Winning On Climate: Framing The Debate Means Being Both For And Against Things

There’s an age-old debate playing out among climate hawks today: Do you win environmental battles by fighting against something or fighting for something?

Grist’s David Roberts had a thought-provoking piece on the issue yesterday, lamenting the oppositional tactics of enviros:

And as a substantive matter, oppositionalism is a woefully insufficient approach to climate change mitigation and/or adaptation. Most of what’s needed to respond to climate change involves building sh*t — new power systems, new transportation systems, new sustainable communities, new models of finance and ownership. If it ever happens, it will be a “third industrial revolution.” You don’t get one of those by stopping things.

Roberts raises some good points. And as someone who’s tried to fall on the side of positive messaging when writing about these issues, I agree with the basic premise.

But there’s a major issue that he leaves out: Enviros and other supporters of action already tried the strategy of “let’s build shit” to solve climate change – and it hasn’t worked out terribly well politically in the U.S. (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?“)

Admittedly, that is likely a result of failed tactics, not the strategy itself.

In the few years leading up to the climate bill in Congress, the environmental community switched gears, linking up with business to tell a positive story about the economic potential for clean energy and combating climate change.

However, as Congress developed a climate bill in 2008 and 2009, there was remarkably little mention about climate – with advocates instead choosing to talk exclusively about green jobs and economic competitiveness. That worked. Until it didn’t.

Three years after the climate bill imploded, we are further away from taking action on climate change than ever. One of the reasons is that fossil fuel proponents have shifted the narrative on jobs and competitiveness due to the boom in unconventional oil and gas.

You want to build shit? Why not build a bunch of shale oil rigs, fracking wells, and tar sands pipelines?

Of course, Roberts is arguing for actually talking about climate within the context of building a new clean energy future — something that the Obama Administration has woefully neglected (and is likely paying a political price for). But even with the one-two punch of a positive clean energy and climate message, that still doesn’t stop the massive amount of money and power being thrown around by the fossil fuel industry in Washington to prevent a change to the status quo.

That means actually being against something.

“We need to weaken the power of the fossil fuel industry,” said founder Bill McKibben, speaking at a Netroots Nation panel today on the fight to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

“We’re pretty much out of spare presidential terms. If we don’t get to it soon, we’re not going to get to it. We’ve got to go all in. There’s no point in holding back. We’ve figured out how to engage, to pull the battle close enough so that we can glance some blows,” said McKibben.

That might not match the warm, fuzzy message about economic prosperity that many have used in recent years, but he’s right. Once a major piece of infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline is built, there’s no going back. Those emissions are locked in for many decades.

In fact, the ongoing Keystone debate is the perfect example of why fighting against a project can be effective. At this time last year, almost every insider in Washington believed that the Keystone XL pipeline would go forward without a hitch. But when activists hooked up and put the pressure directly on President Obama and the State Department, they turned an inevitability into an uncertainty — helping keep a straw out of one of the largest pools of carbon in the world (for now).

The same thing is happening with coal exports. In the last year, the environmental community has woken up to the extraordinary threat that coal exports represent to the climate. All of a sudden, people are paying close attention to coal export terminals and federal leasing that makes coal artificially cheap. Heck, we can develop all the renewable energy we want in America. But if companies are still digging up cheap coal and selling it to the Chinese for a massive profit, we’re not doing much good for the climate.

Clearly, there’s a major role for being against stuff in the climate fight.

That might not sit well with people who see environmentalists and climate hawks as part of the problem, as pushing too hard. But McKibben had an interesting response to this characterization in his explanation of the heated battle against Keystone XL:

There’s nothing radical about what we’re asking for. We’re simply asking for a world like the one we were born unto. If you get up in the morning and want to get rich by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, you’re doing something more radical.”

Framing the debate in that moral context means saying “no” just as much as it means saying “yes.”

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    28 Responses to Winning On Climate: Framing The Debate Means Being Both For And Against Things

    1. Mark E says:

      The problem, of course, is that the only sh*t that will be built on a large scale is the sh*t that people want. CORRECTION, make that “What narcissistic super-comfortable people are willing to spend their credit to purchase, as opposed to some other luxury that is denied to the bread laborers of the world”.

      We can dream, and build, and try…..
      but that is the essential paradigm that has to change… the sh*t that people want. We can’t just change that by building cool hippie tree hugger sh*t, we also gotta paint the stupid sh*t that fills most peoples lives with many coats of shame.

    2. M Tucker says:

      “One of the reasons is that fossil fuel proponents have shifted the narrative…”

      You bet they have. The “fossil fuel proponents” will not go quietly into that good night. They will fight to protect their mineral wealth. They will fight to keep the status quo and they are the most powerful entities in the world. All you need do is look at who is protecting the interests of Big Oil…why the entire might of the US military.

      This is the most complicated endeavor mankind has ever been faced with and that is exactly why nothing has been done to remedy the drastic environmental catastrophe we are racing toward. That is why it will take a massive public movement to force the issue. Otherwise, he who has the gold (crude oil) makes the rules.

    3. todd tanner says:

      Bill is right, but his fear-based framing is actually better suited to conservatives than progressives. Seems to me we’d be better off tailoring our messages so they target particular demographics.

      Second point. The reason we don’t see many conservatives in the climate coalition – which is also the reason we haven’t moved forward on climate – is because greens and environmentalists don’t know how to talk to folks on the other side of the political spectrum. There are 40 million sportsmen in the U.S., many of them conservative and all of them with an inherent self-interest in protecting the outdoors and passing along a healthy world to their kids and grandkids. You’d think that large funders would be reaching out to groups like Conservation Hawks, recognizing the necessity of putting pressure on the political right and bringing both sides to the table on climate. Yet that hasn’t been our experience.

      Apparently it makes more sense to try the same failed strategy over and over again than to move on to something new.

    4. Jeff Poole says:

      Greetings from Queensland, largest coal exporter in the world. Currently shipping 156 million tonnes of black death per annum.

      Our two wings of the Business Party (you call the Democrats and GOP ours are Labor & Liberal) want that to increase to 944 million tonnes by 2020…

      There’s an enormous rush on Coal Seam Gas too, all of which will get exported by new rail lines to new ports inside the Great Barrier Reef – increasing coal ships across the Reef from 1,722 per year now to 10,150 by 2020.

      If we’re going to save the planet we need to do some positive messaging alright – with gelignite!

    5. Jeff Poole says:

      Sorry Todd that’s just tripe.

      Outdoor ‘Sport’ lovers in your nation crisscrossed the continent by train to kill the last of the Passenger Pigeons. I haven’t heard the NRA apologise to the nation and the world for wiping out that species.

      The lesson here that greenies and other ‘consensus’ types need to learn is simple – some people are your implacable enemies, don’t waste your breath on them.

    6. D. R. Tucker says:

      How can America hope to reach consensus on pressing issues of the day – like climate change – if political polarization and legislative logjams rule the day, and are getting worse? We’ll tap into the wisdom of author and columnist for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. His new book, Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent, contends that consensus will be impossible if a single national trait or idea dominates the unfolding American story. Dionne reminds us that the strong role of community and greater good are fundamental to our identity and history and offers solutions.

      Read more:
      Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

    7. CMM says:

      “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
      ― Albert Einstein

      Wanted: a society that understands its own thinking and how the human processes of our world were created [I submit for consideration this can be done by remembering cultural history). Arrive at a tentative consensus to the current vexing social roadblocks of our time and moving forward to fundamental structural change to undo the ecological suicide of [Earth systems] a living Earth.

      Note: the act of intentionally causing one’s own death is often committed out of despair.

      In our case…correct the communication failures between those separated by vast chasms of differences in needs and resources. Work together and end the “debate.”

      While we continue to we admire social traits such as kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, these are the concurrent traits of failure in our system. And those traits we [continue] to detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while we admire the quality of the first we still love and enable the produce of the second.”
      — Modified from original language of John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

    8. Leif says:

      Relevant part of today’s letter to the President encouraging an end to “indefinite detention.”

      While you are talking to the Judge you might ask how come Corpro/People, a.k.a. corporations, get to profit from the pollution of the commons. I cannot! You cannot, unless you have some skin in the game. (Then the better you play the lie the more you are rewarded.) Corpro/people can and do! Then use a share of those “profits” to insure their power. It does not even matter if they are R or D, as long as they don’t let the cat out of the bag. [Us. “We the people.” The 99%.] The GOP is a better return on their investment, is all.

      If I throw a paper cup out the car window, bingo, ~$100 fine. Even you try it with the media watching. Corpro/People do it with toxic stuff and make billions doing it! They even get my tax dollar assistance working against Earth’s life support systems. Buying congress to assure they get more while it lasts. No bid contract to Ecocide! Do the GOP pay for abortion? How come?

      Right now, all indications point to many tipping points for major collapse, possibly irreversible. Pollution must pay for the destruction of the commons at least if it is to draw profits. Do my tax dollars really need to help when school lunches are cut? That Capitalistic paradigm change is bound to happen eventually.

      Humanity deserves nothing less. Every day it does not change is another day in bondage, humanity working for the well being of the few… You can help or you can hinder.

    9. todd tanner says:

      I’m not sure where you’re getting your information, but it’s not correct. Let me help you out.
      The passenger pigeon, as well as the bison, where victims of commercial hunting in the 19th century. To the best of my knowledge, we haven’t allowed commercial hunting in the U.S. for a century or more. Sport hunting is a different animal. Sportsmen were responsible for instituting game seasons, restricting bag limits, and paying for State Fish & Game Departments with their tax dollars. Sportsmen/ conservationists have actually increased game populations considerably over the last hundred or so years.

      The NRA is a shooting organization, not a hunting organization.

      Calling sportsmen “your enemy” is short-sighted and unwarranted, not to mention counter productive. You might want to do a little research on this when you have a second.

    10. Jeff Poole says:

      Fair enough Todd they were commercial hunters not ‘sporting’ hunters.

      I still call ‘tripe’ on what you said – after all the commercial shooters had just as big an incentive to protect their source of income and the habitat that supported their trade.

      They didn’t.

      You nation’s sick obsession with shooting animals for ‘sport’ is only matched by it’s damaging frontier mythology.

      Supporting either is diametrically opposed to conservation so, once again, where’s the benefit in wasting time trying to find consensus with your enemy?

    11. Mark Shapiro says:


    12. Mark E says:

      Jeff, you are dead wrong on the role hunting and fishing has played in USA environmental history. Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold are just two prominent tree huggers for whom hunting played a large role. We would not many of our landmark environmental laws if the various sportsclubs had not endorsed them. It is certainly true that today hunting and fishing is less about craft than it is about expensive technology, but Todd is 100% correct nonetheless. Climate hawks would learn a lot by learning to hunt and fish and talk to the people who love doing those things.

    13. ToddInNorway says:

      I suggest we look at real-world success story and learn from it. Germany now has enough PV installed to generate about 25% of its electricity usage on good, cool sunny days in Spring. How did they get there? They encouraged owners of rooftops to install PV by giving them a guaranteed income for actual delivery of electricity to the grid. It has worked beyond all expectations. America has 10s of millions of family homes with rooftops where this could work. Once they understand the value for their households to do this, the momentum for renewable technologies will by unstoppable. There are many solutions for this, but by far the most practical today is the new solar shingle from Dow. This is a PV shingle that IS THE ROOF, not just a panel mounted on top of the existing shingles. Anyone out there reading this that needs to replace their roof shingles in the next 1-3 years should not lose this opportunity! The critical mass of 10’s of millions of PV owners and operators will sweep aside this utter madness of anti-PV campaigning by ff wingnuts.

    14. Joan Savage says:

      The campaigns AGAINST the Keystone XL, massive coal extraction, and hydro-fracking are all inherently FOR our sustainable water and food supply.
      They are really positive campaigns.

      A good farm field and good water supply are worth a great deal, and it would take generations to build them from scratch. That’s infrastructure.

    15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Of course we must find answers to the problems that decarbonising human society will cause. But the decarbonisation must be THE priority. In any case, under the current evil global dispensation, the planet’s biospheres are being rendered hostile to our species’ survival, not to benefit mankind as a whole, but to further engorge an insatiably avaricious global elite of total parasites. While the plutocrats grow ever more corpulent, as their bank balances swell and they spend a little chump change to buy politicians by the gross (pun intended)and brainwash the intellectual, moral and spiritual dregs of society into worshiping them and the God of Greed, billions sink into deeper and deeper misery. The global economic and political system is irredeemably wicked and destructive, and we must destroy it before it destroys us all, all that we have achieved and all that we might achieve.

    16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Jeff, one contemplates the rise of the troppo Caudillo, Newman, with bemused horror. The military background is deeply ominous, as is the quick descent into extremity. Ending literary awards, ending finance to AIDS and HIV and female prisoner support groups, appointing a twenty-something ‘Christian’ fundamentalist as Attorney-General (who reveals his priority is the abolition of the recently granted civil unions for gays)and the quick resort to snarling ‘Green extremists’ at every opportunity are signs of dark, dark, days ahead. But, let’s get real-if Newman, Baillieu, O’Farrell, Abbott, Gillard, Rudd, Hockey etc are the best our country can produce as ‘leaders’, then we are a truly sick and degenerate society. Perhaps it will be better if the Rightwing genocidists simply put us, and them, out of our misery.

    17. Chris says:

      Keystone could be a good example of how greenies should have been both against AND for something – i.e. it would have been a good opportunity to oppose the pipeline while simultaneously calling for a green project. Then we would not have lost some of the union support concerned about jobs. It is definitely not an either-or – there must be more places where it could be both…

    18. Are there legal / non-violent means by which we can help stop fossil fuel expansion in Australia?

      It’s one big atmosphere that we all share.

    19. It’s not just that we have to build a lot of good elegant, efficient stuff to create a third industrial revolution.

      We also have to leave most of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

      Now tell me how that is going to happen without being fiercely, robustly, loudly AGAINST business as usual in the ginormous energy industry?

    20. JoeSnow says:

      I debated climate science for years & it gets to be redundant, those people are usually lost to ideals, so it`s a waste of time. I`ll explain it if I think someone is serious about understanding it. But I now fight for things. I do`t discourage people from debating it, there is a place for that, I just dont have the patience for it, but I respect the people that do.

    21. john atcheson says:

      Change doesn’t occur because it can; it occurs because it must. Read The Prince — new endeavors are the most difficult of all things. In short, there has to be a reason to build new shit. We’re never going to do it simply because we can or even because we ought to.

    22. M Tucker says:

      You are absolutely right about the large fraction of conservatives who are also outdoors enthusiasts but I don’t think messaging or “knowing how to talk to them” (as if they are some alien creature with a tentative grasp of the language) will have any impact. Just look at the number of conservative meteorologists and scientists and even conservative climate scientists who have written op-ed pieces begging the Republican politicians to come to their senses. Those authors are still going to vote for the Republican or the tea party/Republican candidate. Just like the Log Cabin Republicans. These are not wedge issues for conservatives. Because in their hearts, even in the hearts of the conservative climate scientists, they still think we have time to play games with ignoramuses like Inhofe. If they thought it was vitally important to do something immediately they would describe themselves as former conservative voters. So even with a clear consensus among climate scientists who actively do research in the field there is no clear consensus for immediate action.

    23. SecularAnimist says:

      Obviously it is necessary to be BOTH against those things that are causing global warming, AND for those things that will stop it.


      I appreciate the concept of “framing”, but at a certain point it becomes framing for the sake of framing.

    24. Joan Savage says:

      Building “new” things is part of a world view that allows privileged powerful ones to displace the homes, ecosystems, and economies of others.

      So, again, with fervor, clean water, fertile farm fields, and the services of nature are the most important infrastructures we have.

      Those who divert water out of the fresh water cycle into mineralised water and displace agricultural land and forests are destroying the essential infrastructure. Those who destroy wetlands are taking out a water purification system that would be hugely expensive to rebuild.There are many other examples of foolish destruction of natural infrastructure.

      No array of wind turbines or solar panels can directly restore fresh water or fertile soil or other gifts of nature at the needed pace, but they can allay some of destruction.

      The recent UN report makes it clear that we are approaching a multiple tipping point within a decade, due to the massive alteration of the earth’s environment.

      For further reading about displacement, “Utopian Legacies” by John Mohawk.

      Preserve Essential Infrastructure – the Services of Nature

    25. John Lemons says:

      I have always appreciated and been supportive of Joe’s efforts to mitigate global climate change. And, I do think how climate issues are framed is very important.

      In this respect, I disagree with Joe’s and others who advocate framing issues around economic and job concerns, even primarily if not exclusively.

      [JR: Not sure what column you are reading, but that has never been my recommendation, nor is it the recommendation of the author of this column, Stephen Lacey.]

      While I understand the potential pragmatic appeal of framing things in an economic context, there are two problems. One, when this is done implicitly there is an agreement that the resolution of climate issues should be driven by economic parameters. This approach leads to incessant “he said/she said” arguments about whose economic analyses should prevail. Further, if framing by all parties is economic, then there can be some expectation that the most economic advantageous according to decision makers will or should prevail. Thus, if for some reason economics should change and continuing with fossil fuels is the most economical thing to do, then so be it.

      Two, framing climate issues in an economic context diverts attention from the most important aspect of the issues–namely, that climate change is a huge moral and ethical problem. Simply put, it is morally wrong for people and nations (developed) to refuse to adopt strong mitigation measures because, e.g., they are harming those who have contributed least to the problem (the poor in developing nations) and who have not consented to being harmed. Further, absent international agreements those from developing nations have little recourse to halt emissions from people in developed nations.

      James Hansen, as well as Donald Brown and myself ( have argued that an analogy can be made with slavery. It is no more correct to frame the abolition of slavery in economic terms than it is to do so with climate change issues.

    26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      There are no legal ways-the system is too corrupt and well constructed for that. Non-violence merely amuses the Masters, until it reaches a certain size, then they infiltrate provocateurs or mobilise those already inserted beforehand, and launch a full-on media fear and hate campaign. They’d love violent opposition, for the head-kicking experience. So we are left with a choice between hoping for a moral awakening amongst the Rightwing genocidists, or the arrival of benevolent extra-terrestrials who will save us from ourselves. I’d say that the latter is more likely to occur.

    27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      I do love Steinbeck, and he was right on the money. And Ben-Gurion vetoed the idea of Einstein as President of Israel precisely because his moral conscience would soon prove embarrassing.

    28. CMM says:

      Wow…I didn’t know…Thank you! I will take a closer look at the materials for him [Einstein] in relation to Israel…