"Americans and Climate Change: Closing the Gap Between Science and Action" (PDF) is a report synthesizing the insights of 110 leading thinkers on how to educate and motivate the American public on the subject of global warming. Background on the report here. I’ll be posting a series of excerpts (citations have been removed; see original report). If you’d like to be involved in implementing the report’s recommendations, or learn more, visit the Yale Project on Climate Change website.

Ah, now it gets personal! Below is what I consider an extremely astute diagnosis of the reasons professional environmentalists haven’t engaged the subject of climate change very well.


Environmentalists’ Incentives: Balancing Mission and Organizational Perpetuation

At the mission level, environmentalists face strong incentives to address climate change, especially if they subscribe to the notion advanced by Professor John Holdren of Harvard University that climate is the "envelope" within which all other environmental issues are contained. For example, even conservation-oriented groups that have traditionally refrained from advocacy on climate change or other issues in favor of land acquisition are increasingly recognizing that the very ecosystems and habitats they have preserved from developers are at significant risk from climate change.

Yet this hierarchical mission logic has arguably failed, so far, to harness the environmental community to a disciplined and organized response to the issue. For all the dedication that some environmental groups have shown on climate change, there is today a widespread belief that their cumulative impact has not as yet been adequate to the need. The Conference’s incentive analysis helped to illuminate some of the reasons.

First, at the career level, the individuals who lead and work inside environmental organizations have increasingly taken on a professional cast, featuring technocratic skills such as legal, policy and scientific analysis. No doubt these skills generate measurable and important results and they align well with private and governmental sector career pathways, thereby allowing access to top talent. Nonetheless, some contend that political organizing skills are often missing in these organizations, along with, in the words of one Conference participant, the "moral energy" needed to mobilize a broad constituency for action on an issue like climate change. As we’ve discussed, climate change is especially well-suited at this strategic moment for values-based engagement, but some doubt that environmental groups have the particular talent base and culture to leverage this dimension of the issue.

Second, once these relatively high-cost and specialized skill-sets are accumulated in an organization, it is natural to seek the arena offering the most bang for the buck. This has generally meant that the major environmental groups focus on specific policy and legislative issues at the federal level. While this has often been a good, high-leverage bet in the past, the locus of activity on climate change has arguably shifted — for some years now — to state and local action.

Third, environmental groups must attend to the ongoing realities of organizational perpetuation. This includes the need to build membership and raise money from donors and foundations. In undertaking these activities, environmental groups have a strong incentive to frame climate change as an environmental issue, whereas the issue’s society-wide implications for human well-being could enable pursuit of a much broader constituency base than those traditionally responsive to environmental appeals. Some contend that the historical evolution of the environmental community, including the imperative to answer to its existing constituency base, renders it unable to effectively recruit and engage that broader constituency.

Moreover, there is an inescapably competitive element to the pursuit of organizational perpetuation. On one hand, the environmental community includes thousands of niche organizations that each specialize in a subset of issues, localities or even strategies (e.g., litigation versus land acquisition). If one issue is targeted by too many of these niche groups at once, then the pressures of membership and donor competition tend to provide a corrective — leading back toward specialization or toward organizational demise as the donors cull out the weaker, redundant groups.

On the other hand, the major environmental advocacy groups have arguably converged and grown more similar to one another as a natural result of organizational maturation and expansion. As a result, many of the key groups now have overlapping memberships, share the same suite of strategic capabilities, and find themselves jockeying for a competitive edge that will distinguish them.

The niche groups often assume that others are better positioned to address an issue of the scope of climate change, by virtue of their size or strategic capabilities — leading the niche groups to sustain their original focus on other issues. Some of the major groups, by contrast, have decided to expand their work on climate change, which then inclines them to focus on creating a superior and independently brandable strategy. Competition can, of course, stimulate better strategies, but it also risks internecine competition for limited donor and membership support.

Both responses, therefore, present potential problems for the quality of the overall effort. Many of the niche groups end up depriving the climate change effort of their local constituency and skills, at a time when localization is especially needed to generate public engagement. Meanwhile, the major groups compete and duplicate one another, sometimes frittering away resources on competition that could be better spent pursuing coordinated goals.

Many at our Conference, including major donors and foundation representatives, said that environmental organizations have simply not done a good enough job of working in partnership with each other on climate change — whether combining resources or crafting a common, mutually reinforcing, message on the issue.

So what can be done? These diagnoses imply a range of potential solutions from the grand to the highly pragmatic. At the grand end of the spectrum, at least one Conference participant suggested that global warming should be the animating issue behind a new environmentalism — one in which entire ecosystems are understood to be at risk, new values are infused, bigger goals set, organizational walls broken down, and entirely new levels of integration undertaken between environmental, energy and economic planning. Redefining the issue in such ways would require stepping back and forging a new vision, including of the organizational forms, skill-sets and missions of the "environmental community."

Recommendation #36 could serve as a first step in the direction of executing on such a vision, while still being practicable in the very short term. It calls for the formation of a Leadership Council composed of senior representatives from a variety of segments of society (business, labor, academia, government, the NGO sector, medicine, law, public health, and community leaders) that would "serve as an integrating mechanism for developing and delivering a cohesive message to society about the seriousness of climate change and the imperative of taking action."

One could imagine an environmental group-only variant of such a Council focused on climate change, and indeed environmental NGOs have reportedly debated the potential value of such a coordinating body in recent years. Such a Council could usefully address some of the shortcomings discussed above by mitigating at least the most counter- productive forms of competition and forging a basis for coordinated action. Some, however, contend that this model of a loose Council would not be able to counteract the centrifugal forces diagnosed, and therefore that a new and more centralized organization is imperative. Making a Council successful will require a clear-eyed response to this concern. In the end, real tradeoffs will be required, including a major commitment from the organized environmental community to effect a large-scale shift of time, talent and money to the climate change issue and strong backing for this by foundations and other funders.

Meanwhile, Conference Recommendation #36 seeks to correct for some of the limitations of the environmental groups we’ve discussed by ensuring that the new Council, if formed, would be cross-domain in composition right from the start — drawing in leaders from many segments of society beyond the environmental community.