three main reasons:
- we believed that something was better than nothing;
- we could not defeat the measure, and
- we believed that the treaty could be strengthened later on.
We gambled, in other words, that participation was more important than policy and that our power would be diminished by stepping outside the governmental framework.
Clearly we made the wrong decision, yet we continue to compound the error at every level of our climate work. We remain engaged in toothless international treaty negotiations. We join hands in private sector collaboratives and stand at the podium with the most odious corporate malefactors, confusing appearances with fundamental business realities and rewarding bad behavior. Our climate agenda implies that climate change can be addressed with domestic emissions reductions and largely ignores the global nature of the risk and solution.
It is past time for environmentalists to withdraw from sham responses to climate change, disentangle ourselves from the web of international negotiations that divide and reduce environmentalists’ power, and define a simple, reasonable standard for private sector behavior that distinguishes the bad guys from the good.
The key global strategic objective is self-evident. It is not necessary to know all the details of a solution to conclude that no functional response can be won without U.S. leadership. America remains the best and only bet for vigorous, powerful leadership of the only sort that might drive forward a solution against vigorous opposition and tough odds, even though U.S. attitudes and action on the international stage would appear to argue otherwise.
The insular and bellicose politics of recent years is an expression of American values of freedom and liberty, which dominate in periods of relative prosperity and security. Those aspects of the American character on which the nation draws in times of great danger and travail — our naive and optimistic spirit, capacity to mobilize vast resources, and willingness to act with honor, courage, and idealism — are called up when the nation is tested. We are capable of swift, sure, and determined social action, but only when driven to it.
Averting cataclysm depends on bringing the U.S. to an early and sharp point of domestic conflict, where the global stakes are put front and center and the political power of pro-fossil fuel adversaries and the atavistic political impulses of our domestic enemies are raised to full fury and overcome. Environmentalists must foment and win a civic civil war, and do so in a way that mobilizes the nation and moves the U.S. into global leadership with a mandate to take necessary and appropriate action, without sacrificing our principles in the process.
These are fantastic circumstance, only conceivable if or when climate change impacts begin to fray the fabric of society. It is not difficult to imagine how abruptly U.S. politics will be changed when Florida is hit by two Katrina-size hurricanes in one season, a taste of the future toward which our attention should be directed. Nothing that can be won in current international or domestic political conditions will much affect the global outcome. There is nothing to be lost by withdrawing.
Our energy should be put to shaping the options and setting the stage for a climatic struggle in chaotic and fluid political conditions driven by harsh climate change impacts. Our strategic aim should shift from advancing incremental domestic policy to polarizing conflict over the definition of abrupt climate change, advancing the global standard of action, and defining the responsibility of American international leadership.
The scale of a functional global response has been compared to World War II by Al Gore and others. The comparison is apt, and also serves to remind us that societies and nations almost never take remedial action in the face of oncoming catastrophe, even where the dangers are obvious and early and forceful action might avoid the worst consequences. World War II occurred because the democracies of Europe failed to respond to Hitler’s early, provocative actions and the U.S. took no action until the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Planning to act in chaotic conditions is not only the most sensible climate policy, it is also the most effective political means of rewriting our climate story and building power for climate action. International and U.S. environmentalist strategy should aim, therefore, to maximize global pressure on American government, business, and society with the goal of …
… wining a sea change in American social and political view necessary to move the U.S. into leadership of a last minute, last ditch drive by humankind to avert cataclysm.