What to do now
How climate change is handled in few key areas within the year — particularly congressional action in 2008 and 2009 and the 2008 presidential election — will likely set the terms of the U.S. political debate, which for all practical purposes, within the constraints of Hansen’s standard and timeframe for action, will determine the outcome.
Therefore, a Bright Lines plan of action must accomplish three things:
- polarize debate in Congress and the presidential election;
- strengthen the narrative now being advanced by climate scientists; and,
- build a climate action core and financial base.
Six campaigns and programs are outlined for the critical 14 month period from April 2007- May 2008.
1. Climate Civil Defense Preparedness. The story told by congressional action in 2007-2009 will be that climate change must and can be addressed by vigorous action to cap carbon emissions and win U.S. energy independence, tempered by the necessity of not over-burdening the U.S. auto (Rep. Dingell), oil (Sen. Bingaman), and coal (Sen. Byrd) industries. There is little room to challenge this narrative, but it may be possible to add to it.
Congress should be asked to adopt a package of measures aimed at clarifying the gap in climate science knowledge between the precautionary position and the somewhat confusing IPCC 4th Report, which supports the precautionary view in several sections of narrative, but does little to clarify how relative risks should be ranked and what additional information is needed to decide the open questions. As the fate of the world hangs in the balance, the U.S. should take unilateral action to advance the pace of climate science research — an objective for which there is universal rhetorical support.
Advancing a “climate civil defense” measure will allow Hansen’s standard to be showcased without requiring that Congress endorse the view, perhaps reducing the strength of opposition and, more importantly, permitting a distinction to be drawn between small-scale domestic action Congress is prepared to take and the “bright lines” scale of risk. Legislation might also be considered to create a “climate czar” post, with inter-agency authority to coordinate the agenda and allocate resources between the multiplicity of federal departments and programs that handle climate and energy policy.
It is beyond the limits of the exercise to determine what is required for a crash program to monitor climate vital signs, but it is likely that the following measures are called for:
- permanent monitoring stations on East and West Antarctic and Greenland Ice Shelves;
- ongoing monitoring of the Gulf Stream and Northern Atlantic thermohaline system;
- immediate and ongoing inventory of permafrost melt-rates and natural methane and carbon emissions;
- redirection and additional launches of climate change dedicated satellites, and;
- inventory of U.S. military and civil defense preparedness and planning for extreme weather events at elevated sea levels.
2. Blue Lines Campaigns. Hamburg, Germany is building a system of high dikes and storm barriers to protect the city, port, and nearby low lying areas. None of the major sea-level cities in the U.S., even those that are recognized as climate action leaders, have taken measures to prepare for sea level rise or other climate change impacts. There is a disconnect between political leadership on climate and local planning.
New Orleans, for example, joined with other municipalities to issue a political statement on climate in 2005. At the same time, the New Orleans City Planning Department approved a downtown redevelopment plan to build mixed-used housing and retail on top of dikes along both sides of the Mississippi River.
Blue Lines campaigns could be launched in major U.S. coastal cities to press municipal governments and regional authorities to undertake Climate Civil Defense planning, to be launched in fall, 2006, with efforts in Boston, New York/New Jersey, Washington, DC, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco. Using the EPA-commissioned Tufts University CLIMB study as a model, simplified, preliminary “Climate Civil Defense Plans” could be developed that assess potential damage and costs of taking precautions like Hamburg or Venice, Italy.
By engaging these major metropolitan areas in a well-publicized public planning process, several valuable objectives may be achieved:
- A powerful and visceral image of climate change impacts will be formed by showing what is required to protect homes, communities, and businesses.
- Price tags will be put on costs of damage, making a general and distant risk more tangible.
- Toting up the costs of planning, remediation, and disaster relief establish useful points of political traction. Who is going to pay to put hurricane barriers around Manhattan?
- Some regions are likely to discover that there is no feasible defense. Is it possible that a hurricane barrier larger than any ever built, stretching from Nahant to Hull, can be constructed to protect Boston?
- Putting price tags on protecting U.S. cities will create a strong basis for several different types of climate action. One could envision state legislation or initiatives to establish remediation/damage funds that would fare much better than the 2006 California initiative; municipal class action suits; an additional nudge to the insurance industry; and congressional action to consider a national insurance pool and a federal Climate Civil Defense Plan.
Blue Lines Campaigns would strengthen organizing and build climate action leaders. We know from the experience of Climate Action Groups that municipal leaders are accessible on a political level, but municipalities are tough targets to move to action. Local climate groups have been remarkably successful at winning strong endorsements from municipal leadership, but have been stymied in efforts to plan or advance municipal emissions reductions measures. Blue Lines campaigns would capitalize on political strengths while avoiding costs (with simple, cheap planning on very long term questions).
The broad effort will use the “Blue Lines” name for identity (blue arm bands), tactics (painting a blue line to represent high water mark on buildings in every major metropolitan center on Earth Day 2008), and simplicity in message (sea level rise), but the concept of advancing future costs might be applied in other contexts — changing agricultural patterns, for example — and on a statewide basis, with Florida the prime testing ground.
U.S. environmentalists have spent almost a decade trying to recreate MoveOn.org without great success. The tension between MoveOn.org-style open agenda/membership participation and advancing organizational imperatives and maintaining programmatic control may be irreconcilable. MoveOn.org captures more free-floating environmentalist energy than all U.S. environmental organizations combined, and a Blue Lines approach might be received enthusiastically, or in a similar purpose-built forum.
3. Beyond Petroleum. Nowhere is the contrast between an acknowledgment of what is required to avert dangerous climate change and deliberate action to deepen the global risk more acute than in BP. The chasm between knowledge and action in the second largest and most aggressive oil and gas company in the world, coupled with BP’s success in winning endorsements from environmentalists, makes BP a better and more important target of corporate campaigning than Exxon-Mobil. BP Group Chairman Lord Browne recently and specifically endorsed the 450-500 ppm limit on atmospheric carbon dioxide limit recommended by the UK Stern Commission. At the same time, the company is engaged in a vigorous effort to secure access to major new oil and gas fields, particularly in Russia, assessed by both BP and market analysts as the strongest and most cost-effective exploration and extractions business of any major oil company.
On the essential question of investment, BP’s investment in renewables is several times greater than its competitors, but it is trivial compared to capital investment in fossil fuel. BP’s commitments to renewables in 2006 totaled just 1% of capital investments in oil and gas, increasing in the BP three-year investment plan to 6% ($1.35 billion in renewables versus $7.9 trillion in oil and gas extractions).
The dilemma and opportunity before BP encapsulates the choice before the world; should we do what is easy and profitable, even though we risk destroying the world, or do we strike out in the risky and less profitable direction in an effort to avert the worst climate change impacts? The costs involved in accessing the next oil fields, located in remote regions with inclement weather, are massive and the profits will be staggering.
A well-resourced global campaign to press BP to achieve a 50/50 ratio of investment between renewables and fossil fuels by 2010 would come much closer to reflecting the scale of change required of the major fossil fuel extractions multi-nationals. It would be quixotic, of course. No single company will take such a position without a wider transformation of the industry, but a single-target corporate campaign is the best vehicle to demonstrate that a sector-wide plan of action is required.
Two recent corporate campaigns — Exxpose Exxon, founded in 2005 by coalition of U.S. environmentalists and WAL*MART Watch, launched the same year by SEIU — offer useful lessons. WAL*MART Watch was up and running within a year, reporting expenditures of $3.2 million in 2005, able to undertake long-term planning secured by a $2/million annual commitment by SEIU Intl. Exxpose Exxon, in contrast, relies primarily on the resources of its constituent groups and has no major, ongoing funding base. Given the disparity in resources, it is predictable that WAL*MART Watch would accomplish more than Exxpose Exxon in the first two years; even so, the difference in impact is spectacular.
Exxpose Exxon may take some credit for recent shifts in company company policy and public communications, most notably Exxon’s announcement that it will end funding to climate change “skeptics” like the Free Enterprise Institute. WAL*MART Watch campaigning, on the other hand, is most likely the proximate cause of WAL*MART’s surprise 2006 climate policy announcement.
If environmentalists launched a global BP corporate campaign with secure and substantial funding, what would be the best points of leverage?
Fossil Fuel Employment Boycott. An international, campus-based campaign, launched at 100 of the most prestigious colleges and universities where BP recruits, aimed at discouraging university graduates from applying for BP positions in fossil fuels, while encouraging applications for employment in BP’s renewables businesses, would meet several objectives. BP had 96,200 employees in 2005, of which probably no more than 2,000 were worked in BP renewable energy businesses. The company does not provide recruitment targets, but assuming the rate is similar to competitors, the company should be hiring about 2,600 new employees/year, or more if the company plans to expand staff. BP notes a shortage of “expertise in the exploration and production segment — a problem faced across the industry.” Even a marginal impact on rates and quality of recruiting hires would problematic for the company. Making a moral distinction between employment in fossil fuel versus renewables within one company is a neat device distinguishing between corporate activities. A campaign that is international in scope, has multiple handles for on-campus activity, and builds strength in each annual drive combines the advantages of global impact with accessibility.
Divestment vs. Proxy Drive. Stockholder resolutions have been employed to put climate change and environmental questions before all the major multi-national oil companies, most successfully in the U.S. with Exxon-Mobil. Resolutions have been used by UK environmentalists to put several questions before BP shareholders, winning smaller margins of support than comparable Exxon-Mobil questions.
There are organizing advantages in an expanded shareholder resolution drive and a South African divestment-type effort. As a practical matter, it may well be the case that most climate activists would not be comfortable with a divestment drive. A hybrid approach, putting an extractions cap and radical shift to capitalize renewables proposal to a shareholder vote is problematic. Such a proposal would garner significantly less support than other climate resolutions, which critics will use to argue that BP shareholders who endorse strong climate policies do not support a dramatic shift in BP investment. Time is too short to build support over the long-term for a fossil fuels-to-renewables “shift” resolution and, on balance, it is probably a better bet to immediately launch a global divestment campaign.
The BP Story. BP is more vulnerable than Exxon-Mobil because it acts in direct contradiction to its own story. In practice, BP has defined “Beyond Petroleum” as “what we will do after we run out of oil and gas.” If properly called to account, the company must either retract its climate change narrative or accept public approbation; the third option, to halt expansion and phase-out its fossil fuel business must be accounted highly improbable. Either reaction is advantageous for climate action, because both clarify that reducing corporate emissions, increasing renewables investment ten-fold, changing the company’s name to “Beyond Petroleum” and adopting an abstract green and yellow flower logo, endorsing the Stern Commission recommendations, calling for U.S. Congressional action alongside U.S. environmentalists, and so on, are insignificant and duplicitous actions if the company remains engaged in an aggressive effort to expand its petroleum business.
The narrative aim of a fossil fuel corporate campaign is to draw a distinction between good and bad corporate action in the overall context of its business and investment plans, correcting the sort of error in judgment displayed in the CERES ranking and denying, as much as is possible, the benefits that accrue from advertising and self promotion. BP makes this task easier than Exxon-Mobil, because it is acting duplicitously. The tricky part is to hold the company accountable for failing to match action to rhetoric, while still drawing a moral distinction between renewables and fossil fuel business. The best and brightest engineering students should, for example, be encouraged to apply for BP positions in its renewable business, while positions in the oil and gas business should acquire an approbation similar to that which attaches to working for a tobacco company.
As all global corporations, BP is focused on building its corporate culture as it broadens the national and ethnic base of its work force. Employee pride in the company and belief in the integrity of its management are critical benchmarks for company performance, standards which may be vulnerable if BP’s story is challenged inside the company. A variety of tactical approaches might be tried, from organizing an association of retired and former BP employees who can provide a counter-weight to BP public statements and speak in proxy for BP employees. The campaign might present our own version of the “Helios” awards that the company makes to employees.
Litigation. Class action suits now being considered against fossil fuel extractions companies may be strengthened by Blue Lines planning and climate civil defense cost analyses.
4. No More Coal. A deft political litmus test can be established by endorsing a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants (until environmentally sound carbon capture and storage technologies are available), meeting new demand with renewables and energy demand reduction technologies, with the cost differentials split between governmental subsidies and technology transfer fund. This position was recommended in the recent UN Foundation report Confronting Climate Change and articulated in somewhat stronger terms by Hansen, who recently advised that ” there should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants until the technology to capture and sequester is available.”
Matching renewables/efficiencies development to a clear, national objective avoids the sort of amorphous debate seen on Cape Wind. Should a wind farm be built in Nantucket Sound? The question engaged almost every U.S. environmental leader in a very public dispute that was notable for being conducted entirely in the abstract. How much electric generating capacity is required for a sustainable U.S.? How many sites are available to develop wind farms? Are there enough less-pristine sites to avoid building in Nantucket Sound? None of these questions were asked or answered in the tug of war over Cape Wind.
By endorsing a moratorium and defining a clear national target, U.S. environmentalists will establish three concrete political reference points:
- a climate change context for opposing individual power plant proposals;
- a national goal for renewables, and;
- a means of referencing carbon capture/sequestration that includes a definition of environmental harm.
The three-point position employs the same standards defined in environmentalists’ anti-nuclear power position and may be advanced with a similar spread of tactics and targets in a coordinated, national Anti-Coal Campaign:
- White Paper to define policy, target proposals and set national targets;
- resources to launch and support local organizing, and;
- national No More Coal conference.
5. Climate Test/Presidential Referendum 2008. How presidential candidates of both parties who run on climate action planks define the nature and urgency of the problem, more than any other single action, function, or view, will determine how the U.S. understands climate change risk, and set the stage, in the short-term, for what may be a penultimate conflict in the 2012 elections. It must therefore be a highest priority to interject a definition of abrupt climate change into the 2008 presidential contest, ideally by convincing candidates in both parties to reference Hansen’s standard and, failing that, to mount an outsider effort of sufficient vigor and moral power to influence media coverage and build climate action leadership on the ground in key states.
Three efforts in recent U.S. political history to introduce an issue into the presidential race are useful guides in planning how a relatively inexpensive but deft and morally charged effort might achieve outsized results by heavy investment in early primary states (a fourth possibility is a third party candidate running on a single, climate change-plank platform should not be ruled out). Combining youth engagement in the 1968 McCarthy campaign, tactical innovations in the 2000 Campaign for Safe Energy, and approaches of anti-abortion activists, particularly in 1980 and 1984, a roadmap for interjecting an moral, absolutist view into presidential elections can be developed.
The 2008 primary schedule shaping up for both major parties will most likely preserve the “first states” status of the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, followed immediately by a super-primary in the first week of February. These circumstances offer a great opportunity. By forcing a sharp generational conflict on climate in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries with carefully picked follow-on efforts, accessible campaign activities and an adequate advertising budget, it may be possible to grab enough national media coverage to engage a climate core in latter primaries and vault climate change to the top tier. Significant action in Iowa and New Hampshire, supplemented by organizing in New Orleans and a follow-on effort in Florida, Massachusetts, and California backed up by strong online organizing and mass communications, offers an outside chance of sparking rolling “blue lines” engagement in primary states. Presence on the ground in early primary states, at a minimum, serves notice to press and candidates of a split between environmentalists on climate.
6. High Speed Climate Task Force. Climate change is independent of day to day concerns and, until quite recently, absent from political agenda. Environmentalists’ solutions tend to be arcane (i.e. solar car races, building codes, appliance energy efficiency), invisible, rarely newsworthy, and focused on demonstrating improvements in specific sectors or processes rather than illustrating sustainable lifestyles. When opportunities to interject climate change and sustainable alternatives into topical concerns occur, environmentalists are poorly organized to appreciate and capitalize on opportunities.
By making a small initial investment to structure a “high speed climate task force” and maintaining a reserve to put it into action when opportunity or need arises, U.S. environmentalists could acquire a nimble capacity to project climate change into unfolding events without the high cost of maintaining a permanent staff, and not dependent on either shifting major resources from other program or slowed by the initial need to raise funding. A task force approach could meld our depth of expertise and high pace campaigning to introduce environmental solutions where opportunities open or response warranted. A small, permanent task force office might be maintained, with on-call support staff, communications resources and, ideally, electoral and litigation capability. With an opportunity spotted, the best available staff could be seconded full-time to the task force to rapidly develop a policy proposal with campaigning and communications resources mustered to put it immediately into play. The approach would, it should be emphasized, work out proposal in precise detail. The goal of a high speed task force would be to frame simple, cheap and obvious solutions and inject them into topical debate.
The response to Hurricane Katrina, noted earlier, is an obvious example of a missed opportunity. As the federal government geared up to rebuild in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, environmentalists were presented with a dual opportunity. First, of course, is the question of whether huge sums of public funds should be used to rebuild New Orleans in its present location. Environmentalists might have pressed harder on sea level rise projection. More fruitfully, we might have campaigned for a visionary commitment of federal financing to rebuild New Orleans as a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient and renewables-served municipality. At a minimum, our full energy policy agenda — building standards, transportation systems, and renewable energy — could have been placed in the public view with a rare opportunity to argue that renewables can substantially replace fossil fuels, with the potential to develop an interesting campaign.
The same approach could have been applied in rebuilding Iraq, where a strong case could have been made that American lives would be saved by building a decentralized energy infrastructure. The U.S. might have provided each Iraqi neighborhood and mosque with a small generator, a bank of batteries, wire and enough solar panels to meet local power needs. Putting it together would have been up to the Iraqis, a relatively easy task based on the experience in other combat zones lacking power, such as Sarajevo. Decentralized, renewable energy controlled by local leaders would have been up and running immediately, secure from easy disruption, and required no security by U.S. military. Material, transportation, installation, maintenance and security costs would have been far less than the centralized, readily disrupted, and only partially rebuilt electric generation system turned over to the Iraqis. The idea was explored in a paper by U.S. Navy researchers, but never proposed by environmentalists.
Task forces could be convened for defensive reasons as well as to act on opportunities. We ought to periodically take a stiff poke at the most dangerous and annoying pro-fossil fuel spokespersons and environmentalist enemies, like Michael Crichton. Similarly, regular assaults by U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) from the well of the U.S. Senate, not on our politics or policy but on our character, deserve a strong narrative response. Failure to exact a price for attacks this nasty originating from the highest level of our national government is political weakness, but it is also a failure to take the story seriously. If U.S. environmentalists maintained an task force combining electoral direct action, public campaigning, and public communications capacities, then opportunities to react to Inhofe-type slander would be easier to visualize. Perhaps resources could have been made available to launch a Tulsa area Evangelical Climate Initiative?
A steady flow of creative sustainable policy interjected in the topical questions of the day builds power whether or not they are adopted (although it is quite possible that some ideas would land in the right place at the right time).
7. International Campaigning. The same chain of logic by which it is concluded that U.S. environmentalists must aim for a sea change in American social and political view applies to international and other national environmental organizations. A U.S. domestic effort would benefit tremendously if it were supported internationally, and a united global campaign focused on America and a handful of multi-national corporations would offer substantial political and narrative benefits. In addition to the BP campaign, environmentalists might press national governments to restart plans to challenge U.S. fossil fuel subsidies under the world trade agreement, hold an international youth/environmentalist conference (perhaps in Philadelphia), and join or bring their own civil suits against fossil fuel extractions corporations. A project dedicated to advancing climate change within international NGOs, particularly relief and hunger organizations, should be launched.
8. Simple Steps. Environmentalists have no national infrastructure and no standing U.S. climate coalition, campaign, or support center. In consequence, simple steps that would automatically be attended to in any well-run campaign are not addressed because there is no forum in which they are raised, no staff or resources to do the work, and no means to reach agreement if there were.
Packaging. It is difficult to find another example of a matter of national and international consequence that is referenced by advocates with entirely different names. For the same reason, climate change (or global warming, or catastrophic climate change) is not identified by or with a logo, slogan, or image. Climate action is undertaken by organizations, foundations, coalitions, and individuals under a bevy of names, images, and rhetoric. There may be some slight benefit in this — climate change is certainly not perceived as the slick, PR-based effort that our lunatic fringe enemies like to describe. Differences in goals, policy, and political approach may prevent U.S. environmentalists from uniting in one coordinated effort. Even so, there are some steps that usefully be taken on behalf of U.S. environmentalist climate program as a whole, some ranging several steps away from climate, but important in a strategic view.
Simplify Problem. Careful, technical, and complex science findings are usually translated for the general public by environmentalists, but we have fallen down on the job. Climate scientists have stepped up to the challenge, but are not well organized to do so. Taking the simplified problem story of ice shelf collapse and rising sea levels as the core text, climate science findings that define this singular risk should be summarized in a white paper which would define the timeline for action and establish the factual base for a revised U.S. climate agenda with periodic (3/annual) supplements.
Public opinion. Climate program could be sharpened by regular polling and periodic focus groups.
Urgency. The Doomsday Clock which appears on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is a brilliant device which it would be tremendously useful to develop a climate change counterpart. If or when U.S. environmentalists endorse Hansen’s standard and timeframe, we might adopt a countdown clock, measuring out the days and hours remaining to act, which could be displayed as an urgent, universal image linking a variety of different efforts.
Symbol. Similarly, we could use a climate action equivalent to the ubiquitous yellow/pink/red ribbon pins. The slightly more contentious edge of an armband seems appropriate, and a blue line on black background, reinforcing a central sea level rise narrative, is a simple, stark image.
Network. If the bright lines story — climate tough love, functional, low-odds global solution, and sea change goal — is offered with opportunities to determine major program decisions, and is accompanied by accessible, adaptable campaigns, and finds appeal with a small but highly engaged audience, then the prerequisites for a mini-Moveon.org network are met.