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The Politicization of Climate Reignites Environmental Advocates

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency

By Brendon Steele, Future 500

Amid a backdrop of severe and often catastrophic weather events in 2012, the environmental grassroots reignited around climate change. Each calamity heightened public anxiety, and over the year calls for action grew successively bolder. While droughts crippled crops in much of the western U.S., Bill McKibben’s 350.org and its allies orchestrated a consistent slate of climate-oriented campaigns. But, it took Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s strong support of climate action, and the reelection of President Obama to get climate back on the political radar screen.

Certainly, the politicization of climate will direct activism in the next couple of months. Some environmental stakeholders, dismayed by 2012’s climate silence, will look to leapfrog to a zero-carbon economy; others will look for easier wins through the EPA and by pressuring companies to adopt stricter procurement standards.

Climate advocates change strategy

After the failure of Waxman-Markey and the disappointment of Copenhagen in 2009, climate campaigners, who had taken the lead from mainstream eNGOS to pursue an “inside-the-beltway” strategy, felt they neglected to cultivate a strong grassroots base. Four years later, with Bill McKibben having emerged as a charismatic populist leader, NASA scientist James Hansen being arrested in front of the White House, and Mohamed Nasheed—the so-called “Mandela of the Maldives”—inspiring millions in his struggle for democracy and climate justice, the climate grassroots base is solidifying and growing.

In addition, environmental leaders are increasingly savvy about interconnecting energy, water, and food. Several phenomena—the boom in natural gas and shale oil with its conflicts over water, the anti-Keystone XL protests, India’s massive blackout, increasing attention on coal use in China, and biofuel production raising conflicts over food—are all pushing environmentalists toward a longer-term view than ever before. Activist coalitions are being inspired to take direct action, such as through the nascent fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Many corporate targets are, understandably, fossil fuel companies, but major consumer brands will not be immune from the fight. Without federal climate action, corporations from beverage-makers to media conglomerates will feel renewed pressure this year from stakeholders to show climate leadership by avoiding “dirty fuels” and “extreme” energy sources.  All business sectors that are substantive users of fossil fuel energy, from extractors, to shippers, to big-box retailers and even to leading brands, face the risk of grassroots pressure through 2013 to reduce fossil fuel use.

A new Conservative narrative

As Congress began hurdling over the fiscal cliff, climate policy found new life as right-of-center groups and skeptical scientists began to redefine the conservative narrative on climate. Former Berkeley physicist Richard Muller, funded in part by the Koch brothers, came out as a “converted skeptic,” cutting through the ideological divide on climate science at the same time conservative economists and think tanks began cutting through the policy divide.

Taking up the mantle of a revenue-neutral carbon tax—a wonky name for a surprisingly simple concept—as a means to spur innovation and cut emissions without raising taxes, they are forming the roots of a conservative-based approach to concerted climate action. While this movement will probably not hold strong sway in 2013, it is laying the framework for 2014 and beyond.

Building a social movement

More recently, President Obama delivered his boldest support for climate action in his State of the Union address, and environmentalists see promise with John Kerry at the helm of the State Department. But environmental advocates expect clear and decisive action from the President, and soon, with the upcoming decision on the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline seen as a defining test of the Administration’s green credentials.

With the February “Forward on Climate” rally, campaigners turned up the heat. Sierra Club, for the first time in its history, took-up non-violent civil disobedience, equating the struggle against climate change with the fight for Civil Rights and other movements for social change. Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” fossil-fuel divestment push is the most notable campaign, seeking to replicate the passion of 1980s anti-Apartheid campaigners. With exceptions, most colleges and municipalities have resisted the divestment call for now, deeming it unreasonable or unrealistic—but McKibben has inspired thousands across the globe, securing the support of luminaries such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

As the Administration continues to delay the decision on Keystone XL, expect environmental campaigners to keep up the pressure with protests and arrests as well as corporate “name, blame, and shame” campaigns, and for new grassroots activist groups to pop up across proposed pipeline routes, ramping-up infrastructure disruption tactics.

Opportunity amidst discord

Even as the political deadlock in Washington sits entrenched, the wheels of change around it are spinning. At first blush, with activists fired-up and passionate in an atmosphere of political stagnation, ever more discord throughout 2013 and beyond would seem likely.

However, the seeds of future agreement are germinating across different sectors and strands of thought. Environmental advocates are increasingly savvy, strategic and impactful; corporations are internalizing the value of sustainability; political thought is innovating past once-hardened stalemates. Those companies and impassioned advocates that can see this coherence amidst the noisy discord, and harness and align these seemingly disparate voices, will find the opportunity to better themselves, our society, and the planet—demonstrating leadership in even the most contentious environments.

[Image credit: 350.orgSteve Rhodes]

This post was written by Future 500's Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Brendon Steele.

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