Al Gore’s Nobel Prize was a momentous event we should all applaud. Now it is time to move on and get smart about the climate movement’s next steps. First, we should deal with some of our own inconvenient truths: global warming continues to rank extremely low among voter priorities, and Congress is going nowhere fast. The question we should ask ourselves is, how can the climate movement retool its politics for the post-Gore era?
It is high time for global warming activists to leave behind their focus on the “planetary crisis” and the regulatory-centered agenda, and embrace an energetic and inspiring vision that captures people’s minds, hearts and votes.
Despite last year’s “tipping point” in public attitudes toward climate change, Pew polls find that it still ranks dead last among voter concerns. It is of little surprise, then, that the Washington Post recently ran a front-page article titled “Climate Is a Risky Issue for Democrats.” Nor is it surprising that the best provisions of today’s congressional energy bill would still allow U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to grow 22 percent by 2030, effectively making the recommendations of the world’s leading scientists unattainable.
One of the most hopeful signs is young activists, who are already making the breakthroughs necessary to build an expansive climate movement. The Campus Climate Challenge has rapidly grown to include over 500 colleges and achieved hundreds of innovative clean energy policies across the country. Power Shift 2007, the first-ever national youth summit on global warming, drew 6,000 students to Washington, D.C., last weekend and featured guests ranging from Nancy Pelosi to Van Jones. Indeed, the youth movement is quickly becoming the largest and most influential student movement in nearly a half century.
How can young activists best capture the moment? Thomas Friedman offered some ideas in his recent op-ed, “Generation Q.” He said that today’s young adults are “too quiet, too online, for [their] own good, and for the country’s own good.” We’ve got to wake up, he said, and reform our tactics: “Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall.”
But Friedman is mistaken. It is easy to get nostalgic for the ’60s, but the direction of today’s youth movement must be profoundly different from that of the baby-boomer era. Vietnam was about stopping a war. Civil rights were about equalizing freedoms. The energy and climate movement, in contrast, is about creating an entirely new clean energy economy — a fundamentally different undertaking that requires us to transcend the models of the past.
The “old-fashioned” tactics of protest, demand and complaint just aren’t enough. Global warming is one of the most complex challenges the world has ever faced, vastly different from those of the 1960s. It calls upon us to innovate, politically and economically, at an unprecedented scale. Our politics must be retooled, not only to achieve immediate policy changes but to create new and lasting political majorities. And instead of constraining our economy, we need to unleash it, driving our engineers, scientists and manufacturers to hone their skills and knowledge, and put these forces to work toward building the next energy economy.
A powerful climate movement — one capable of capturing the public imagination, defining new political identities and fully unleashing our economy — should put forth an even stronger vision of American greatness than the neoconservatives once offered. It must tap the optimism and can-do spirit embedded in our nation’s history that has driven us to overcome the daunting crises of the past. “A new story of American Power begins by acknowledging what our country is great at: imagining, experimenting and inventing the future,” argue Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of Break Through. “First we dream — and then we invent.”
An “American Power” program would advance a massive public investment project — $300 billion to $500 billion — to develop and deploy clean energy technology, revitalize the economy, achieve energy independence and create millions of new jobs. Its politics would thus begin from a position of strength — innovation, economic growth and national security — speaking to the aspirations and securities that we all value as our birthright. And it would renew America’s global leadership by dedicating us to responsible energy use and creating drastically cheaper forms of clean technology for the developing world.
The opportunity for such a resounding vision couldn’t be greater. The failure of the Iraq War and the collapse of the Bush presidency have left the American public hungry for an inspiring message that gives us new direction. Redefining American greatness around our inventiveness can unite us behind a common purpose, invigorating us to unleash our forces of innovation.
Today the climate movement faces a choice. As it begins to emerge from the margins of the national debate, it can revitalize itself to become potent and expansive, or it can continue to define itself by an old-fashioned activism. Whether the movement will fully seize the moment is uncertain. But one thing is clear: Young people must begin advancing a new politics if we are to overcome this challenge and achieve a more secure and prosperous future.