How to build a real climate movement
Campaigns and programs crafted to advance the Bright Lines strategy must also fit real world constraints and political realities on the ground, and take account of external roadblocks to effective action. The following objectives address these issues.
1. Tangible risk. Climate change is like world hunger: it’s an issue of concern when media attention is high, just as coverage of periodic famines raises concern about world hunger. Most Americans do not see climate change as an immediate or personal risk, yet, like world hunger, they view it as a problem so immense that it is impractical to think that it will ever be solved.
NGO relief efforts and international governmental aid are widely supported, but are seen as altruistic, charitable actions. Climate policies and programs now advanced in the U.S. are so small-scale they can only be understood in similar terms, as altruistic and charitable acts like huger relief. Measures like Governor Corzine’s initiative in New Jersey, for example, take aim at an intangible, global risk with essentially symbolic action.
The problem must be dealt with by establishing the scale of global response and role of the U.S. in advancing a solution, but should also be tackled by defining tangible, local risks. By advancing climate change assessment and remediation, several objectives are achieved:
- policy tinged with charity is replaced by classic bricks and mortar action (literally), and nodal points of political conflict are formed within traditional areas of community and governmental responsibility;
- an amorphous, global problem is redefined in visceral, personal, and local terms, and;
- future costs are projected and remediation expenses are calculated and put into political play.
2. Litmus Test. More than a decade worth of private sector collaboration reached a nadir of sorts when BP was ranked first in the 2006 analysis of 100 major corporate climate programs by CERES, the coalition founded by U.S. environmentalists to advance the Valdez Principles. BP has edged ahead of Exxon-Mobil in its aggressive drive to secure access to the largest remaining oil and gas fields, particularly the huge Caspian reserves in Russia. The company’s well-publicized renewable investment pledges are larger than those of its competitors, but a very small 5.7% of BP capital investment in oil and gas.
According to the World Wildlife Federation, BP is responsible for 6% (PDF) of total global carbon emissions. By convincing environmentalists to evaluate fossil fuel companies on the narrow criteria of direct emission reductions, public posture on climate policy, and investment in renewables relative to market history and competitors, BP pulled off what must be considered the PR coup of the century.
Abrupt climate change cannot be averted if the business plans of the major oil, gas, and coal companies are implemented, yet this simple truth has dropped out of the U.S. environmentalist climate program. Because we function without benchmark standards, climate policy, by default, is measured against past performance. A rabid anti-environmentalist and ideological denier like Pat Robertson can reverse position and receive accolades from environmentalists because the climate action bar is set so low — defined, in effect, as accepting reality — that there is no cost attached.
Environmentalists require a simple, universal standard, a political litmus test, that can be applied to corporations (like BP) and politicians (like Pat Robertson) and puts the true lines of conflict in sharp relief.
3. Moral dimension. Abolition was turned from a troubling matter of concern for a few do-gooders into the central moral and political question before the nation when John Brown went to trial for leading an unsuccessful attempt to raise a rebellion of American slaves by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. No Abolitionists supported Brown’s violent act, but Brown’s words from prison and at trial expressed the uncomplicated and inflexible view that slavery was criminal and that every act which aided or acquiesced to it was immoral.
The “issue” of climate change must be defined for Americans in the same uncomplicated, black-and-white terms, with all grey areas and nuances of policy and responsibility (“reducing our carbon footprint,” says the BP ad) swept aside.
The two great moral questions in climate change are ecological and generational. The former demands that humanity accept responsibility for the extinction of more than half of the species remaining in the world, and is a matter of interest to only a tiny fraction of the population. The terrible legacy of misery and death we are preparing to bequeath our children and grandchildren, however, is a moral question of great salience.
The appeal to generational responsibility is shopworn, having been invoked for the federal deficit (Concord Coalition), health care (AARP), and social security with limited success in recent years. The moral basis for acting to avert climate change is not, however, a tactical device. It is a raw truth that has been little addressed or emphasized. The global course of action is fixed and puts the lives and well being of anyone under 25 in question. Members of younger generations, acting upon advice and their own initiative, must refuse to accept this fate and interject a stark, uncomplicated, moral challenge into climate change civic debate.
4. Central organizing principle. Gore was absolutely right, of course, and environmentalists must reassert this principle in policy, rhetoric, and action. In a regular review of major U.S. environmental organization and foundation climate program materials available online, conducted as part of this exercise between December 2005-January 2007, only Environmental Defense was found to clearly and consistently state that climate change is more important than any other issue and support the position in its presentation.
A good case can be made — narratively, if not financially — for shutting down all environmental program other than climate. As there are reasonable arguments against doing so, the next best alternative is to ensure that where climate is presented in a multi-issue setting, it is given top billing and integrated within all other issues.
Many experienced environmentalists believe that climate is advanced with this urgency, but review of environmental program clearly shows otherwise. Responses to Hurricane Katrina are a case in point. Two visible examples, NRDC’s After Katrina, 2005 and E Magazine‘s Special Report on Hurricane Katrina, for example, both focused primarily on toxics and environmental justice, mentioning climate change in passing.
Our failure to seize on Hurricane Katrina as an emblem of climate change risk illustrates two strains of belief that conflict with defining climate as the central organizing principle of our own efforts. One is the ideological and strategic view that environmentalists will be most powerful by subsuming our effort under the wider tent of progressivism and joining up in the effort to reclaim the Democratic Party. The other is that we have been so battered by attacks on our credibility that we do not advance any position until the “consensus of climate scientists” has been established.
If climate is accepted as the central organizing principle of our work, however, program solutions can be devised that meet practical concerns, if not the partisan or ideological. Environmentalists interested in justice issues had graphic evidence that the key distinction between haves and have nots in extreme weather conditions is car ownership, for example. Those who could drive away did so; those who relied on buses were left behind. Nor did we have to argue that Hurricane Katrina was a product of climate change in order to develop the example of how easily governmental and emergency structures can be shattered.
Finally, we missed a terrific opportunity by failing to campaign for New Orleans be rebuilt as a sustainable city. Several Gulf Coast community and environmental groups did argue that the billions in federal funds be used in innovative ways that would have improved quality of life, significantly reduced reliance on fossil fuels, and established a new economy of scale for renewables in one stroke, integrated in rebuilding just the 350,000 completely destroyed homes, but no effort along such lines was advanced by major U.S. environmental climate programs.
5. Sources of power & amplification. The intellectual framework for the SEIU-led drive to rebuild American labor was outlined by Stephen Lerner, head of SEIU’s Justice for Janitors, in an 2003 article called “An Immodest Proposal: Remodeling the House of Labor.” Lerner defined the challenge in these words:
The unions of the United States have huge resources: 15 million members, billions of dollars in dues, and hundreds of billions in pension capital, as well as political power and the leverage of collective bargaining. These resources offer the potential and the opportunity to organize millions of workers and rebuild the labor movement. Labor can’t and won’t rise to this challenge, however, without an honest analysis of why unions continue to fail to organize, build and exercise power.
U.S. environmentalists have also avoided the difficult questions of where our power originates and why we have failed to invest more in maintaining and building it. There are two significant differences between our situation and labor that complicate the challenge. First, we have no ALF-CIO, and therefore no vantage point or infrastructure from which to consider our position as an institution. The fact that SEIU and other organizing-oriented unions had an institution, however moribund, to struggle for control over (and bolt from, when it proved necessary) was an immensely useful focal point. Absent an AFL-CIO, we judge our overall position by the strength of the individual organization or foundation we are employed by or affiliated with.
Secondly, when unions are performing poorly, their budgets decline. To a certain extent, the reverse is true for environmentalists. Public support and contribution rates tend to increase when concern over environmental issues rises, improving cash flow and dampening enthusiasm for reform.
University of Washington sociologist Jon Agnone has pursued tremendously salient work on the critical questions of what builds environmentalist power. In his summary report, appearing in the upcoming June 2007 issue of Social Forces, Agnone concludes …
… protest amplifies the effect of public opinion on policy gains by raising an issue’s salience for legislators. Without protest, public opinion is less likely to impact policy outcomes.
Protest has more direct impact on adoption of environmental laws than either public opinion or institutional advocacy, and environmentalist advocacy is more powerful when amplified by protest. This accords well with common sense experience; environmental lobbyists have more leverage functioning as “good cops.”
Yet just as labor has been aware for decades that the way to halt the decline of unions was to organize more workers, even environmentalists who agree that our power has been reduced overall by the decline of protest have limited means of translating that awareness into concerted effort to rebuild this crucial base of our power. The absence of any centralized structure makes it nearly impossible for U.S. environmentalists to set objectives, commit resources, and otherwise support strategic investment in sources of power. The decline of protest, therefore, is perceived as an organizational problem for Greenpeace and a handful of other organizations, not an institutional problem for all environmentalists.
Other bases of environmentalist power also go unexamined — geographic coverage, leadership development and defense, to name a few — but none are as important and none have had as significant an impact as the decline of protest. Protest should be understood in the broadest meaning as civil conflict incorporating all those approaches intended to challenge, provoke, express displeasure, bear witness, impede, call attention, and bollix things up, within strict limits of non-violence. Protest, of course, is a prerogative of the young, and effective protest depends on youthful stamina and conviction. Rebuilding capacity for civil conflict is, therefore, inseparable from organizing youth and campus campaigning.
6. Depth over breadth. Environmentalists point to public opinion polls showing a significant shift in public concern. 29% of Americans identified climate change as “extremely important” and 30% as “very important” in a Jan 2007, CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, with just 16% rating the issue as “not that important.” These response are consistent with other national polls and show a significant change in public view since 1992, when 40% of Americans agreed with the Bush administration decision to repudiate the Kyoto agreement.
Yet, of 70% polled in January 2007 by CBS News who agreed that “global warming is having a serious impact now,” none volunteered climate when asked to name the most important problem facing the nation in an open-ended question — fewer than the 2% who offered problems in the categories military, foreign policy, or politicians. This graphic demonstration of the absence of felt urgency is consistent with other recent open-ended poll questions (Oct. 2006 CBS News/New York Times and Sept. 2006 Harris Poll).
Every rationale that has been advanced to explain why the American public is unmoved by climate change — skepticism of legitimate scientists, implacable private sector opposition, right wing/Christian culture-war attacks, inherent difficulties presenting long-term risk, tough, well financed ideological adversaries, a unified, hostile Republican Party controlling both branches of government, lackluster Democrats, and broad conservative political trends — has evaporated. After a decade of expensive climate program ($100-150 million/year in 2005, according to one foundation report) it is difficult to interpret the utter lack of felt urgency as anything other than an indictment of our communications.
U.S. environmentalists should stop worrying about broad public opinion and focus on building a smaller, tougher, and highly motivated climate-action core. Depth is far more important to us than breadth. The enthusiastic response to Al Gore’s Climate Project is encouraging evidence of a surge in small-but-deep concern.
What distinguishes the types of people who do engage on climate, and how they may best be identified and supported, are questions that deserve more investigation. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is a widely read and potentially valuable device for mapping out a “diffusion” approach to climate campaigning, which aims to build a network of skilled communicators. Howard Gardner’s definition of “existential intelligence” — individuals who are drawn to larger questions of life and death — may also be a useful device for understanding why a small percentage of people react strongly to climate change.
7. The Story. Cognitive psychologists make an important distinction between narrative and paradigmatic logic — two entirely separate thought processes by which humans accept, interpret, and store information and concepts. Every individual uses a combination of the two forms, but for the vast majority of people, storytelling beats factual presentation at each of several distinct stages of perception and memory. We listen carefully to narrative, not just because it is more fun than rote memorization, but because we are hard-wired to pay attention to stories and even to anticipate that important information will be presented in them. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is a top-notch effort in paradigmatic communication that does a better job at putting a compelling summary of factual argument in the hands of people who accept information in this manner than U.S. environmentalists have managed. The limitation of the approach is neatly demonstrated by the ease with which this comprehensive summing up is dismissed by the one sentence story, “Oh, he’s just running again.”
The best example of the clash between our fact-based climate argument and the the purely fictional but nonetheless powerful story of our enemies is State of Fear. Our response to Michael Crichton’s anti-environmentalist screed generally followed this example:
Unlike most novels, ‘State of Fear’ includes footnotes and a bibliography, giving the impression that Crichton unearthed facts buried as part of a dastardly plan by scientists or non-profit groups to suppress disagreement on global warming. Yet all the data he cites have been widely and publicly scrutinized as part of the peer-reviewed scientific assessment process involving independent academic and government experts from across the U.S. and around the world. [NRDC]
We debated the legitimacy of Crichton’s footnotes, criticized his mauling of climate science, and passed right over his story, which in no uncertain terms says that it’s OK to kill environmentalists. Midway through State of Fear, Crichton’s main character learns of the death of several environmentalists and, pondering, realizes that …
… he was feeling a contradictory reaction. He would have expected his native caution to take over — a series of killings, possibly murders, he was accomplice or at the very least a material witness, he could be tied up in court, disgraced, disbarred [sic] … That was the path his mind followed. That was what his legal training had emphasized. But at this moment he felt no anxiety at all. Extremists had been discovered and they had been killed. He was neither surprised nor disturbed by the news. On the contrary, he felt quite satisfied to hear it.
What would have been an appropriate narrative response to State of Fear? We should either have ignored the whole thing or reacted in some human way to this nasty story. We might have pied the bastard. Or NRDC might have sued him, which is what Americans expect to see when someone is smeared. Or, we might have purchased an old ambulance, dressed up in medical gear and piled out with siren going at every State of Fear book signing and chased the guy down with a big butterfly net.
Our sprawling, fact-based, but essentially irrational climate communications (irrational because our solution statement does not solve the problem) should be replaced with Hansen’s simple and harsh story of Antarctic ice shelf collapse, rapid sea-level rise, and threat of collapse and cataclysm within the lifetimes of our children. This simplified problem statement, or plot, should be advanced as a universal story in all climate campaigning, with three additional narrative elements:
- a better and narrower definition of the opposition,
- highlighting the critical role of a small core of environmentalists, climate action leaders, and youth and,
- at least in general terms, definition of a functional global solution and the roadblocks to advancing it (i.e. antagonists, protagonists, and conflict).
Most U.S. environmentalists understand our role as problem solvers, and much of our time and energy is devoted to details of climate policy. In a recent Grist post, for example, Andrew Dessler commented …
… an interesting debate has broken out [on Grist] over whether a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system is best to price carbon emissions. This is exactly the kind of thing we need to be debating.
If we think about our story, however, the very last thing environmentalists ought to be doing is debating the finer points of climate policy.
Tinkering with the mechanisms of emissions reduction are a logical extension of a decade’s effort to skirt the fundamental social, political, and cognitive climate-change challenges by devising just the right package of regulation and incentives. Not to pick on Dessler (who has written a fine and useful book, The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate), but his summing up of a successful political strategy stands as an accurate representation of how U.S. environmentalists think:
… [a political strategy] is the most difficult part of designing an effective policy. What countries make the first cuts? How then does the regime expand to include all countries? For both practical and philosophical reasons, countries like China and India are unlikely to agree to participate in the first stage of any GHG reduction regime. On the other hand, these countries must eventually be brought into the regime. And given the rate of growth of emissions from China and India, they must be brought in as soon as possible.
Acknowledging that China and India do not plan to take any significant action to reduce emissions is understood here as a policy problem, resolvable by tinkering with technology transfers, international funding mechanisms, shoehorning capitalist carbon markets into quasi socialist economies, and so on.
As a story, the thing is much simpler. If China and India won’t play, then the game is over. It is just that simple, and just that accurate.
Our climate program must provide a human solution — one that accords with common sense understandings of how the world works, what motivates people and nations, and how things ordinarily play out. A decade ago we chose not to roll the dice with a blunt narrative because doing so would have made us vulnerable to attack, cut into our broad, moderate support, and restricted our access to centers of decision-making.
We must now make a different gamble; that a relatively small but existentially smart audience will respond strongly to a simple and true story, even if it offers only extremely long odds.