Recently, in the post “Global Warming and the vision thing,” I criticized the use of numbers in advocating policies, arguing instead on behalf of concrete images. Jon Warnow, a Step It Up 2007 organizer, responded to my post, and I thought it would be appropriate to give him the benefit of a separate post, along with my reply:

In Defense of the Numbers

As an organizer that worked on the Step It Up 2007 efforts on April 14th, I am one of the global warming activists that is guilty of having “advocated policies based on numerical goals” as Jon Rynn observes. As a decentralized, synchronized protest in 1400 communities across America, Step It Up was indeed built around a very specific, very numerical call to action: “Step It Up Congress! Cut Carbon 80% by 2050.” The author argues that “nothing turns people off like a bunch of numbers” and let me be the first to say that as a general rule, I agree with Mr. Rynn’s general stance–as activists, environmentalists, and good citizens we need a story that conveys an aspirational vision for a clean energy future.

However, with all due respect to Mr. Rynn, let me go on to explain break down the reasons behind our very deliberate choice of a numerical message:

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1)We are playing a legislative game.

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Given the gravity of the problem, the short time scale we have to fix it, and the resources necessary to make the systemic changes we so desperately need, our only option is to pass national policies to move us towards the vision of the clean energy future that Mr. Rynn describes. Right now, there are a half a dozen climate-change bills being discussed in Congress. The greatest danger is that our leaders pass weak legislation–say, cutting greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2050. We’ll then end up with a placated citizenry and a self-satisfied Congress that hasn’t developed a plan based on targets informed by the best science. Given this danger, we thought that the most strategic thing to do would be to align our message with the long-term goals of the most ambitious legislation that’s out there–bills that call for cutting carbon 80% by 2050. When the hundreds of pictures from Step It Up actions started pouring into Congressional offices, our leaders knew exactly what we were demanding them to do.

2)Numbers keep it short.

As activists, it would be wonderful to be able to tell our vision of a clean-energy future to our politicians and the media–it’s a narrative that needs to be heard. But here is the sad reality: in today’s rapid-fire political and media culture, we simply don’t have time. Mr. Rynn’s laudable vision comes in at nearly 1000 words–what we needed was a message that could be painted on a banner or encapsulated in a sound-bite on the evening news.

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3)Numbers keep it specific.

You might be thinking “surely we can come up with a slogan that is short enough and not so boring and wonky.” As an intellectual exercise, let’s try: how about “Clean Energy For America’s Future” It’s positive and appealing, they can be painted on a banner or described succinctly on the nightly news. But it is extremely susceptible to co-option and vastly differing interpretations. If we picked such a message we’d get congresspeople saying “I couldn’t agree more–that’s why I support massive investment in ‘clean coal’ technologies over the next 10 years.” Being wonky means you’re being specific, which makes you far more resistant to this kind of message mangling and sabotage that we see from politicians and corporations alike.

4)Numbers convey scope.

The citizens who engaged in the Step It Up campaign were not climate scientists–but they knew that global warming was a huge problem that demanded huge solutions. “Cut Carbon 80% by 2050” conveys a simple, very important, very compelling idea: we need to fundamentally transform the way energy is produced and consumed in our society. Embedded in the supposedly boring numbers is the scope of change, a paradigm shift that people intuitively know we need to tackle this problem. Sure, 2050 is far away, but it’s obvious to anyone (including those who crafted carbon-cutting legislation) that to get to 80% reductions we’ll need to begin this transformation immediately and have interim caps and targets along the way.

5)Numbers make it credible.

One of our greatest assets in the movement against global warming is that the basic science is unequivocal, and attempts to refute it look more pathetic and desperate with every passing day. 80% reductions by 2050 was not a goal picked out of thin air–they are the targets that the latest and best science tell us that we need. With credible truth in increasingly short supply in our politically-charged culture, invoking peer-reviewed, scientific research makes our demands far more difficult to discredit.

Mr. Rynn says that “just saying cut emissions by so-and-so percent by such-and-such a date has the problem, I feel, that it sidesteps the important social debate we need to have, which is how we get to those numbers.” I respectfully disagree–rather than sidestepping that debate, I believe the numbers force us to have it. With the numbers in place, we are now challenged to develop the compelling vision that will allow us to reach our boring numeric targets. By triggering this sort of collective visioning, we can truly engage in an ongoing conversation (and societal transformation) that is long-overdue.

Thanks for your comment, Jon, I think it was a clear, readable explanation of the motivations behind the 80% reduction by 2050 idea. I’d like to respond to your points:

1) You raise an important issue — how to push through something now — which brings me to my favorite Al Gore quote:

“The maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis.”

I think it is important to have both those who are attentive to what can be done now and those who point the way to long-term, but currently politically infeasible, goals. This has sometimes been called the reform/radical divide, but with a twist: an 80% reduction in carbon emissions is quite radical, but my criticism is that, from what I have seen, the means proposed to get there are not up to the task. Which brings me to …

2) … keeping it short. You are correct that my post was 1,000 words, not good for a banner or 15-second soundbite. Chip Heath, who I quote in the post as advising using “concrete images,” also advised to “keep it simple.” When you are talking about changing a civilization, it’s hard to keep it simple, so to combine keeping it short, with the next point …

3) … keeping it specific, let me try one: “Replace cars with trains” (or, a little less in your face, “make cars unnecessary”). This is short and pretty simple. The problem, as I’m sure you could explain to me, is that the American public is totally unprepared for this; in fact, the environmental movement is unprepared. But I would argue that even many big oil companies and their research arms would admit that by 2050 gasoline will be much more expensive, and many argue that by then transportational fuels, even with biofuels, will make automobiles a luxury.

Another short but snappy phrase is “replace coal with wind and solar.” If governments at all levels simply built wind and solar energy systems, this would be reasonably fast, but would run into the conventional wisdom that the government should not intervene directly in the economy. So …

4) … considering the scope of the problem, one of the criticisms of the global warming movement so far is that the solutions do not quite seem up to the job. One of the advantages of “radical” proposals, such as replacing cars with trains, is that many problems can be solved at the same time: without cars, suburbia must be transformed into towns and cities, and with that comes more community, which Bill McKibben has waxed eloquently about. Wind and solar energy not only replace coal, but makes electrified public transit sustainable. But again, to tell Americans — or even the Chinese — that cars will no longer be practical is quite a leap. However, the mainstream media has yet to tackle the problem of fossil fuels being depleted, which makes it even more difficult to talk to the public about 2050, both from a climate point of view and an energy point of view, which brings us to …

5) … numbers are necessary — a good start is on your site, How can we cut carbon 80% by 2050? — and I hope there will be a zesty debate on what types of transportation/energy/agriculture/manufacturing systems will be possible and should be built. I sincerely hope that you are right and that campaigns such as “80% by 2050” lead to this wider debate of how to get to 80% reductions.