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Get Angry or Go Right: What’s the Best Strategy on Global Warming?

October 16, 2011

Supporters of action on climate change are under siege in Washington. House Republicans are attempting to cut appropriations on all things related to climate change. Even Democrats appear to want to downplay talk of the issue. The “green jobs” agenda, in light of Solyndra solar’s woes, is now mired in controversy. Despite Al Gore’s recent effort to refocus attention on the problem with his new Climate Reality campaign, an economy wide legislative effort like cap-and-trade appears dead in the United States for the foreseeable future (That didn’t stop Australia’s House of Representatives from bravely passing a carbon tax last week).

Perhaps with gallows humor?
 Source: Artist as Citizen via

With the Durban negotiations approaching in December, the Obama Administration is trying to put a brave face forward, downplay expectations, and get out of South Africa without the rest of the world heaping opprobrium on the United States for its failure to lead.

Meanwhile, Europe’s economy is teetering on the edge of an abyss with unknown consequences for the United States, itself poised to enter an election year with paralyzing partisan rancor and potentially a double dip recession.

In light of these difficult circumstances, what should advocates for action on global warming do? In this blog post, I outline two potential strategies, one I call “Get Angry,” a strategy akin to a “Green” Tea Party mobilization of the base, and another called “Go Right,” a strategy designed to widen the number of supporters by bringing in moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Get Angry? The “Green” Tea Party – Occupy Wall Street Strategy

Occupy Wall Street protests
Source: Daily Dish

In late August, anticipating the Occupy Wall Street protests, writer and activist Bill McKibben initiated a series of protests outside the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to the United States. This direct action led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.

Dave Roberts at would make this a more general strategy to elevate the political pressure on politicians through aggressive action.

Rather than try to coax and cajole reluctant Republicans and wavering Democrats to support action on climate change, Roberts thinks that a Tea Party insurgency on climate change is what is needed. Passionate advocates should instill fear in the political class by making themselves a nuisance. It’s not enough to have passive majority opinion on your side, what you need is a minority with intense preferences to make their feelings known.

Drawing on John Sides, Roberts recently wrote on that there “There is no vast middle full of reasonable people.” He argued:

It is not the opinions of the reasonable nonpartisan masses but intensity and money that win in politics. That’s why a relatively small group of hardcore anti-clean energy climate skeptics in the right-wing base has exercised effective veto power over American climate policy: they have the intensity and they’re backed by money.

From this perspective, what is needed is a countervailing movement of climate change activists. A more finely calibrated message (i.e. “framing”) to appeal to moderates won’t do it:

Politics is not a grad school seminar and this notion of explaining things in a more grown-up way to a mythical middle is a wonk’s fantasy.

I think the implication of this strategy is more in your face type actions like the Keystone XL protests, which will make it much harder for new investments in carbon-based fuels to go forward. These have been pretty successful over the last few years. Here in Texas, activists helped prod the utility TXU to cancel 8 of 11 proposed new coal plants in 2007 (though this strategy was hardly one of traditional rabble-rousing. Environmental Defense had a lawsuit in federal court and in exchange for giving up the lawsuit guided TXU’s new owners to support a change in direction).

In another post on the finding of climate denialism among conservative white men, Roberts wrote: “It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their asses — is still the way to go.” This still begs the question of how to carry that out. Elsewhere, Roberts wrote approvingly of civil disobedience and encouraged people to support the tar sands movement:

Therein lies the (potential) value of civil disobedience: It is a social signaling device. It says, “We are taking this seriously. We are willing to risk our comfort and safety, willing to get arrested, just to get you to pay attention to this.” If done well, in the right circumstances, that kind of behavior sends a stronger message than any compendium of scientific results ever could.

However, to get noticed, it has to have an element of surprise and novelty: 

The problem with so much of what passes for environmental direct action is that it’s become rote and predictable. The kids chaining themselves together and getting arrested. The activists scaling something tall and unfurling a big banner. The protestors sitting in trees to stop loggers. All those things are brave and well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong, but they are not surprising. At this point, everyone’s seen it before and everyone knows exactly how to process it.

From this perspective, the tar sands actions were in a sense the same old familiar direct action of old. Indeed, Roberts initially panned the Occupy Wall Street protests for the same reason (though he later embraced the cause):

Hippies gather w/ puppets & drums; jerky cops abuse them & shut them down. It’s a script every American knows. Causes no one to think anew.

On the Keystone activism, I’m not convinced that this negative strategy of trying to stop new pipelines and plants is all that productive. I’m not a fan of the pipeline, not least because of the likely impact on Canada’s boreal forest. That said, I’m not sure it’s the best use of community time and energy to try to kill this particular pipeline. Yes, this will represent sunk costs that perpetuates an economy reliant on carbon-based fuels, but that is likely going to continue for some time anyway. What we need is some price on carbon that not only helps make future investments like this one more costly (which protests do) but also rewards clean energy innovation (which protests don’t do).

As Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations noted, even if the pipeline is built, that doesn’t mean all the oil will eventually come out of the ground. If we put a price on carbon, it may become uneconomic for that pipeline to carry the oil:

Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved.

One advantage of having a “Green” Tea Party equivalent is that it might make the moderate pragmatists in Congress pushing a climate agenda appear even more moderate. This is known in the social movements literature as the “radical flank effect.”

The question becomes whether or not the Keystone XL protests will serve as a focal point for further climate mobilization or a one-off effort to kill that particular project. As Andrew Revkin argued on his Dot Earth blog on The New York Times:

While it’s a potent symbol and convenient rallying point for campaigners, it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In this view, stopping a single pipeline today is not nearly as important as the policies to create an energy transition tomorrow. For his part, Bill McKibben takes issue with the notion that a new policy environment is possible. Instead, we will have a series of decisions like this one to bless or kill:

It’s empty to insist that the right thing would be some huge energy plan to make some great transition. Sure, but that’s no going to happen in Washington as presently constructed. If we’re going to get anywhere, it will be fight by fight and battle by battle—and this once, the president can actually do it by himself.

To me, defeat of this particular proposal seems like a Pyrrhic victory. In the absence of a price on carbon, decisions like this one will still tend to support carbon-based fuels. Environmentalists might win this particular battle but continue to lose the war.

It’s not clear that environmentalists are numerous enough to stop this project, let alone to carry this forward to generate a broader movement to put climate change back on the legislative agenda. McKibben is trying to attach the Keystone protests to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We’ll see if that goes anywhere.

Even if this movement were successful, it might get attached to policies that ultimately prove unworkable. The Tea Party’s influence on the debt ceiling debate may be instructive. Moreover, the downside of such mobilization may be even further polarization of domestic politics, exactly the opposite kind of strategy that initially brought President Obama into office. That “One Nation” strategy had crossover appeal and may be exhausted, but a strategy based on direct action may further drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. Maybe that is the price of progress, but something about that strategy just doesn’t strike me as nationally sustainable.

Go Right: Find a Way to Appeal to Republicans Strategy
If you think, as I tend to, that you have to have some Republicans on board for any climate policy to be successful, then how can advocates generate more GOP support?

To that end, Roberts and I had an interesting Twitter exchange about a month ago about the best strategy. Again, for him, his theory of change is one of brute political power and an energized grassroots. It’s not clear to me if that represents an effort to try to turf people out for anti-environmental positions or merely registering a pro-climate perspective so vigorously that politicians, even Republicans, feel like they have to respond.

This may sound a little far-fetched but it was not too long ago that moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tim Pawlenty supported regional cap-and-trade schemes. I think this happened in large part because of the larger environmental constituencies in those states and the mobilization of Al Gore’s climate change slide show army. While not an especially radical challenge, Gore’s presentationistas were at least able to generate some political impetus for doing something.

Pro-climate policy folks were almost there in the first years of the Obama Administration with the passage of the House cap-and-trade bill, but the lingering economic crisis and health care made that moment almost but not quite perfect. Unfortunately, we may not get a better chance for some time. For that reason, I tend to think overtures to elicit Republican support are warranted.

In those days, Democrats sought to enlist broader support for climate policy, particularly from Republicans, by re-framing the issue in two ways: (1) first, as an economic opportunity that would create “green jobs” and (2) second, as a security challenge.

The green jobs agenda was taken up vigorously by the Obama Administration which likely oversold the benefits that could come from investments in that sector. Maybe if the policies had been perfectly implemented…There is a longer backstory on why this “economic opportunities” frame was adopted that I’ll explore in my next post, but I think this focus made it seem like the climate problem was easier to solve than it actually is.

On the security front, the issue is not just about climate change but also dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, the climate security angle on its own has not yet worked to draw in (many) Republicans. It’s easy to see the attraction of a security frame, but the attention it generates may further reinforce fossil fuels. In these discussions, the melting summer sea ice in the Arctic comes up a lot and how the U.S. needs to be prepared to defend access to the hydrocarbons that are becoming available. The energy independence argument can also buttress bad policy choices, like diverting much of the U.S. corn crop for biofuels and opening up environmentally sensitive areas to oil drilling.

Aside from messaging, how else might advocates appeal to Republicans? In the lead up to the failed Senate vote on cap-and-trade, President Obama also made two key concessions to moderate the legislation, both of which may be politically unavailable in the future.  First, he expressed a willingness to allow more domestic offshore oil drilling in less ecologically critical areas like the Gulf of Mexico (deeply problematic after Deep Water Horizon). Second, he also extended greater support for nuclear power through loan guarantees (perhaps equally difficult after Fukushima).

Beyond messaging and tactical concessions, advocates face other challenges going forward. Cap-and-trade was initially based on Republican ideas but has been rebranded by right wing ideologues as cap-and-tax and no longer enjoys an image as market-based environmentalism. Advocates will need to identify a new solution, perhaps coupling a carbon tax with a cut in the payroll tax, that doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

At the same time, as I’ve noted before, the issue has become so tightly identified with the Democratic Party and leaders like Al Gore that have little appeal and credibility with Republican voters or elites. Can advocates enlist Republican champions of this issue (or at least those trusted by Republicans)? Teddy Roosevelt IV? Former Virginia Senator John Warner? Former Secretary of State George Schultz? Rick Warren?

In my next post, I’ll make the case that a mix of Republican-trusted interlocutors coupled with messages that emphasize the local effects of climate change on America may be a productive way forward.

Obviously, both the “Get Angry” and the “Go Right” approaches to climate change at this point leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps a hybrid approach, where the radicals try to stop the Keystones and the moderates try to build broader support can ultimately be successful. In the meantime, both camps have their work cut out for them.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.