Time for the Climate Movement to Take a Look in the Mirror

cross-posted from http://www.watthead.org

By Mark Kimbrell. Note, this post does not necessarily represent the opinions or priorities of Focus the Nation, and instead represents the author’s sentiments alone.

Last week represented defeat after defeat for the climate movement and progressive forces in American Politics. One of the most left-leaning members of the Senate (RIP) has been replaced by Republican Scott Brown, thus disrupting the Democrats’ majority and the prospects for health and climate legislation. Not that the Democrats have necessarily been honoring their campaign promises, or representing the wishes of our movement- nevertheless it’s a wound.

The Supreme Court has opened the floodgates on Corporate giving, and rolled back all progress made through past campaign finance reform. A decision that will no doubt increase the already massive influence of coal and oil interests over the US government and US public. Climate Change has once again been buried in the issue dog pile under health care, military adventures, and Wall Street reform. All while the coal industry’s iron hammer – Senator Murkowski has launched an all out blitzkrieg on the EPA’s ability to regulate under the Clean Air Act. And to top it all off, wouldn’t you know it- it looks like global climate talks won’t reach a pact by year’s end. Surprise, surprise….

After last week’s bludgeoning, it’s pretty clear that the writing is on the wall. With corporate money flooding into political coffers and misinformation campaigns with more ease, and Brown’s election signaling trouble ahead for democrats, our window of opportunity to make progress on our issue seems to be prematurely closing. It raises an important question: the game has changed- have we? Taking a quick glance at the upcoming activities and priorities of the youth ranks it’s clear that we haven’t changed enough, and it seems to be time for our movement to take a long hard look in the mirror.

COP15 exhibited two very clear facts for the climate movement: we need a larger and more diverse movement (at least according to Jonathan Pershing), and we need to hone in on a strategy that will allow us to reduce US emissions without depending on weak Senate legislation or international treaty, who’s prospects seem to fade every day. In order to address both of these ominous facts, I propose the youth movement add a very important arrow to the organizing quiver- engagement and action around clean energy investment.

Here it is in a nutshell- the youth climate movement should make a seismic shift towards making clean energy cheaper, rather than devoting all focus towards the difficult road of making carbon more expensive (an opinion that has been continually stated here). That’s not to say we should abandon all aspects of the pollution paradigm. Our movement should always have a legislative cap/tax of carbon as a top priority. This strategy does not represent an eviction of that principle, but instead an addition that may eventually make a significant cap on carbon accessible within the American political gauntlet.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger said it best- “…no effort to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions, domestic or international, will succeed as long as low-carbon energy technologies cost vastly more than current fossil fuel-based energy.” They also lay out the most important fortifications that an organizing strategy devoted solely to a carbon cap/tax will have to overcome:

“the political power of incumbent energy interests, low consumer tolerance for high energy prices, the economic impacts that substantially raising energy prices will have on key energy-intensive sectors of the economy, and — most importantly — the substantial price gap that continues to exist between fossil fuels and clean-energy alternatives.”

It’s clear to even the most skeptical that the first step to reducing American emissions and improving the prospect for significant legislative carbon control is to reduce the price gap between clean energy and carbon, as well as the consumer crunch that will ride the coat tails of any carbon legislation. By achieving significant investment in clean energy technologies we can quickly and effectively reduce the price gap as well as the consumer crunch by making clean energy technologies cheaper and able to withstand competition with carbon. Also, by showcasing the benefits of clean energy investment in reducing emissions, we can not only improve our chances at legislative action, but also pave the road for eventual revenue generated from carbon regulation to be funneled into clean energy technology.

If you dig below the surface you find multiple peripheral benefits to this strategy as well. Reducing the price of clean energy in the American marketplace will serve as a visible counter to any arguments launched by the right that portray carbon regulations as an unbearable expense on American households. There it will be- affordable clean energy- to be used as a weapon by our movement to prove the possibility of a real societal shift away from a carbon based economy. Not to mention the thousands of new jobs that will be created as the clean energy sector begins to boom. This will no doubt increase our ability to recruit new and unique American participants in our call for climate legislation that puts a real price on carbon; thus fulfilling the wish of Jonathan Pershing and eliminating one more excuse the Obama administration or Congress may invoke.

A move towards prioritizing clean energy investment will give us something our movement (and most progressive movements) has never had- an industry lobby (clean tech). A whole sector of our economy, ripe for growth and in need of federal support, will join our call and aid our efforts. A new honed message around immediate clean energy investment will bring the leverage of a future economic powerhouse into our corner. So the benefits are clear, but what does clean energy investment organizing strategy look like?

The first step to injecting clean energy investment into the top of our movement priority list is a change in messaging. We should reduce the emphasis on passing weak legislation and instead focus on:

1. Immediate funding of clean energy technologies in any way possible- stimulus/ jobs bill, appropriations bill, as a rider on any legislation.
2. Investment in altering our infrastructure to be able to facilitate a boom in clean energy. An easily attainable goal when you consider what we spend on our Middle East occupations or bailouts.
3. Clean energy investment as a deal breaker in any climate legislation. If the bill doesn’t work to level the playing field between carbon and clean energy it’s not a step forward.

This spring’s campaigns, initiatives and actions should push clean energy investment to the forefront of asks. All civic engagement activities should push clean energy investment as an immediate need and a necessary preface to climate legislation while utilizing the leverage of actors from the clean energy sector. All communication with Congress or the White House should center on the injection of clean energy funding in any and all upcoming legislation. Regional organizing activities and conferences should push for statewide funding of local clean energy technologies and businesses as their primary purpose.

Spring is the perfect time to back away from cap and trade a bit, and instead develop town halls, forums, call in/write in campaigns to target both federal and local elected officials around economic revitalization through clean energy investment. I can see the campaign slogans now- A Clean Energy New Deal; Investing in America’s Climate Future; Awakening America’s Clean Energy Giant; Clean Energy- the Common Man’s Bailout…

The militant/direct action wing of the movement should move to identify the US’s largest investments- corporate bailouts/subsidies, and war, and target them with creative actions and visuals to attract the American public’s attention towards funding clean energy instead. Here come the visuals- War the life taker, Clean Energy the job maker – you choose; Corporate Bailouts= bigger yachts, Clean Energy investment= Jobs and energy security… Greenpeace will do a better job than I can.

We, as a movement, must immediately change our paradigm to consider a strong political push for clean energy investment, on both the local and federal level, as a necessary table setter for any effective climate legislation. If we are willing to really consider the economic and political reality, and re-examine our paradigm and strategies – a long look in the mirror- this new model could pave our way to success.

Photo courtesy of http://www.rudecactus.com

Jesse Jenkins contributed to this post through many informative discussions and a comprehensive suggested reading list.

8 Responses to “Time for the Climate Movement to Take a Look in the Mirror”


  1. 1 Juliana Williams Jan 26th, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    Yes, yes, yes!

  2. 2 Matt Jan 26th, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Thanks for this post Mark.

    I agree that the outcomes of COP15 and Congress’ stalemate over climate legislation calls for new approaches. I also agree that we must think outside of the silos of international negotiations and federal legislation. No doubt, I also agree that clean energy technologies must decrease in cost and become cheaper than dirtier forms of energy.

    However, I have a question/concern about your proposed strategy (and the Breakthrough Institute’s). In fact, I would encourage that other clean and cheap energy advocates to chime in.

    If we merely make clean energy cheap, even really cheap, are we ensuring that we’ll make the necessary cuts in our emissions? It seems that focusing solely on cheap energy overlooks the role of energy efficiency. And, without efficiency, we may still come up short of ‘science-based targets’. In short, the sole focus on cheap energy will perpetuate our wasteful relationship with energy. A relationship that cannot be entirely overcome with whole bunch of clean energy.

    In addition, where does the role of climate and energy justice fit into this frame? In my opinion, one of the most important outcomes of COP15 was the solidification of a global climate justice movement. If we are going to truly build power, it seems imperative that we don’t overlook this surging movement. Would a focus on cheap, clean energy alone allow for collaboration with the climate justice (& other justice) movements?

    Respectfully,
    Matt

  3. 3 rmarg Jan 27th, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Energy efficiency does not always equate to using less energy overall. If efficiency allows less energy for a certain task, it can lead to increased demand for more tasks (Joffan’s Paradox). So far, energy efficiency has decreased our rates of increase and even per capita energy use, but overall energy use has gone up.

    As for the energy justice portion and cheap energy, I would consider that it is not technology specific (e.g., cheaper solar panels made in China may engender chemical contamination in the locale). I do not think there is a perfectly cheap, just, clean way to generate the large amounts of power the world needs. Certainly we can look for cleanER, cheapER, and relatively MORE just energy.

  4. 4 Morgan Jan 27th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I think there’s a lot of value in being well versed in how to make clean energy cheaper. But RMarg and Matt both raise some basic concerns.

    If this movement was about nothing more than promoting clean energy without preventing dirty energy, then we’re still screwing over a lot of people.

    I think that youth voices are uniquely suited to speak for justice, and having a comprehensive clean energy investment proposal increases our ability and respect to speak for justice.

  5. 5 rmarg Jan 27th, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    Certainly youth can play a powerful role. I would humbly suggest that this advocacy take into account both the economic and the environmental. So often the discussion is an either/or frame. Also, sometimes the “clean” energy may still have “dirty” aspects (e.g., if energy storage is too expensive, renewables will need natural gas and nuclear for baseload). Energy can be quite a Gordian Knot.

  6. 6 Jesse Jenkins Jan 27th, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    Matt, as far as the connection to global justice issues, please don’t ignore the impacts of energy poverty on the billions of global citizens (and billions more expected to be born into energy poverty over the next fifty years) and the demands justice would place on those of us with the means to help ensure there are readily available and sustainable (as possible) energy sources to meet these needs. The scale is incredible, efficiency or no, and will require massively scalable, clean, and affordable energy sources to power sustainable global development.

    Morgan, I don’t think the movement needs to be solely about promoting clean energy. Part of that could certainly be avoiding wasteful and harmful investments in a propagation of our current dirty energy systems. In many ways, those two wings of a movement already exist, with many focused on taking the fight directly to coal plants, oil refineries, etc., while many more work to advance the policies and conditions that will spark a clean energy economy. But the real shift is in the latter wing of the movement: a focus on creating the conditions that will make clean energy cheap and abundant, not the conditions that will make fossil fuels more expensive.

    rmarg, thanks for mentioning some of the challenges associated with efficiency. Studies like the oft-cited McKinsey analysis of efficiency opportunities are essentially a best-case estimate of the gains we can make from efficiency, and pointedly do not take into account the various rebound effects that undermine a portion (and sometimes all) of the efficiency gains by driving higher energy consumptions. Efficiency looks at the household level like a lower price for energy services, for example, which can drive up demand for that service. If demand doesn’t rise, the money saved effectively turns into extra income, which is used to purchase goods and services that in turn require some amount of energy to produce. The efficiency opportunities themselves often involve substituting capital and labor (think the installation of insulation) for energy consumption, and that capital and labor takes energy to provide. Finally, at the macro-economic level, getting more bang for the buck invested in energy means higher economic productivity, which drives greater economic growth and thus energy demand. All in all, various factors are at play which erode the gains made from efficiency in terms of reduction in absolute levels of energy consumption (not just relative energy consumption per GDP or per capita). Hence, as you point out, energy consumption continues to soar even as energy efficiency of the economy improves.

    If we look at the scale of global energy demand growth over the following few decades, even after factoring in a hefty does of efficiency, the need for massively scalable, clean, and affordable energy sources is paramount. The IEA spells it out pretty clearly here.

    Mark, thanks so much for starting off this introspective and thoughtful discussion. I look forward to more thoughts from everyone. In solidarity,

    Jesse Jenkins
    (Breakthrough Institute Director of Energy and Climate Policy, among other hats)

  7. 7 Jay O'Hara Jan 27th, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    “The only thing I did was wrong
    Was staying’ in the
    Wilderness too long
    Keep your eyes on the prize
    Hold on”

    Phew! Mark thanks for starting out this thoughtful conversation. I agree that given the events of last week (Massachusetts and Citizens United) that it’s time to take stock and reassess our strategy. We’d be foolish not to. But I think it is premature to declare last week a “bludgeoning”, and foolhardy to decide to soften our message. Now is the time to stand and fight for what we believe and to amass the sort of power that is capable of defeating the entrenched corporate interests.

    Unlike other debates – healthcare, defense spending, education – the climate debate actually has some hard edges. It makes absolute moral demands much the way civil rights or abolition did in generations past. We know what we have to do: peak emissions as soon as possible and put us on a trajectory towards 350. If we fail to do that we fail to have a planet “similar to that on which civilization developed”, and we create a world of increased mass starvation, dislocation and war for resources. This is what we’re fighting for: a just and stable world for ourselves and our children.

    Putting jobs and clean energy at the center of this debate obscures the true costs of inaction and abdicates the inherent moral authority of our position. It reduces having a livable planet to a jobs program. And it’s pretty easy to cut jobs programs. Obama is (probably right now) proposing a cut in all non-defense non-entitlement spending. That’s what happens when you have a jobs program – it can be cut when other things become more important because it’s “discretionary” spending. Having a habitable planet is not something that should be discretionary.

    The other thing I worry about in the energy-focus is that there is no clear line in the sand. Since the planet has a line in the sand (350), our legislators should be judged by and held accountable to that goal. It’s a measurable goal. I’m not sure how you measure the GHG implications of green jobs, and push back when politicians don’t do enough. If the issue is framed that we want clean energy and green jobs, what happens when they throw some token clean energy funding at us and some green jobs training but there’s no change in market signals to sustain the transformation? How does government spending on those things stop the fundamental ecological problem: chronic over consumption and reliance on a perpetual growth economy? How do we pivot when we get a clean energy and jobs bill that doesn’t get the job done?

    Let’s be honest with the American people and work our asses off to convince them that we are right. Let’s be clear about the consequences of inaction, keep this issue non-politicized and spark a broad-based movement capable of counteracting the corporate fossil fuel interests. The thing about focusing on climate and a stable planet is that clean energy and green jobs WILL be part of the solution. We get a planet to live on and the warm-and-fuzzy selling point of green jobs. The golden rule of advocacy, though, is you have to ask for what you want – otherwise you’ll never get close to getting it.

    Let’s keep our eyes on the prize and not get lost in the weeds. Weeds don’t inspire a movement capable of getting the job done.

    “The only thing I did was right
    Was the day we started to fight
    Keep your eyes on the prize
    Hold on” – civil rights era song, Eyes on the Prize

  1. 1 Climate Generation: Our Power in a Century of Solutions « It’s Getting Hot In Here Trackback on Jan 28th, 2010 at 7:07 pm
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About Mark


Mark, formally of the Center for Food Safety, is currently a National Organizer for Focus the Nation in Portland, Oregon. National Organizer FOCUS THE NATION 917 SW Oak Suite 208 Portland, OR 97205 407-765-5945 www.focusthenation.org

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