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Monday, January 25, 2010

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

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 One of the most left-leaning members of the Senate (RIP) has been replaced by Republican Scott Brown, thus disrupting the Democrats’ majority and the prospects for health and climate legislation.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- “ 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

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

1 comment:

Walker03 said...

No surprise here since Senator Murkowski receives donations from clients of an energy lobbyist. How could she propose to stop the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide emissions. This is a step backwards in regards to fighting climate change. This article was well written and forward-thinking.