Communicating climate change tough with business friendly environmentalism

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    From a lengthy, informative article on Dissent website:

    For those who believe that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, it is comforting to see that bend reflected in the polls. Over time, as public awareness of an outrage increases, tolerance for the status quo should diminish while the percentage of the population demanding change creeps up. With steady persistence, popular support for detrimental views will recede, ignorance will be undermined, and consensus around truth will solidify.

    Unfortunately, with one of today’s most pressing public issues—climate change—things have not worked out so neatly.

    Environmental advocates now face a question that has widespread implications for how we think about legislation, lobbying, mass movements, and social change: what do you do when an issue emerges as one of the most urgent matters of our time and, at the same instant, becomes firmly regarded as a political loser?

    The Breakthough position, and to a lesser extent the strategy of the Obama administration, represents a most profound capitulation to existing political conditions. It is based on a simple logic: since we cannot pass ambitious climate legislation, we should focus on the measures that can pass. Breakthrough puts forth the premise that “deadlocked international negotiations and failed domestic policy proposals bring no climate benefit at all.” Instead, it embraces “politically feasible forms of action.”

    The USCAP campaign culminated in the climate bill that died in the Senate in 2010.

    In January 2013, Harvard professor of sociology and government Theda Skocpol released a 142-page report detailing the history of this failed drive.

    she contends “Big, society-shifting reforms are not achieved in the United States principally through insider bargains. They depend on the inspiration and extra oomph that comes from widely ramified organization and broad democratic mobilization.”

    In a particularly insightful passage, Skocpol notes that inside reformers, despite giving lip service to the need for outside pressure, see citizen activists as playing a secondary and ultimately inferior role:

    [The] division of labor in the cap and trade effort—insiders work out legislation, pollsters and ad-writers try to encourage generalized public support—reflects the way most advocates and legislators in the DC world proceed nowadays. “The public” is seen as a kind of background chorus that, hopefully, will sing on key. Insiders bring in million-dollar pollsters and focus-group operators to tell them what “the public” thinks and to try to divine which words and phrases they should use in television ads, radio messages, and internet ads to move the percentages in answers to very general questions in national polls. It all has a very distanced, antiseptic quality to it . . .

    A first useful idea highlights a distinction between “transactional” campaign approaches and “transformational” ones. In a well-regarded op-ed published after the 2010 midterm elections, Harvard lecturer and former United Farm Workers organizer Marshall Ganz referenced the leadership theories developed several decades ago by political scientist James MacGregor Burns to explain the difference between Obama’s method for getting elected in 2008 and his philosophy of wielding power once in the White House. Ganz wrote,

    “Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. “Transactional” leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.

    Transformational action favors “moral argument and public education” over cutting narrow deals or “[trying] to mediate in a fractious, divided Washington.” Applying the concept to social movements, rather than individual leaders, transformational campaigns are those designed to dramatize a moral crisis and broadly shift public opinion, rather than to score narrow wins.

    just in the past year, two “culture war” causes that were treated until recently as untouchable have flipped. Immigration reform—thanks to a movement led by outspoken DREAM Act youths—and gay marriage—propelled by persistent advocates who refused to settle for either discrimination or mere civil unions—are now seen as political inevitabilities. In each case, activists did not hang their hopes on euphemisms. They took a polarizing issue, translated vague discontent in their communities into organized political action, and ultimately changed the climate of national debate.

    In the end, the idea that global warming is considered a political loser does not make it unique among progressive causes. After all, issues that are already embraced as winners by elected officials hardly need outside campaigns to push them forward. If there ever was such a time, the moment in which one could plausibly believe that we could solve the climate crisis without uttering its name has passed. We have entered a time that demands a different type of mobilization: the type that will cause discomfort among believers in pre-compromise and will inspire all those who have not yet found an outlet for their concern about the changing climate; the type that is equally plainspoken and rebellious.

    Climate of Change: What Does an Inside-Outside Strategy Mean?

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