Shot Heard Round The World

Cross-posted at the Leadership Campaign.

The Leadership Campaign hoists a turbine infront of the Massachusetts State House at the start of Copenhagen.

Students from the Leadership Campaign hoist a wind turbine in front of the Massachusetts State House at the start of Copenhagen.

This morning, as predicted, we awoke to the news that the most liberal state in the nation has elected a tea party Republican to represent it in Congress for the next two years.  It’s a stunning turnaround for what was until recently Ted Kennedy’s seat; a seat that for 46 years was a champion for justice and for the least among us.  This pattern isn’t new, however: it is the predictable outcome of the Democratic campaign strategy.  This strategy parallels the losing strategy of the climate movement, and there’s a lot to learn from Massachusetts as we move forward after Copenhagen.

From the Boston Globe to It’s Getting Hot In Here, the stark difference between the two candidates, Scott Brown and Martha Coakley, on climate change, and an appropriate response have been detailed before.  For anyone looking to make a choice in this race on the merits of averting a climate crisis, the choice was clear.  But who was looking to make that choice?

It may seem like the obvious, but elections are won by the candidate who gets the most people out of bed, out of the house and to the polls to vote for them.  Working on an issue such as climate is not as clear cut as an election, but elections are where the rubber meets the road.  If the climate movement hopes to win, we must think as strategically as those who win elections.  So what does it take?  Victory takes two mutually enforcing pieces; a compelling narrative and a mobilization strategy.

Policy positions do not motivate average people to vote in the pouring rain, as was the case yesterday.  A quick glance at the websites of the respective candidates reveals an enormous gulf of thinking between the two candidates on the positions they have staked out.  The gulf is not just between their conclusions, but in how much thought went into their positions.  “Energy and Environment” gets only three sentences on the Scott Brown website but a comprehensive white paper on energy reform from Martha Coakley.  That white paper, however, isn’t going to make much difference if people don’t feel that it makes a difference in their lives.  A compelling narrative is the story makes clear the challenge before us, and calls us to act by highlighting our common values.

Brown was clear about what environmental policies mean for people, writing “without action now, future generations will be left to clean up the mess we leave…I oppose a national cap and trade program because of the higher costs that families and businesses would incur.”  Coakley’s opening sentence states, “Martha believes America needs a comprehensive approach to lowering our energy costs, meeting our energy needs and protecting our environment.”  Which of these speaks to you?  I don’t want to leave a mess to future generations or make families pay more.  But wait, why does Coakley believe we need a comprehensive approach to these issues?  Why should we be protecting the environment, when the environment isn’t going to lower my heating bills this winter?  Brown, without any detail, has made the energy and environment debate meaningful to people by connecting it to our kids’ futures and the current dismal state of the economy.  Feeding your family trumps the “environment” every time by connecting to our values and interests.

A compelling narrative is only a motivator.  After a compelling narrative you have to have a strategy to win.  In an election, that’s easy.  You know how many votes it takes to win 51% of expected turnout, you identify enough people who will vote for you, and you make sure they go to the polls.  That’s a knowable number.  If in Massachusetts that number is one million, than a campaign builds a structure that develops an army of volunteers at the grassroots level to get 1 million people to the polls.  Coakley, it appears, didn’t believe that she had to identify, recruit and turn out voters.  Over the course of the campaign, I understand, Brown held 66 events and Coakley’s campaign appearances numbered only in the teens. Coakley is reported to have said, when asked about her campaign style, “what do you expect me to do, stand in the cold, shake hands and ask people for their vote?” Yes, that’s exactly what we expect.  Getting the result you want isn’t some sort of magic.  You have to create a plausible strategy to achieve the goal you need and motivate people to join in the work.

And so it is with climate work.   We know what goal we need to achieve: 350.  To get there we need to stop burning fossil fuels immediately.  That sounds like a lot of work, you might say; how are we going to get there?  Winning takes a positive narrative and a plausible strategy to win. The current dominant strategy mirrors Martha Coakley’s: write lots of science and policy papers and send as many lobbyists as we can afford to Capitol Hill in the hope that reason and science will prevail.  When the big green organizations come back empty handed with a bill that guarantees coal will continue to be burned in  perpetuity and commit us to a world of at least 550ppm, the green establishment shrug their shoulders and say, “it’s better than nothing”.

Wrong.  Winning on the climate front is like winning an election.  Either you win an election or lose.  Losing 52% to 46% is not better than nothing.  Either you win on climate or you lose.  Winning looks like putting us on a trajectory for 350 that will ensure a just and stable future.  Losing looks like drought, disease, famine, worldwide migration and wars over resources.  To win you need a motivating narrative that honestly describes the challenge we face, the choice we must make, and the positive benefits that will come if we make the right choice.  To win you need a plausible strategy that can get what you want.

Despite the special interests and the huge expenditures by the fossil fuel lobby, in a democracy it is still possible to win.  Just as Scott Brown won against the established front runner with the backing of the big dollar liberals and unions in Massachusetts, we can win too.  But we’re going to have to excite and mobilize people.  Lots of them.  In our democracy the people can still trump dollars if they are effectively organized and motivated.

Here in Massachusetts, Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF) is taking that challenge seriously through the Leadership Campaign.  After mobilizing hundreds of students, people of faith, and community members camping out on the Boston Common seven Sundays in a row, the Leadership Campaign had a bill introduced to start Massachusetts on the road to 100% Clean Electricity in the next decade.  SJSF has clearly stated the goal, and is crafting a narrative and strategy to achieve what is needed to win.

This summer, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Council of Churches, SJSF will take to the streets across New England on bikes for two months, working with local communities to build a movement that can counter entrenched interests.  By motivating and flexing the muscle of the people, we will work to get our elected representatives to speak out about not just what is politically possible, but what is absolutely necessary.  If you’re a college student or recent gradwondering what to do this summer, check out New England Climate Summer, and help get us on the road to 350.

So let us take the election of Scott Brown to be a shot heard around the world, or at least the climate world in the United States.  Although it may seem like a setback for the moment, the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts may have a silver lining.  Let us learn from Coakley’s campaign to be clear about our goal, develop a narrative that inspires action and have a plausible strategy for victory on the climate issue.  If we bore the American people with science and policy papers, and they are convinced that tree-hugging lobbyists are going to take away their cars and air conditioners while making it more expensive to feed their families, we will be out the door like Martha Coakley.  But if we mobilize thousands, even millions, to show our elected officials that we are ready to lead the way to a clean and prosperous future, then the those in the people’s seats in Washington will follow.  It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to get messy.  Let the revolution begin.

7 Responses to “Shot Heard Round The World”

  1. 1 Canopus Jan 21st, 2010 at 2:46 am

    This election wasn’t about how an issue was presented. It was rejection on a majority of issues represented.

  2. 2 Juliana Williams Jan 21st, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Well said Jay! We absolutely need to be thinking about a winning strategy – Our ultimate success will not be determined by one senate bill or one international agreement. It depends on our ability to mobilize enough local action and support that can tap into the aspirations and dreams of the public. We must build the constituency of folks who want to fight for this. So, we must think about the steps along the way that will build momentum, rather than hope for a hail mary policy solution.

  3. 3 David Jan 21st, 2010 at 7:51 pm


    The electorate decides on their acceptance or rejection of policy positions based on the education. Unfortunately in todays American media truth is hard to discern. There is much obfuscation of the facts. Is the climate cooling? Depends on your sources. Is the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by humans? Depends on your sources. There are a lot of ‘experts’ out there trying desperately to be heard over everyone else piping in on the topic. Why? Because they have a personal stake in the outcome whether they look at it in the short term or long term. Unfortunately those who only take the short term view often rely on economic feedback which, apparently, is more concrete for them than the esoteric discussions of the various forcings behind climate change. They are often the ones who will say the earth is cooling because it is cold outside today.

    The climate change science is pretty complicated stuff and to get any of it across to the masses is going to involve a lot of education. Ten second sound bites won’t cut it. Getting people to read 300 page dissertations isn’t going to cut it. Face to face discussions with people who understand the science and how it realates to the body politic is the best answer to educating the voting public.

    Get on board the train…I mean the bike!

  4. 4 Kate Jan 21st, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Well written, Jay. But, allow me, if I may, to edit one thing you wrote…

    “But if we mobilize thousands, even millions, to show our elected officials that we are ready to OVERTHROW THE CAPITALIST, PATRIARCHAL, OPPRESSIVE GOVERNMENTAL SYSTEM THAT PUT US IN THIS CRISIS TO BEGIN WITH, AND BUILD OUR OWN MODEL OF HOW TO lead the way to a HEALTHY and MUTUALLY SUPPORTIVE future, then the those in the people’s seats in Washington will LOSE, LIKE WE HAVE ALL BEEN LOSING FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s going to get messy. Let the revolution begin.”

    Capitalism isn’t in crisis, capitalism IS the crisis. Let’s stop pleading with politicians to provide the change we want to see, when we realistically know that they won’t bring it. Let’s start focusing on building our own model outside of domination of all living species and competition to accumulate useless things and property while oppressing women, people of color, the working class, immigrants, differently-abled, trans folks, etc etc. Today, the Supreme Court took away all regulations from corporations that put limitations on the amount of $$ they can give to politicians. Our government has now turned into a corporate bought-out system. Give me a break, those guys are definitely NOT making decisions in my best interest, only I and my comrades can do that. Let’s take our power back and live like human beings, not slaves.

  5. 5 Jay O'Hara Jan 22nd, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Kate, I couldn’t agree more! I’d actually go a step beyond blaming capitalism to blame materialsm: the belief that happiness (in an developed country) can come through consumtion. This isn’t a unique problem to capitalism, communism and socialism have the same inherent flaw because the goal of all three systems is the wrong goal.

    If you get a chance, I’d recommend Vaclav Havel’s essay “Power of the Powerless”. He argues that concretely building the world we want to see is vital to efforts to replace the repressive regimes that we’re fighting. Here in the Northeast, at least, the Transition Town movement is really starting to take off, and I think this the exactly the sort of parallel community of resistance that needs to be built. Not one or the other – but both!

    Any ideas of what that looks like in our situation, with CO2 already way out of control?

  1. 1 Shot Heard Round The World « The Leadership Campaign Trackback on Jan 21st, 2010 at 8:16 am
  2. 2 Environment Activism Prime Business! « Palashbiswaskl’s Weblog Trackback on Jan 21st, 2010 at 1:37 pm
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About Jay

Jay is a native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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