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Climate Change & Politics
Americans have an uncanny ability to politicize almost anything. You can be sure that once politics enters a discussion, no matter how important or complex the subject may be, it’s all downhill from there. There is no better example than the nation’s debate (or perhaps more accurately, lack of debate) over climate change. What began as a serious scientific inquiry into the state of our planet and it’s future has devolved into political theater. A question that cries out for sober and thoughtful inquiry has been reduced to the level of professional wrestling. I’m talking old school, WWF, good guys vs. bad guys wrestling. So, while the rest of the civilized world is engaged in an intelligent analysis of climate change and its potential implications, here in the U.S. we’ve turned the consideration of this issue into the equivalent of a steel cage match between Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham.
In politics, stupidity is not a handicap-Napoleon Bonaparte
A recent documentary in the PBS series Frontline entitled Climate of Doubt did a far better job of showing exactly how the issue of climate change became politicized and eventually neutralized as an issue than I could ever do here. You can watch the show online here and it is well worth the hour you will spend. We consider ourselves an educated and progressive society, yet our actions indicate just the opposite. You may find a lot of what you see in this documentary aggravating or disturbing but nothing should be more disquieting than the statement ” the politics have gotten to the point where people just don’t want to listen to science”. That alone should send a chill down your spine.
The course that the debate over climate change has taken is just another sorry episode in modern American politics. The notion that a scientific question has a political answer, or more precisely, a partisan political answer, is insulting and dangerous. Basically, the polarization of factions in our country has made it acceptable to reject logic and reason because your political opponents have embraced them. Combine this with a concerted public relations effort made by special interests, namely the powerful oil and gas industry, who stand to suffer some degree of financial harm if the U.S. takes suggested measures in response to the threat of climate change, and we have a situation where scientific inquiry has been reduced to just another opportunity to divide the electorate for the advantage of one side or the other. This is mass national derangement.
The frightening part of this debate is that we have evidence that climate patterns are changing. What we don’t have is conclusive proof that these changes are either induced by human behavior or not part of the normal climate cycles that the Earth undergoes periodically. We just haven’t been able to accumulate enough scientific data over a long enough period of time to come up with answers to those questions with absolute certainty. We also have not had the capability to measure and analyze complex atmospheric dynamics for a long enough period of time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Further, the evidence that we do have, including analysis of ancient deep ice core samples, sure does seem to point in the direction that something unusual is happening and that we have a hand in it.
The ability to exploit this uncertainty has been a boon for the climate change deniers. Combine this with the fact that Democrats were quick to react to climate science and the stage was set for a partisan split. After all, in today’s political world, if Democrats are for it, then Republicans have to be against it. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. 85% of Democrats, compared with 48% of Republicans felt that there was substantial evidence of climate change. Its amazing. Political affiliation can account for a nearly 40% difference of opinion on a scientific matter. You can check out the full text of the Pew report here. Do you think we could get a similar split of opinion if Democrats came out supporting a study that found that gravity exists?
One of the principles that Jefferson, Madison, Adams and the rest of the men who founded this country wanted to guide our national affairs was the belief and reliance on science and reason. I guess they never accounted for the toxic effects of partisan politics. However, the cynical manipulation of public opinion, primarily for the benefit of a very few, is something quite different. It speaks more to a national failure of critical thinking skills and a pervasive sentiment that the present is more important than the future. As bad as the effort to influence public opinion for political or monetary gain may be, our national susceptibility to that kind of control may be even worse. My, how little we have progressed. It’s hard to believe this is the same country that sent men to the moon and has successfully landed mobile probes on Mars.
This approach is the road to nowhere. We are faced with some real policy challenges and threats that may rise to the level of endangering modern civilization. Yet we are paralyzed by a partisan debate. It’s depressing. Whether or not you believe climate change has anthropogenic origins, you should understand that responding and adjusting to things like sea-level rise, changes in precipitation patterns and threats to the food supply are necessary and responsible. Whether or not you believe climate change is even occurring, reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and atmospheric pollution still make sense. Instead we end up addressing none of these issues. Lost in a nonsensical debate over the politics of the situation, we go around in circles while events progress. With a nod to the Talking Heads I suggest that you click here and allow this song to play while you read this article, it should at least put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate what a foolish course we are choosing as a nation. We have got to get past the politics that divide us.
We have got to demand better from our politicians. The good news in that Pew poll was that over 2/3 of Americans do believe that climate change is taking place. That means our national inaction on this issue is motivated by less than 1/3 of the population. That’s unacceptable. We need to stand up for science and reason. We need to require our representatives to get beyond partisanship and take action, or we need to get new representatives. If we are the educated and thoughtful country that we believe ourselves to be, we will do this. If science and reason really do guide our course of conduct we will take the necessary measures to respond to the threat of climate change. If not, then we haven’t really progressed much from the superstitious Dark Ages and we deserve that fate that awaits us. But I’m an optimist and I’m betting that this is not the future that we should expect. However, it isn’t going to just happen. We need to take an active role in creating change and we need to start now.
The Presidential Debates are over. The election is two weeks away. Conspicuous, by its absence, has been any mention of environmental issues during this campaign. Not a discussion of policy differences. Not a debate over environmental protection or regulations. Heaven forbid, not a word about climate change. Not a peep from the pundits. Nothing! The discussion of environmental issues has not merely been marginalized in the current election cycle, it has been excluded.
Oh, the environment has been a bit player in the campaign. A mention of green jobs here. Used as a scare tactic there. The environment has been exploited in the pejorative sense when candidates are talking about jobs in coal country or “energy independence” in terms of oil and gas drilling. In the fight for votes in the all-important swing states, protecting the environment has no role. You would almost think that we have solved the great environmental challenges facing our country. We can move on to other more pressing matters and leave the annoying and vexing questions about the environment in our rear-view mirror.
Sadly, this is an indicator of just how far environmental protection has slipped in the hierarchy of political issues. Demonized by one major political party, abandoned by the other, the environment is an issue that has lost its patrons in the nation’s political leadership. In the cynical world of modern politics, attention to the environment produces neither the votes nor the money to warrant serious attention during the election cycle. We are left trying to deduce where candidates stand and hope that we can make an educated guess regarding which candidate will best serve environmental issues if elected. That’s a heck of a predicament.
To paraphrase the old man in A Christmas Story, What has brought us to this lowly state? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. There are some prime suspects. The difficult economy makes job creation a priority and environmental protection seem like a luxury. There is the obscene amount of money pumped into the electoral system, particularly from anti-environmental business interests, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission. A false debate over climate change has, to a great extent, neutralized it as an effective political issue. No matter what the root cause might be, the more pressing issue is that we are here. And, accepting where we are, the most important question becomes “what are we going to do about it?”
Where do we start? The scope of the task can seem daunting and there certainly seems to be far more questions than answers when it comes to figuring this out. However, we can’t be paralyzed by the sheer difficulty of the challenge. It was never politically acceptable for a candidate to be an opponent of protecting the environment. There may have been substantial policy disagreements between candidates over the nature and extent that environmental protections should take, but it was never O.K. to ignore the environment. It’s a sad state of affairs when Richard Nixon looks like an environmental champion when compared to most current day politicians. So task number one is clearly holding elected officials accountable for their positions, or lack of them, on environmental issues.
The days of the free pass for politicians, regardless of political affiliation, need to be over. There needs to be a renewed respect, not only for the protection of the environment, but for the political power of environmental issues. At first glance this may seem an impossibility. How can a sector of the electorate that is primarily characterized by enthusiastic, but chronically disjointed and underfunded champions make an impact? How can you fight the powerful monied interests that have captured the electoral process, particularly at the national level? How can you fight the financial power of the Koch Brothers and Super Pacs? The answer certainly lies in solidarity, organization, cooperation and pooling of resources and the power of the message and information. But it goes a little deeper than that. With a closely divided electorate, where one or two percentage points are everything, incremental shifts in support between candidates can have monumental consequences. If environmental issues are perceived to have the potential of changing a substantial enough block of votes, they will garner attention. Making candidates understand that the edge they seek may lie in adequately addressing environmental concerns is not a far-fetched goal. It can be achieved and, because of the importance of moving the needle of support just a little, can actually negate a good deal of the influence of the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the election system by special interests. This can be accomplished on a very modest budget.
Making it clear that environmental protection is a bi-partisan issue is another important factor. Can you imagine a debate where the two candidates spend time going toe-to-toe trying to demonstrate which of them is a better choice for promoting protection of the environment? People who consider themselves environmentalists are well-aware of the importance of environmental issues and the long-term consequences of the continued failure to solve or prolonged neglect of the problems we are facing. Transferring that knowledge to political candidates, and translating it to political positions on issues, should not be a heavy lift. Raising awareness of environmental issues with the non-environmental voter is just as important. Making the environmental vote a sought after commodity is a big part of establishing the value of environmental issues. On a very basic level, protecting the environment is the right thing to do. Making it also the politically expedient thing to do is the key to success. No candidate, regardless of party, should be comfortable either neglecting the environment or taking positions that are detrimental to protecting the environment. This will not happen unless voters and candidates both value environmental issues and there are rewards, or consequences, for positions on those issues.
We’re a little late in the game right now for environmental issues to play a meaningful part in the electoral outcome. That doesn’t mean that an effort shouldn’t be made during the last two weeks of the campaign to demand responses from the candidates to important questions like climate change, air and water quality, resource extraction and other problems that we face as a nation. Thoughtful and intelligent consideration of positions on these issues by candidates should be a minimum requirement, regardless of where they may ultimately stand. However, with the debates over and the points of contention having already been defined, the prospects of the environment becoming a meaningful part of the debate are slim. One thing that should be clear, however, is that this must be the last election where environmental interests are not a major part of the political discussion. Left to their own devices, the candidates will not gravitate to this area of policy on their own. The issues are too complex and the answers too difficult for them to venture into the difficult realm of environmental policies without encouragement or the prospect of political reward.
The consequences of continued neglect of the environment are real and potentially grave. The environmental community needs to solve the puzzle of making environmental politics a factor in our electoral process and they need to come up with the answer sooner, rather than later. When it comes to policy, if you take care of the future, the present tends to take care of itself. Getting our focus on the future and adequately addressing environmental issues as part of that strategy can define our generation. We need to get the “missing” environment off the milk carton and into the mainstream of political discussion. Ultimately, it will be how our generation will be judged. -Ben Spinelli
Language of the Disconnect
Environmental advocates are generally smart, committed, passionate, devoted to their particular causes and, unfortunately, terrible communicators. This is a problem because when it comes to politics, communication is everything. If environmental issues are going to have an impact in the political process, they need to be communicated in a clear, concise and effective manner or they will be inconsequential in the final analysis. The environmental community is behind the curve in disseminating their messages in a politically savvy manner and the result is a disconnect with the broader electorate.
Why is this an issue? The answer is complex and lies partially with the personality and character of environmental advocates, partially with the nature of the public at-large and partially with the media world we live in today. No matter what the cause, the inability to connect voters with environmental issues is a problem. Politicians and policy makers respond to influence. If environmental groups want to have political leaders respond to their issues, they need to establish influence with the voting public. The environmental message needs to resonate with voters. Whether it is put in terms of public health, protection of resources, recreational opportunities, or any of the other important environmental issues, the environmental narrative should have broad appeal. The environmental message is a good one and policy success is important to our future. Communication of the message is the first and most important step towards wielding the political weight that these issues warrant.
The first part of the analysis is to look at the approach that many environmentalists take in addressing their concerns. Environmental advocates are very good at speaking to other environmentalists. They are not as good when speaking to “outsiders”. They are motivated by an earnest and sincere belief in their cause. However, there is an almost evangelical zeal among a great many members of the environmental community that comes with that ‘true believer” mentality. They are right, their cause is just and that is the end of the story. Whether spoken or implicit, there is an underlying impression that environmentalists feel that nobody cares about the planet and it’s future as much as they do. There is a lack of ability, or willingness, to see the world beyond the environmentalists’ universe. In the end, they would rather be right than effective.
The narrow demographics that characterize the modern American environmental movement are partly at the root of the communications gap. The environmental community is dominated by well-educated suburbanites and the nature of the messages emanating from the environmental sector reflect that to a large degree. We live in a complex and diverse society and, as a whole, environmental interests do not mirror the broad spectrum of the population. That lack of diversity doesn’t just extend to racial and ethnic diversity, but to political, economic and age diversity as well. The combination of certitude and narrow perspective manifests itself in messaging that misses the mark when it comes to appealing to a wide audience.
There is a broad perception that environmentalists are elitist snobs. They are seen as people who are never satisfied with any achievement or accomplishment unless it is done their way; that they will get 90% of what they want and complain about the 10% they didn’t get. Environmentalists have been portrayed as caring more about trees or animals than people. These views may be somewhat harsh, but they have also been earned. Before you say, “that’s not me”, realize that this idea did not materialize from thin air. Anyone failing to recognize that this has become a widely accepted assessment of environmental advocates, and that this take on the messengers of the environmental cause taints the message, proceeds at their own peril. The first order of business must be changing this perspective.
We can debate the fallacy of ad hominem attacks all we want. The fact remains that people, especially in the political realm, respond to them. The inability of environmental groups to build coalitions that include urban, rural and conservative members who have a shared concern for the environment, even though it may be based upon very different criteria or motivations, is a serious problem. All the good intentions in the world are meaningless when the message is subject to collateral attack. The insular nature of the modern American environmental movement has created a vulnerability to this type of assault. It doesn’t matter if it is right or wrong, it exists and needs to be addressed.
The communications failure of the environmental movement has as much to do with the message as it does about the messenger. The second level of analysis needs to be the manner in which the environmental message is crafted. Environmentalists like to talk about their issues in technical terms or in a way that matters primarily to them. The value of the environmental message can be diluted or masked by the language with which it is communicated. Often, the environmental message is couched in either specialized jargon or presented in a manner that fails to connect with average people. When an environmental message is communicated in an esoteric manner its recognized importance is diminished. Issues delivered with an emphasis on TMDL’s or Parts per Million get lost in today’s communication overload. Likewise, when impacts of actions are described in terms of threatened or endangered species or habitat loss, the direct impact to the human population as a whole is lost, even though we know that there are costs to society that result from damage to the world’s ecosystem. It just doesn’t register with most people.
Environmental issues need to be communicated in terms that reach the broadest possible demographic and need not be directed at other environmentalists. Emphasis should be placed on “how this affects you”. The more personal connections that can be made between environmental policies and individuals, the better received and more effective the message will be. The ultimate goal is not to speak to other environmentalists, but to a much larger segment of the population. Environmentalists need to learn to speak in plain terms and in a narrative that demonstrates the real consequences of bad environmental policies in a way that people can identify with.
An important concept to remember is that everyone is drawn to environmental issues for different reasons. They may not view environmental issues with the same priority as advocates. Beyond motivations, there will also be a myriad of different factors that personalize a particular issue in a different way for different people. Judgement of the motivations of potential allies is of little value. Finding the ways to connect the message with as broad an audience as possible is the key element of expanding influence. Protecting resources and the environment is as much about safeguarding them from the excesses of modern society as it is about conserving them for the use, enjoyment and benefit of people. Finding ways to establish the value of the environment, both spiritual and economic, for the broadest possible audience is essential in order for environmentalists to become both effective communicators and an important political force.
It may be a concern for future generations. It may be as personal as a parent’s worry about their own children. It may be a sense of civic responsibility or even a religious belief in being a good steward of God’s creation. Individual motivations aren’t important beyond understanding that they are a point to establish contact. Clean air and clean drinking water have always been issues of common interest, but there is so much more. It may be an urban mother’s anxiety over her child’s asthma. A fisherman worried about water quality and habitat. It can be a hiker, a hunter, a sailing enthusiast or someone who lives near a toxic waste site or industrial facility. There are literally hundreds of different issues that matter to individuals that seem disparate but share a common theme of environmental protection. Understanding that diverse body of seemingly unrelated interest groups and finding ways to bring them together on environmental issues is a fundamental element for success.
Our methods of communication have changed dramatically in the past 10 years and the environmental movement has had mixed results in adapting to the changing landscape. Environmental issues are complex and don’t easily lend themselves to simplified methods of communication. Additionally, environmental advocates tend to view writing or speaking about these issues as an opportunity to prove their superior grasp of the subject. There is sense that environmental advocates tend to talk down to “outsiders”. Altering the style and form of the environmental message to match the available and most widely used means of communication is a challenge, as is crafting that message in a way that connects on a personal and human level.
The attention span of people has shortened. Our methods of disseminating information have gone from news stories to sound bites to e-mails and finally to text messages and tweets. The world hasn’t gotten any less complicated. Reducing involved concepts to 140 characters or less isn’t necessarily the answer. Certainly mastering the digital world of communications and social media is important. Getting your message through in a crowded media landscape is not an easy task. Something has to set your message apart from the many others that are out there clamoring for attention. However, this is not a call for a “dumbed down” message disseminated with more blogs, tweets, YouTube videos or Facebook pages. Rather, finding a way to use modern media to grab the intellectual attention of an intended audience and draw them into a deeper exploration of issues should be the goal.
What has become lost is the art of personal communications. We talk at or past each other with little or no human connection. This has greater implications when the intent is to try to build coalitions with groups that may not share common political views on issues other than the environment. Trust is an essential part of building relationships. In an increasingly partisan world where people choose their information sources based on what they want to hear, this may seem like an impossible assignment. However, on the positive side, only the most hard-core anti-environmentalists will believe that there is a future in squandering our natural capital. Reaching across political divides to form bonds with a diverse set of people may be difficult, but it may be our only path to salvation.
Protecting our natural resources is important for the environmental, social and economic well-being of our society. That is a message that can and must resonate with a wider audience. If you follow the rule that good policy makes good politics, the path to political influence is there. Environmentalist just need to learn to use the communication methods available to reach people in a way that will allow them to bring themselves on-board with supporting pro-environmental policies because they see the wisdom and benefit of responsible action. Communication has to be made in a personal and approachable manner that connects with people in a way that the broadest possible spectrum of people can understand. Political clout will follow as a consequence.
In The End
This assessment of the environmental community may seem severe. However, the proof is in the results, or more accurately the lack of them. There are a lot of reasons why environmental issues aren’t carrying the political weight they should. The failure to adequately communicate the important message that our political leaders need to enact and follow responsible environmental policies is at the top of the list. The best way to build coalitions and political power is to do so in a non-political way. Establishing areas of agreement and common ground because it’s the right thing to do is where this effort has to start. Someone has to be willing to take the first step towards building the bridges necessary to gain consensus. If not, we will spend election cycle after election cycle staring across the aisle at people who share common interests but just can’t get past other political differences to address them.
There is a real “I believe in science” element to this approach. That goes as much for trusting that following good sound principles will yield positive results in the end as it does for believing that reason and fact will eventually win the day. In the face of the political nonsense that we see every day this may seem like a tremendous leap of faith. However, the elements of success are all there, they just need to be put together in the right way. This evaluation of environmentalists is hard because it has to be. The environmental community needs to raise its level of performance in the political arena by seizing the opportunities that are there. The forces that benefit from exploiting our resources and degrading the environment have certainly learned to communicate in a politically effective manner. If the environmental community does not learn to match these skills there will be consequences. Failure is not an option.
During difficult economic times, protection of the environment drops as a priority in most measures of public opinion as the energy and attention of the population becomes focused on more pressing issues like finding or keeping jobs and caring for families. Special interests and the politicians who serve them are quick to take advantage of these circumstances. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency has come under assault from Congress on many fronts. All environmental regulations now have a new prefix: job killing. Years of progress on things we now take for granted like clean air and clean water are set to be rolled back as powerful industry interests seek to eliminate air and water protections under the guise of economic development. The environmental movement is on the ropes in America’s current political landscape and its time to heed H.G. Wells’ admonition,“Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
Support for individual environmental issues remains strong and public perception of environmental protection remains positive according to a recent Galllup Poll. However, overall support for the environment is declining. Why? Certainly economic circumstances play a significant role in the trend but it goes even deeper than just bad unemployment numbers. The dynamics of politics in the United States have changed. In a post Citizens United world the corrupting flood of special interest money is going to have an effect on both political debate and election results. Political and issue ads fueled by a supply of cash that is, for all intents and purposes, nearly unlimited are overwhelming the American political process. Anyone who doesn’t believe that environmental issues are squarely in the sights of the big money interests had better wake up. The growing cacophony of anti-environmental rhetoric fueled by corporate money is undoubtedly taking a toll on support for environmental protection. So, what’s the plan?
The first step is to take stock of the situation. On the positive side, environmental protection, even with recent declines, still enjoys widespread public support. Threats to the environment still exist. What has changed are the methods of those who profit from reduced environmental protection and the amount of financial resources they can bring to the debate. Environmental advocates need to adjust to the changing world. The place to start is by tapping into the well of public support for environmental issues to demand accountability from elected representatives. Making elected political representatives responsive to the 60%-70% of the electorate who value protecting the environment rather than the small portion of the population who profit from either exploiting the nation’s resources or conducting commercial operations without even reasonable restrictions is a basic element of making environmentalists relevant in the political discussion. The environmental movement as a whole may be doing a credible job of educating the public about issues but they are failing when it comes to translating those issues to policy-making and electoral results. The majority of politicians do not respect environmentalists as a political force. That must change.
Another approach is to go after the nation’s corporate community. In his dissent to the Citizens United decision, Justice John Paul Stevens argued that corporate spending on politics should be viewed as a business transaction designed by the officers or the board of directors for no purpose other than profit-making. He called corporate spending more transactional than ideological. Therein lies the opportunity. Corporations operate by their very nature to maximize profit and return on investment. The model of buying access to politicians who then ease regulations, lower taxes and enable corporate activity at the expense of the environment has been a profitable and effective course. Changing that methodology and providing an alternative where profit lies in responsibility and good citizenship through either positive or negative reinforcement needs to be a viable option. Environmentalists must devise a strategy that can co-opt some of corporate America’s vast resources and direct them towards environmental protection as well pressure corporations to engage in better behavior.
John Cronin, the nation’s first Riverkeeper and the current director of the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries was a pioneer in holding corporations responsible for environmental damage. He took on corporate giants like General Electric and Exxon and held them financially liable for polluting the Hudson River. He has since found ways to partner with corporations and tap into their resources to achieve big gains in cleaning up the environment. This may not be “environmentally pure” in the eyes of many in the environmental sector, but it is effective. Results count and in an increasingly difficult political setting, every avenue should be explored. No, corporations are not people too, my friend, but they are made up of people who presumably support protecting the environment in roughly the same percentage as the public at large. Couple this with the effort and expense that corporations put into burnishing their public image and the opportunity to harness their assets through cooperative efforts should not be passed up.
These are difficult times for environmental advocates. Right now they are out-gunned, out-manned, out-resourced and out-messaged by their opponents. In spite of the apparently dismal circumstances, there are opportunities and the fight is far from over. Whether seen as an inspirational quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi or a call to action from “Bluto” Blutarsky in the film Animal House, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” provides a valuable motto to guide the environmental movement. It has never been considered acceptable to be an anti-environment politician, regardless of political party. It shouldn’t be now. Holding our elected representatives accountable for their actions in these difficult times is essential. Our elected officials need to know that protecting the environment is still a priority. It starts with insuring that there are political consequences for politicians who ignore or oppose reasonable environmental protections.
Likewise, there should be no profit in environmental destruction. A combination of bringing pressure on corporations that potentially affects their profitability and entering into partnerships with companies willing to engage in positive environmental action in a manner that enhances their returns needs to be part of the environmental arsenal. Adapting to the changing political landscape is imperative and right now that means fighting for what you believe in with every available method. Failure to make appropriate changes to the advocacy methods of the environmental community will surely result in continued free-fall into political irrelevance despite continued threats to our resources and in spite of the substantial public support that still exists. After 40 years of successes and failures, the modern environmental movement is in the fight of its life and there will be real consequences if , as a whole, those involved in protecting our quality of life by protecting the environment are not up to the battle. The exact methods to engage in this strategy can be left for another day. Right now its time to fight.