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 350.org 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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