Mainstream U.S. Climate Strategy Has Failed Miserably: So What Now?

My good friend Arnold Schroder has written a brief and powerful note to friends reeling from this terrible summer of climate impacts. He begins: 

I've spent decades horrified by the systemic ecological collapse we are experiencing. Yesterday was the first time I could palpably feel so many of my friends experiencing at least some of this horror. It is indescribably sad, and on some level I feel fortunate to have had so much time to anguish over, and thus emotionally prepare, for what is happening all around us.

Arnold’s short piece has gone viral because we seem to have reached a tipping point of sorts, where a wider than usual audience, horrified by three major hurricanes in the Atlantic and unchecked wildfires ranging from Los Angeles to Greenland, is worried. Worried people post, and many responses to Arnold’s piece complain that Arnold hasn’t offered a prescription; one of those "5 Simple Things You Can Do" lists. 

I’m gritting my teeth that we should be tasked to do so. 

At one level, I understand. What we've been doing for over 20 years has failed, and failed badly, and people understandably want an alternative, but there is no comprehensive alternative to our mainstream U.S. climate strategy, and no means or infrastructure to advance one in these desperate times. This is because U.S. environmentalists—with forethought and intention—chose to invest in a deceitful, elitist and manifestly unworkable climate agenda that depended on the good will of the fossil fuel giants, the Democratic Party and tweaked capitalism, and ignored ecological principles, our own experience of environmental struggles and the principal historical lessons of social change.

For more than 20 years, our major organizations have offered a transactional climate strategy that demanded nothing of individuals beyond paying annual dues and special appeals. It promised to solve climate change (and a host of other eco-tragedies), with a minimum of fuss, Kennedy School gamed policies, and no bother.

We—that is to say, U.S. environmentalist and most climate activists—ignored the political and existential threat of the evangelical/alt-right and its fossil fuel financial and political base. We deliberately downplayed the ghastly future of climate impacts, stepping aside while climate scientists tried to take the lead role in communicating climate risk. We chose to accentuate the positive and assumed that elite forces acting behind the scenes would act decisively, and privately, in the global interest. 

We did all these things—against common sense and our own experience—in large part, because it was in our organizational and personal interests to do so. We ceded our strategy to private funders, led by the Pew Trusts and Energy Foundation, and offered up comforting pablum to individual contributors who were quite happy to read an endless stream of upbeat e-news alerts about how solar rates have tripled in California, or the like. 

Like any other consumer product, climate change activism has been marketed under several different brands. If you like your climate action with a hefty dose of capitalism, buy Environmental Defense Fund. If you appreciate a veneer of science, there’s Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists. If you enjoy a bit more honesty in the problem statement, but still want that upbeat sunny feeling, you’ve got the Sierra Club. If you are comfortable in a crowd, go with cap and trade. If you like a bit of policy dash, choose the carbon tax. 

U.S. environmentalists and climate activists have never tried to agree on a coherent, common campaign; we don’t even have a coalition. We’ve never had a national meeting. Why? Because it is not in our organization’s interests. 

Climate programs run by individual organizations have been about as effective as sheltering in a tent in the Caribbean. At a moment when we should be striding forward with the strength of prophets proved right, we wander in the ruins of useless climate policy—without effective plan, purpose or voice. 

But seeing this crisis as merely an institutional failure does a disservice to individuals and organizations laboring very hard to be effective under political and economic conditions shaped by our very human desire to avoid facing the horrid prospect of climate collapse.

Tragically, those who have been concerned (but not too concerned) about climate change demanded this arrangement, voting for chipper milquetoast "climate solutions" with each donation. Our organizations responded. It seemed like a win-win setup. 

One consequence of funding only comfortable, incremental climate work, is that naysayers and malcontents—people like me and Arnold and our friends—have been denied even minimal resources necessary to develop, test and advocate for a coherent, combative alternative. One thing the right wing does well is support its contrarians. We starve ours.

Almost everyone I know who is fully engaged in trying to craft a pragmatic climate strategy that is grounded in both geophysical and political realities, is prepared for, and driven by the climate change impacts we see unfolding around us, and aims for the truly transformational, does so on the cheap, sleeping on other people’s couches, dependent on the kindness of friends for meals and to cover mobile phone charges. We have no offices, no IT department, no staff, no salaries and no paid vacations. 

I think we’ve not done a bad job, considering, but given the state of an impoverished movement, it rankles to be asked for a fully formed alternative climate strategy, easy to plug into, ready to go. I think we have a pretty good idea of what an alternative climate strategy looks like, and if we had a modicum of resources we almost certainly could flesh out the bare bones and put it into action. With our own effort and personal funds, we’ve been doing some of the work piecemeal, in actions like Shut It Down, and there are a number of scrappy organizations advancing important components. 

Ten years ago, a small group of us formed the Bright Lines network and crafted such an alternative, which went nowhere. Interviewing me for his book What We Are Fighting For Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice, Wen Stephenson asked me why the Bright Lines effort was unsupported. I answered that “there was no felt need.” 

Perhaps there is a felt need now. 

Here's a good first step: Stop contributing to the organizations and underwriting the strategies that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead, let's turn those resources toward the woefully under-supported—and hugely cost-effective—efforts at the margins, which are going head-to-head with the fossil fuel monolith.


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