Hey, environmentalists! You passed the energy bill — what’re you gonna do now?

Here are 12 things that could be undertaken with present resources:

1. Use The Flood Threat.

Our climate story should be about the civilization-busting and mass extinction threat of Greenland and Antarctic ice-shelf break-up and rapid sea-level rise. This simple and honest story is far more powerful than the shifting laundry list of climate impacts we now put forward. The fatal flaw with any plan that skips around these terrible truths is that they are discernibly dishonest, and false optimism masks the only rationale that can move the U.S. to action. Climate change is not going to be solved because it creates jobs. It is going to be solved because Miami, New York, and San Diego are going underwater.

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2. Increase Solar Power in Iraq.

We must jump climate from second-tier policy to macro-world view, on par with ending slavery or defeating fascism. One means to do this is advancing climate solutions to top-tier issues.

Why not, for example, propose that Iraq become the world’s first solar nation? The U.S. has spent $4.6 billion on reconstruction of the Iraq electricity system. As of January 2008, electricity supply is 4,010 MGw (PDF), less than half of demand (8,500-9,000 MGw, with half the difference, about 2,000 supplied by neighborhood entrepreneurs running small diesel generators), and barely above pre-invasion levels. The grid is a constant target of sabotage. One thousand employees of Iraq Electricity Ministry repair teams were killed last year, and two of 17 transmission lines to Baghdad were operational in August.

Relying on World Bank estimates, the Iraq Ministry of Electricity plans to spend $27 billion in the next eight years to add 4,000 MGw[1]. For $2 billion, and savings of $25 billion, the U.S. could provide solar systems, battery storage and inverters for 260,000 residences[2], generating that same 4,000 MGw, and leaving a functioning, maintainable, and defensible electric grid. The purchase would more than double global production of photovoltaics and a 50 percent set-aside for U.S. firms would represent a 12-fold increase over 2006 production[3]. Iraq is the one place in the world where solar power is significantly cheaper than fossil fuels ($1.7 billion/MMw versus $.13 billion/MGw).

3. Work Toward Unity.

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What hubris leads us to believe that we can avert cataclysm without troubling to work together? No political issue of even middling significance is ever pursued without a coalition to set strategy, pool resources, and maximize political clout. We face the end of the world, yet for two decades we haven’t ever held a serious national leadership meeting, let alone a national conference, to address it.

Our unwillingness to set aside organizational prerogatives and professional considerations has several debilitating consequences. We forgo power greater than the sum of our parts. We impose a heavy psychic cost on our staff and supporters by failing to admit reality. We communicate by our conduct of business-as-usual that we don’t believe our own story.

A U.S. coalition framework could be agreed within weeks if we put our minds to it, and a national convening of U.S. environmentalists could and should be organized in September. If our different visions prove irreconcilable, then two coalitions should be formed to engage in a spirited public debate, carrying on a long American tradition stretching back to the Federalist Papers.

4. Find a Supply-side Solution.

Our solutions are utterly impractical within the time frame for global action. Some private sector leaders who have begun to grapple with slow, porous, end-of-the-pipe solutions are starting to talk about “upstream” responses[4]. Given the perilously short time frame for action, there is no practical alternative other than restricting fossil-fuel supply. Only an extractions cap and phase-down can guarantee emissions reductions on the scale now required, and only a unilateral withdrawal will establish market conditions in which renewables can replace fossil fuels.

5. Start an Emergency Climate Warning System.

The world is functioning in the dark, without means to measure, integrate, and analyze the massive changes now evident. Startling reports on unexpected phenomena — melting Siberian peat bogs, reduced oceanic carbon uptake, speed-up in ice shelf movement, and so on — go unmonitored.

An “Emergency Climate Warning System” for U.S. government funding of state-of-the-art systems brought online at breakneck speed (permanent camps on all major ice caps and shelves, regular sampling of major ocean currents, a crash program to expand capacity for deep-ocean monitoring, significantly expanded permafrost monitoring, super-computers, commitment of military resources as necessary, dedicated global satellite coverage of ice and oceans, and so on) is desperately important. The critical point is to create a resource pool — money, power to draw on U.S. government equipment and personnel, and U.S. political muscle on nations and institutions — and crisis management structure[5] that can cut across disciplinary lines and fund research based on climate change risk factors.

In articulating this critical need, the reality and risk of ice-shelf collapse/sea-level rise is brought home, and opponents are sidelined, as “conducting more research” is the obstructionists’ main plank. A means of expression consistent with academic standards and scientific methodology is made available, permitting scientists to demonstrate the depth — near anguish — of their concern while side-stepping the fossil-fuel-sector-sponsored mire of debate.[6].

6. Campaign for Civil Defense.

Climate civil defense campaigns should be launched in every major sea-level U.S. city, pressing municipal governments to review plans, zoning, and crisis management with rising sea levels and storm surges taken into account. Using the Boston and New York City studies as models, these assessments will quickly show that the levees and hurricane barriers required to meet even outdated forecasts are well beyond local and state government capacities.

Climate civil defense planning is both morally urgent and also a powerful strategic angle in climate campaigning. An abstract policy debate is transformed into a bread and butter political matter of contracts, budgets, zoning, and construction. The colossal price tag for damages and the cost of averting them opens the road to liability litigation and creates a political football that can usefully be kicked up the line to states and the federal government. A distant, abstract risk is made tangible. Opponents are forced to argue on specifics and against prudent measures.

This new narrative is a more durable platform for action. Consider how differently campaigning for carbon taxes would play out if the purpose is to protect Manhattan, Miami, and San Diego from New Orleans-type storm surges. As an organizing device, civil defense campaigning is richer, less cerebral, and more relevant than our current, almost entirely symbolic agenda — and has great visuals (imagine kicking it off with a surreptitious painting of blue lines in downtowns and corporate headquarters!).

7. Follow the Money.

Investments in renewables are expected to reach $750 billion by 2016 according to Ernst & Young: a large increase over the baseline, but insignificant compared to an anticipated $22 trillion in overall energy supply investment needs by 2030, projected by the International Energy Agency in “World Energy Outlook 2007.” Several factors tend to mask this mammoth gap. Growth in renewables is celebrated without reference to the bottom line, and the fossil-fuel sector has been successful in removing relative investment rates between energy sources as a factor in measuring corporate performance on climate, being two examples.

It is dangerous to pretend that investment on such a colossal scale does not preordain the conclusion.

The only current efforts that take direct aim at fossil fuels are the successful drive by the NRDC and Environmental Defense to press Citibank and other investment bankers not to invest in coal-fired generating facilities, and the broader campaign by the Rainforest Action Network, also focused on Citibank, to withdraw from fossil-fuel-sector investments. These efforts should receive significant support, but the central investment question must be broached more directly. Global corporate campaigns should be launched calling for a broad shift in energy sector investment. BP and ExxonMobil would be appropriate targets for a South Africa-style divestment campaign, bolstered with employment boycotts[7], seeking to invert current fossil fuel/renewables investment ratios.

8. Define the Political Bright Line.

We must make the best of our last opportunity in a presidential election to define a global solution and set the bar for climate leadership. This cannot be achieved by pressing candidates to endorse a laundry list of policies, but neither can it be accomplished by securing broad statements of concern. We must put forward objective criteria by which genuine leadership is distinguished from pandering. We might, for example, define five qualities of leadership on which our endorsements will hinge.

  • Honesty. The definition of precautionary global action is in free fall, but candidates should be pressed to accept the present precautionary position — fast-as-practical return to a 350 ppm concentration of atmospheric carbon and swift-as-possible decline to pre-industrial levels.
  • Courage. We cannot both avert cataclysm and increase our use of coal (PDF), and no honest candidate will try to straddle this fence.
  • Wisdom. As the crisis deepens, there will be ever greater pressure for techno-solutions (such as spreading billions of tiny umbrellas in orbit, or putting gigantic pipes on the sea floor to increase ocean water circulation). The wise candidate will oppose quick fixes because the cure may be as bad as the bite, and because moving to an environmentally sound planetary society is essential if we are to escape the host of other crises looming in the wings.
  • Vision. A global solution will only be acceptable to peoples and nations of the world if it is fair and does not quash dreams. This will require adjusting western lifestyles in ways acceptable to first-world populations, appealing to emerging middle classes, and reinvestment of global wealth into a global solution (see Ross Gelbspan‘s “Clean Energy Transition,” or EcoEquity’s “The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World” [PDF]). A functional response depends on U.S. leadership to focus technical development, restructure global markets, and pay the bulk of implementation. Even a low-ballpark number — perhaps $1 trillion — will be much higher than any of the figures now bandied about.
  • Leadership. The world’s only superpower must lead the drive for a last-minute solution, and only America has the dynamism, naïveté, and hope in national character necessary to tackle this staggering challenge. To move the nation to action requires leadership from in front, something candidates can demonstrate by handling ideological obstacles to a muscular exertion of American power (market intervention for Republicans and anti-internationalism of the Democrats). Of these things, the toughest challenge — for both candidates and environmentalists — is taking the no-coal pledge. All four major presidential candidates up for major-party endorsements support expanded reliance on coal. Unless we are able to exert significant pressure, environmentalists should endorse no candidate for president in 2008.

9. Retire the Light Bulbs.

We have exaggerated the importance of personal responsibility to the point where even environmentalists believe that climate action is primarily a matter of American lifestyle choices. To drive home the point that functional climate solution can only be achieved by American leadership on the global stage, we must dispel the notion that personal decisions are anything other than symbolic. This can be conveyed most dramatically by symbolically retiring the light bulbs.

10. Involve the U.S. in the Global Stage.

The energy bill is now energy law, for good or ill, and it’s time to declare domestic victory and focus on a last-minute global drive under U.S. leadership. Our mono-focus on U.S. domestic emissions reductions is ill-served to set the bar for a functional solution and insulates U.S. campaigning from the global stage.

There is no single global goal more important than winning in the U.S. And it is time for U.S. environmentalists to invite global action aimed at the U.S. government by other nations, peoples, and environmentalists — private sector and public. An significant investment of U.S. and European NGO funding is required to launch effective global efforts, which must be of a never-seen-before scale. To jump start a global energy-sector corporate-divestment campaign, for example, might require thousands of campaigners covering 100 nations, a global advertising budget, a legal team to bring NAFTA anti-trust actions against U.S. subsidies, and an international student employment boycott campaign, perhaps launched in an international convening in Philadelphia.

11. Reclaim Earth Day.

Letting environmental education and such visible symbols as Earth Day slip away was a very poor decision, in retrospect. The constellation of corporate sponsorship, school-controlled programming, lifestyle-based environmentalism, and recycling-type service projects has evolved into competing eco-lite world view that diminishes environmental action and dumbs down environmental values. It is hard to imagine a “labor education” movement espousing “voluntary unionism” and holding a corporate-sponsored May Day, yet this is exactly how our educational adjunct functions.

The simple remedy is to reclaim Earth Day — our most important, unifying symbol — and to use this platform to speak to environmentalists, not the general public. In order to address our own ranks, we must acknowledge our fear, not ignore it. We are in difficult circumstances that will only grow worse, and the odds of winning are very low. By admitting these terrible truths, we will be liberated from the fog of deception and paralysis in action that leads us now to live schizophrenic lives. When we have reconstituted a clear-minded, undoubtedly smaller and healthier core, then we can put forward a pragmatic platform that would work — even if the chances it will be implemented are slight.

Earth Day, perhaps the only day of the year when working environmentalists are exposed to music and art, represents our heart and spirit.

12. Revive Eco-fundamentalist Values.

Environmentalism, as a world view rather than one civic good among many, has a tiny base in the U.S. Lured by visions of majority support, and driven by the demands of fundraising technologies, most of our institutional energies have not been focused on this core. Now, when we require a cohesive, disciplined, and energetic base, we find that our castles are built of sand.

One response to our predicament that has gained surprising support is to give up being environmentalists. Because they are values rather than views, I, like most environmentalists, am unable to toss out my beliefs merely because they are unfashionable.

It is idiocy of the highest order to try. Even if climate cataclysm were averted by some technical wizardry, the world is still faced with a host of other calamities waiting in the wings; crises that environmentalists are largely alone recognizing and striving to address. To dispense with environmentalism would be to throw away the only tool humankind has fashioned to dig ourselves out of this hole.

Only environmental principles of action provide the rationale for a precautionary solution. Only environmental vision contemplates wholesale revamping of global structures, and considers the benefits. Only environmentalists believe that there is a moral cost to extinction. Only environmental values will permit humanity to live happy, free, and productive lives in large numbers over the long term.

Environmentalism must undergo a revival, not burial. To accomplish this, we must first rid ourselves of the notion that our primary purpose is to craft policy. Even most critics of the U.S. climate agenda spend their energies debating substance, but it is not our job to lobby for carbon markets or mileage standards, nor should efforts to reshape our approach be concerned with devising alternative policies, for three reasons:

  1. Nothing we now advocate is remotely within reach of a global solution, and no amount of tinkering can fix it. The political cost of abandoning a two-decade-old agenda is small compared to the gains in freeing our time, energy, and thinking.
  2. The global response now required is on a scale greater than World War II, the Marshall Plan, and Eastern Bloc reconstruction combined. We can only paint that effort in broad strokes and cannot possibly conceive the details. Trying to do so is as useless as 1930s interventionists trying to develop World War 11 military strategy.
  3. It is our job to change political conditions in the world’s only superpower, so that American power, money, and might are brought to bear on a functional, global solution and dangerous techno-fixes are avoided. I have argued that this outcome is most likely when climate impacts become severe enough to disrupt business as usual. Only then will we enter fluid political circumstances, when a brief window of opportunity for large-scale social change may open. Victory in such conditions is won by small, zealous numbers, not weak majorities. Whether by this or some other strategy, our goal is to win an abrupt shift in U.S. policy, accepting that civilization is on the line and that bringing American might to bear in a desperate, last-minute drive by humanity is the only practical means to put a global solution in place. Very few Americans are willing to face these terrible realities. Self-identified environmentalists, it turns out, aren’t much better at it than anyone else, but there is a core of people with existential world views — many of whom do not consider themselves environmentalists — who are fearful, desperate for plausible action, and increasingly angry with transparently half-hearted measures. These are true environmentalists, whether they use that term or not, and it is toward this core that our institutional resources and energies should be directed.


Some may argue that these 12 items are hardly simple — and it is true that this agenda would take hard work, a marked change in thinking, and internal conflict of a sort we have not recently experienced. But we have all the necessary resources already in hand. The green groups and Environmental Grantmakers Association have the money (over $1 billion in climate funding alone), staff, membership, public respect, political capital, technical skill, and infrastructure to take on this agenda and more. The only roadblocks are internal.


[1] Iraq Minister of Electricity, December 10, 2007, http://trade.gov/iraq/.

[2] Based on formula in Solar Eagle: A Study Examining Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Power as an Alternative for the Rebuilding of the Iraqi Electrical Power Generation Infrastructure (PDF), C. Austin, R. Borja, J. Phillips, Naval Post Graduate School, June 2005.

[3] Solar Iraq would total 3,750 MGw solar photovoltaics. Total solar PV world production in 2006 was between 1,744 (2007 Marketbuzz Report) and 2,521 (Earth Policy Institute) MGws; and U.S. solar PV production, according to Earth Policy Institute, was 154 MGw.

[4] Assessing US Climate Policy Options, R. Kopp, W. Pizer, Resources for the Future, November 28, 2007.

[5] I would vest WCWS control with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

[6] See, for example, the Bali letter, presented here by the American Coal Council: http://www.clean-coal.info/drupal/open_letter_UN_climate_change.

[7] College campuses are ripe for divestment campaigns, and students could both target university investments and launch employment boycotts against major oil companies. Government-controlled funds, union pension funds, private foundations, and other NGOs are also inviting targets.