The Environmental Movement Awakens


Star Wars is not the only popular 1970s franchise that showed in 2015 it still has muscles to flex. The remarkable reawakening of the environmental movement –- which had also seen its biggest successes in the 1970s — might be the sleeper story of the year.

While some had prematurely proclaimed the death of the environmental movement over a decade ago — and the 2010 collapse of the climate bill in the U.S. Senate certainly represented one of its lowest points in recent memory — now we see the movement achieving success after success in the climate and clean energy realm.

Perhaps I should say we see the environmental movements achieving success after success, since there are really two different movements now — the insiders (like the Natural Resources Defense Council) and the outsiders (like Bill McKibben’s — even if they have very similar goals.

The movements’ recent successes include:

  • The first ever comprehensive global climate deal in which the overwhelming majority of big emitters — rich and poor — agreed to constrain CO2 emissions.
  • The rehabilitation of the Clean Air Act as a central tool for cutting U.S. carbon pollution (and for leveraging a breakthrough climate deal with China).
  • A national effort to shut down the most carbon-intensive power plants, which is now spreading globally, driving us faster than anyone expected toward peak coal and a decoupling of economic growth from CO2 emissions.
  • The rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
  • The rapidly spreading effort to divest from the dirtiest forms of energy.
  • The growing acceptance by the U.S. public of both climate science and the need for climate action.
  • The end of year U.S. budget deal to extend solar and wind tax credits for several years.
  • Global realization that accelerated deployment of clean energy must be the centerpiece of any climate action strategy.
  • Broad acceptance that 2°C is not a goal for total planetary warming, but a defense line we must stay as far below as possible, with 1.5°C as a preferred target.

I’m not saying that the environmental movements (at home and abroad) are solely responsible for this remarkable list of accomplishments — the scientific community along with key politicians and business leaders around the globe deserve a great deal of credit, too. But precisely how many of these successes would have occurred without the push from environmentalists?


“There’s finally a mass movement around climate change,” McKibben said in an email. “That doesn’t negate the fossil fuel industry’s financial might, but at least it provides some counter balance. And the bigger we build that movement, the heavier that counterbalance will grow.”

Certainly McKibben and groups like deserve an enormous amount of credit for revitalizing the kind of grass-roots “outside-the-DC-beltway” activism that made the original environmental movement so potent. While many criticized them for focusing on seemingly narrow targets of opportunity like Keystone and divestment, I have long believed that these type of mid-level actions (between replacing your lightbulbs and passing a U.S. climate bill) would be instrumental for rebuilding a grassroots movement.

And the willingness to push the envelope on what must be done has been equally instrumental in winning the battle of ideas. The Keystone and divestment battles were crucial to cementing the notion that we must leave most fossil fuels in the ground. The Sierra Club’s remarkably successful “Beyond Coal” campaign was crucial to taking the fight against coal to the state and local levels. And the growing reality that investment in finding and deploying fossil fuels is ultimately a dead end has inevitably supported the rapidly growing recognition that investing in deploying clean energy is the core strategy.

Powerful but simple organizing ideas matter, especially for the public arena, and even more so for sustainable movements. One of the central ideas of the new environmental push is that 2°C (3.6°F) total warming from preindustrial levels — associated with CO2 levels in the air of about 450 parts per million (ppm) — isn’t a “safe” level at all. Again, the science has become increasingly clear on this point, as I discussed last year. But the idea of limiting total warming to 1.5°C — and getting back to 350 ppm — was specifically embodied and advanced in the name team McKibben chose for their group,

So it is significant achievement that in Paris 190 nations unanimously committed to an ongoing effort of increasingly deeper emissions reductions aimed at keeping total warming “to well below 2°C [3.6°F] above preindustrial levels” — and then went even further by agreeing “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”


At the same time, the big enviro groups like NRDC deserve a great deal of credit for revitalizing the idea that the Clean Air Act (CAA) was meant to protect us from all forms of dangerous pollutants — which absolutely includes CO2. After all, without the CAA and the resulting EPA Clean Power Plan, team Obama would probably not have been able to make a strong enough CO2-reduction target for 2025 to achieve the game-changing November 2014 climate deal with China.

The U.S.-China deal, more than anything else, enabled last month’s successful climate deal, since it was the first time a major developing country — in this case, the major developing country and the world’s largest CO2 emitter — agreed to constrain emissions. That opened a floodgate of commitments from virtually every major developed and developing countries, which were essential to making the Paris agreement work.

This use of the CAA represented a return to basics by the environmental movement — not just in terms of policy, but also in terms of messaging. For too long, U.S. climate messaging had been focused on benefits to people distant in both space and time — as well as to species other than homo sapiens (I’m looking at you polar bears). But the CAA is about preserving the health and well-being of Americans, and so is the effort to curtail carbon pollution.

David Doniger, the Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate & Clean Air Program, explained in an email, “People said, after the failure to pass Waxman-Markey in 2010, that it would be years before Congress adopted a climate law. Well it turned out we already had one, the Clean Air Act, adopted 45 years ago in 1970. And it is the foundation for the enormous progress this country has made since 2010.”

The environmental movement still has much to do to prove its potency — truly successful movements transform the public debate and politics. We will find out during the 2016 election cycle whether the movement can translate its renewed potency into enough votes at the ballot box to preserve and expand its recent gains.

But there is no denying that the environmental movement has awakened from its too-long slumber to become a force national and globally. May that force be with us for a long time.