Our climate agenda is inadequate and may even be detrimental to the sort of effort U.S. environmentalists must now undertake. I’d like to offer for comment an alternative “bright lines” framework for climate action, and propose a shift in role and agenda for U.S. environmentalists that takes account of the circumstances in which we find ourselves and squarely faces the almost incomprehensible challenge before us.

Our goal, put starkly and simply, is to prevent the planned investment of $20 trillion over the next 25 years to increase fossil fuel supply, substituting in its place a crash global program — capitalized at the same level — to cut emissions, improve efficiencies, and develop renewables.

The choice should not be viewed, in the frequently invoked Robert Frost imagine, as ” two roads diverged.” The world is committed whole hog to fossil fuels, and there is no other road — yet.

To create one will require restructuring the world’s largest corporations, inventing appealing, low- or zero-carbon consumer products, and convincing the world’s most powerful, nuclear-weapon-equipped nations to leave their reserves of oil, gas, and coal in the ground. We have less than a decade to do it.

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Tectonic social change on such a scale is rapid, haphazard, and non-linear. It cannot be achieved in the time left to us by incremental, measured steps. The image of change we should carry in our minds is not Cape Wind or Toyota Prius, but the Berlin Wall crashing down.

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No significant steps to taper off fossil fuel will be taken in the near term — not because reasonable people do not want to avert cataclysm, but because they can’t. No matter how committed its leaders, BP cannot go against its nature and swim away from the other fish of its kind. BP must aggressively expand its oil and gas exploration and extractions, even as it rolls out ad campaigns on carbon footprints and stands with U.S. environmentalists to call for action in Congress. Likewise, no matter how enlightened its bureaucrats, China cannot, on its own initiative, stop building coal-fired generators.

If there remains a small window of opportunity, it will be in that moment when things are thrown off kilter — when climate change impacts have started to wreck, rather than merely damage, the structures of civilization. It is not difficult to imagine how abruptly U.S. politics would be changed if Florida were hit by two Katrina-size hurricanes in one season, for example. When the prospect that nation states may be shaken loose from their moorings becomes real, then the world will turn in earnest to a crash program of response.

What form that last effort takes, and whether it will come too late, depends largely on what role the U.S. plays. No functional global solution is possible without the leadership, capital, power, and enterprise of the world’s only superpower. It may not now be possible to move the U.S. into such a course of action, but it is essential that a vision of America mobilized to save the world be framed beforehand.

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If we start thinking in such terms, we see that the present U.S. climate agenda is not only inadequate, it is detrimental. Our “Kyoto-Lite” collection of climate campaigns and projects was conceived as an end-run around the Bush administration, aimed at winning reductions in U.S. domestic emissions by environmentalists’ own direct efforts. Its central assumptions have been orthodoxy for so long that we forget what a radical departure they are:

  1. Solving climate change is not incompatible with expanding fossil fuel use.
  2. The objective of U.S. climate action is to reduce U.S. carbon emissions.
  3. Building momentum in measurable steps is more important than defining the precautionary standard of global action and driving toward it.
  4. Reasonable people will eventually take reasonable and responsible action; pessimistic and alarmist pronouncements are unhelpful in bringing them along, and conflict must be avoided at all costs.
  5. Climate change is larger but not fundamentally different than other environmental issues and does not require structural, strategic, or narrative changes to address.

Our values are flexible, but there is an irreducible core that is contradicted by these assumptions:

  • Environmentalist definitions of problem and solution are based on the precautionary principle, but our agenda ignores the climate science standard of global action.
  • Climate change is global, but our solutions are national, state, and local.
  • Environmentalism is results-oriented, reflecting its scientific basis and the fact that it deals in fundamental questions of existence (an endangered species is either saved or not), but our climate programs are small measures developed in the abstract, without relationship to any meaningful objective.
  • Environmental solutions encompass whole systems, but our agenda is conceived as discrete, mostly technical policy.

Abrupt climate change and the host of other eco-catastrophes waiting in the wings will only be addressed when environmental values are adapted in a new definition of global citizenship, entailing conflict with current systems of belief and practice; but the only people paying attention to defining environmental values our adversaries (corporate sponsors of Earth Day), and the terms of conflict are being set by our enemies (Michael Crichton).

The discord between our assumptions and our principles was easily overlooked while we were engaged in brutal political trench warfare over the reality of climate change. But conditions have changed, and the disconnect between what we are doing day to day and what we know in our bones we ought to be doing will increasingly come into sharp relief. Two seismic shifts in the last year started the process.

First, Jim Hansen’s definition of the precautionary standard of global action — a minority view of one when first proposed in 2004 — is now the consensus of precautionary climate science, amply supported by rapid and dramatic climate change impacts. An objective standard (475 ppm limit on concentration of atmospheric carbon) must be met on a clear timeline (less than a decade for global action) to prevent global temperature from increasing more than 1.0ºC/1.8ºF above current levels. Past this point, abrupt climate change is unstoppable and the tale from there on is familiar: Warmer air and oceans cause Antarctic and Greenland ice shelves to disintegrate, sea levels rise faster and higher than anything we can possibly handle, continuity of civilization is placed in jeopardy, and the mass extinction event already underway accelerates.

Second, the readiness of a Democratic-controlled Congress to address climate change in a comprehensive way (regardless of its limited ability to do so) means that U.S. environmentalists are no longer engaged in a debate over climate change reality. We must now offer — to Congress and America — a solution, and we don’t have one. Our present national agenda, enunciated in the Environmental Defense/NRDC A Call to Climate Action, is inadequate policy and politics. Were it adopted in its entirety, the impact on global emissions and temperature trajectories would be minimal. In offering a constricted view of climate action, it does not open the way for effective, U.S.-honchoed global action.

The great danger is that we will win it (under a new president and Congress in 2009), satisfying the political demand for climate action and delaying a full reckoning and true national debate until it is too late. If we accept the bright line nine-year timeframe, there is no room to spend two or three years fighting for limited domestic emissions reductions which will, if won, become the acceptable international standard of action.

The choice before us is to take the risk of cataclysm seriously and act appropriately, or to gloss over it. Taking it seriously is a personal challenge for U.S. environmentalists (to accept the full implications of the nine-year timeframe); an organizational challenge (shouldn’t we be liquidating our assets? the thing will be decided in three or four years, what good will they be if we lose?); an institutional problem (without infrastructure, how do we find each other? how do we come up with a national strategic plan, let alone advance a global one?); and an ideological challenge (enmeshed in practical politics, our advocates must squelch their own deeply held beliefs to do their jobs).

None of these difficulties are external. We have the people, money, brains, reputation, office space, direct action skills, and so on to reshape the direction of U.S. climate action and take a shot at putting a functional global solution on the table. The effort must extend well beyond environmentalists, but as participants at the Yale Conference on Climate Change noted …

…one could see global warming as the animating issue behind a potential new environmentalism: one in which entire ecosystems are at risk, new levels of integration with energy and economic planning must be undertaken, and the relative neglect of American stewardship is thrown into greater relief. Redefining the issue in this way requires stepping back and forging a new vision. So far this has not occurred in the organized environmental community.

That we are operating in changed circumstances has not been fully absorbed, but the brutal climate change realities are beginning to seep into environmentalist culture and thinking. The fabric of our “be worried, but not too worried, we’ve got solutions!” story is starting to fray. This is not only good and right, it is the only basis on which U.S. environmentalists may begin to piece together a potentially successful role and a strategy — one that contemplates bringing the nation to a point of decision between two radical viewpoints, eliminating all comfortable and illusionary middle ground.

Such crystallizing of two irreconcilable visions across a great national divide is comparable in our history only to the Revolution and Abolition. Our role, therefore, may be compared to the Sons of Liberty and the Abolitionists, and our purpose defined as winning the sea change in American political and social view necessary to move the U.S. into leadership of a last minute, last ditch drive by humanity to avert cataclysm.

A plan of action toward this end will be presented in Gristmill in a series of posts. The intent is to move quickly beyond criticism and put forward concrete proposals for model campaigns and programs. The Bright Lines agenda is offered as an open-source strategic plan, engaging others, it is hoped, who are working out practical solutions to the same problems and would benefit from a more clearly defined strategic plan — and are interested in helping to construct one.

(A number of people have taken part in what is best described as a sprawling two-year-long conversation, in which the Bright Lines ideas germinated. I’d like particularly to thank Susan Birmingham, Benson Chiles, Pamela Hathaway and my family, Angela Di Leo, Cynthia Ward, Cynthia VL Ward, and Harold R Ward, all of whom have done yeoman’s work.)