As Matt Stoller pointed out at Open Left, environmental groups haven’t been very quick off the mark in responding to the California wildfires and framing them as a climate disaster. Whether it’s Katrina, Rita, the 2003 wildfires, 2004 Florida hurricanes, or any of the numerous other climate disasters of recent years, environmental groups have been slow. It’s true that you can’t tie any particular climate disaster directly to global warming — but it’s easy enough to acknowledge that and then talk about how these kinds of disasters will become more frequent and more intense as the climate crisis worsens … and then turn the conversation to solutions.

California fires
(photo: Kevin Labianco, Flickr)

Mostly, environmentalists have been timid because they’re afraid right wingers will accuse them of "exploiting" the tragedies, but environmental groups shouldn’t decide what to say or not say on the basis of a few fringe anti-environmentalists. Framing these events as climate disasters directs the conversation and forces the media to address the question, rather than continuing with the “Mother Nature strikes again” stories they usually run. If we let the right wing define what we say, we’ll be 100 percent mute, 100 percent of the time. It’s kind of a ridiculous strategy.

You’ve got to talk when people are paying attention. It’s nice to release thoughtful, hard-hitting reports about how the climate is increasing the likelihood of wildfires during the rainy season. But it really doesn’t matter if no one cares when the report is released. You’ve got to drive the point home while people actually care about wildfires (same true for hurricanes, droughts, etc.).

Let me give an example. In 2003, I was working on forest protection. Then, as now, some environmental groups didn’t want to say that either the climate crisis or logging of fire-resistant old growth trees was contributing to the massive burns, even though they had put out loads of reports about it. Why not? They were scared they’d be accused of exploiting tragedies.

But for some reason, the right wing had no similar fears. They blamed the fires on environmentalists, saying that environmentalists had prevented thinning of low-diameter trees. The environmental community was so scared by that line of argument that the environmental messaging was, “Yes, we need tree thinning — just not deep in the forest.” Not surprisingly, few members of Congress and few members of the public remembered the distinction. The result: passage of Bush’s Orwellian Healthy Forests Initiative, which actually subsidizes the logging of fire-resistant old growth trees.

Here’s the solution, and it’s something the environmental movement has to start creating right away: a Climate Disaster Rapid Response Team. When disaster strikes, environmentalists should be the first on the scene delivering aid in coordination with the Red Cross and other disaster relief agencies. It probably means having relief supplies around the country ready to go in the event of a disaster, and volunteers signed up in advance to drop everything and help with relief. And it means having a crack communications team ready to hook up media with both top environmental spokespeople and climate experts. The media will lap it up, and drown out whatever right wing sniping occurs.

It’s important to remember that the right responds like this whenever disaster strikes. They’re right to do it: that’s when people are looking for solutions. After September 11, while the left was generally cowed into submission, Republicans rallied support around everything from the Patriot Act to tax cuts and the war in Iraq. They’ve blamed the drought in Georgia on environmentalists for mandating water-flows to save downstream fish (ignoring the fact that Georgia officials had allowed amusement-park snow-making and more sprawl than the water supply could take).

If environmentalists want to be effective at shaping the debate in moments of crisis, they’re going to have put aside their temerity and start talking when people are actually listening.

UPDATE: Wanted to give some credit to environmentalists/groups who jumped on the fires. We still need a more comprehensive and organized effort like the one described above, but these statements are good first steps! This is far from an exhaustive list: LCV’s Gene Karpinski, Friends of the Earth’s Brent Blackwelder, Al Gore, the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope, and NRDC.