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Where's Global Warming on the U.S. Political Agenda?
Emily Gertz, 22 Aug 07
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Eco-bloggers multiplying like bunnies; bamboo (the new eco-correct fiber) in nearly everything money can buy; Leo DiCaprio succeeding Al Gore as this year's big screen prophet of global warming. With all this latest attention to green, you'd be forgiven for thinking that environmental concerns have finally seeped into the consciousness of everyday America.

I'm not so sure.

Environmental issues, particularly global warming, might be showing up in spheres as seemingly unlikely as corporate boardrooms and shareholder meetings, and the Evangelical Christian movement. But they haven't been much in evidence at this year's umpty-ten presidential candidate forums and debates. Historically, environmental issues are non-starters in presidential campaign politics, falling well below issues like the economy and national security in voter's concerns. So if the candidates are not talking about climate change now, over a year before the election, it's unlikely to become a central issue next year when the campaign is underway in earnest.

In Monday's issue of The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof blamed
global warming's absence from the nation's mainstream politics in part on fellow journalists:

I can’t help feeling that we in the news media are part of the reason that steps to battle climate change aren’t on top of the national agenda. We’re good at covering things that happen on any one day — like a tornado or hurricane — but weak at covering complex trends, like climate change. And we tend to cover disputes by having a dutiful quote from each side, without always explaining where the scientific consensus lies.

That rings true for much climate change news coverage of the past 20-odd years (and environmental journalists will tell you that almost any enviro-beat story is a hard sell with the average editor). But lately there's been some great reporting, such National Public Radio's global warming series, last year's prize-winning Altered Oceans series in the Los Angeles Times, and a host of other stories and series on television and radio, and in print.

So where's the missing link between popcult phenomenon and policy imperative? Maybe it's in grassroots party politics. Right now, the presidential wannabes are working hard to consolidate and sustain support in the most activist parts of their constituencies, with the people who care enough to get involved now in a candidate's campaign, and who'll be sure to participate in the straw polls and turn out for the primaries.

In my experience, eco-activists are contrarians. They're not the most likely people to get involved in party politics at any level, preferring to work for change from outside the system -- the Naderite mantra of the 1970's-80's. Once upon a time, I was one of those people myself.

But anyone who wants global warming on the national agenda may want to look to the not-distant past for a demonstration of how this strategy can backfire. In the early 1990s, with the Pacific Northwest "timber wars" in full swing, the movement to preserve ancient forests seemed unstoppable: the Spotted Owl got listed as an endangered species, ultimately locking up hundreds of acres of pristine forests; Clinton and Gore took the White House; the logging industry seemed to be in retreat. But by 1996 or so, forest advocates were back in the trenches, back to saving the forests seemingly one logging permit at a time. By and large, the ancient forest movement stayed outside the system, including local party politics...and lost influence when their allies in statehouses and Congress lost re-election campaigns.

I still get to be a contrarian, because now I'm a journalist, and the ethics of the profession demand that I observe and report rather than join. But I hope today's eco-advocates are updating their mantras to reach out to grassroots party activists, and maybe even dig into the dirt themselves.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Comments

Change driven from outside the system isn't all tree-sits and Naderites.

Focus the Nation is organizing the largest teach-in ever for January 31st of next year and we're inviting politicians and candidates to join us in examining the solutions and committing to pursuing them. From our grounding in academic institutions, we'll have the potential to reach millions of people and fundamentally shift the national dialog from concern and controversy to resolve and solutions.

You can learn more on our website: focusthenation.org


Posted by: Ben Hubbird on 23 Aug 07

Change driven from outside the system isn't all tree-sits and Naderites.

Focus the Nation is organizing the largest teach-in ever for January 31st of next year and we're inviting politicians and candidates to join us in examining the solutions and committing to pursuing them. From our grounding in academic institutions, we'll have the potential to reach millions of people and fundamentally shift the national dialog from concern and controversy to resolve and solutions.

You can learn more on our website: focusthenation.org


Posted by: Ben Hubbird on 23 Aug 07

Emily, I enjoyed your article. From my prospective for there to be a real change everyone has to get on board- Democrats and Republicans. The issue is bigger than what party you belong to. In my opinion the canditate that stands up and realizes that will be greatly rewarded. :)


Posted by: Shawn Lesser on 24 Aug 07

You being a journalist, you should very well know why Naderites and their ilk exist. We can't get anything done in the Big Two parties if they're going to drop us like a hot potato every time we say something that makes them uncomfortable. I've seen the same trend with other issues such as sexism and racism. We have TRIED working with the major parties. The Democrats in the early nineties worked with green folks just long enough to get Clinton and Gore into office and then all of a sudden didn't need us anymore. So our concerns were not heard, or were not heard enough. So it was back to the drawing board again.

Or don't you remember Clinton's penchant for working with the GOP on unsavory issues rather than digging in his heels? I remember the government shutdown, yes, but that was an exception, not the general rule. Some say he's the best Republican president we've ever had, actually.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that's the real reason Gore didn't get the White House in 2000. If the election hadn't been as close as it was, Bush's cronies and supporters wouldn't have been able to cheat his way in. Nader's measly less-than-five-percent wouldn't have mattered. We'd be having a different conversation right now. But after eight years of watering down what the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for, it really WAS Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And now we're seeing more of the same in this so-called Democratic majority Congress.

Fix the Democratic Party and we'll see the point in working within it again. Continue letting the GOP define the terms of the debate and doing nothing particularly constructive to fight it and... well... We might as well go outside the party, because it won't be any *less* effective in the end. And we'll get more positive work done because there won't be someone standing over our collective left shoulder going "Uh, that's going to cost us votes..."


Posted by: Dana on 24 Aug 07

"Fixing the Democratic Party" is a really imprecise goal; I can't respond to that. It implies that at some point in the past, there was a "pure" Democratic Party, that the process of compromise, influence and counter-influence in party politics are only recent developments.

And as for conjecturing why Al Gore lost the 2000 election -- I'd recommend the book "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise" by Michael Grunwald for a good look at Gore campaign missteps that cost him crucial votes in Florida, with or without GOP foul play.

You're talking about the top down, Dana. I'm talking about the bottom up. I will speak from what I've observed in the past:

In the 1990's, in Oregon (where I lived from 1991 to 2000), there was a constituency opposed to equal treatment under the law for the rights of gays and lesbians, as well as the introdution of materials that taught tolerance (in the broader sense of the word) for gay sexuality into public schools.

If I remember correctly, these people failed to get the changes they wanted via advocacy from the outside for such laws at the state or federal level.

So, they changed their strategy. They ran for for office at the local level: school boards, town councils, local representation in state government, etc. They did pretty well at that. And from these influential positions at the grassroots of local and regional party activism, they more successfully promoted their agenda via local laws and ballot initiatives.

I don't hear often enough of people concerned for our current and future ecological sustainability taking the same approach. I'd love to report on it those who are in a future column. Email me, people!

Thanks for the pointer to Focus the Nation, Ben.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 24 Aug 07

I think we have to invest in the young activists who are tackling global warming. We have huge, well funded non-profits that are so tied into knots about policy and what is possible that they suck the air out of a lot of other promising activism. Bloggers have built their own system and have been conducting the 'silent revolution' unaided. Perhaps envirobloggers can do the same thing, if we don't get bogged down on which organic granola to buy. That is what we are trying to do at www.itsgettinghotinhere.org.


Posted by: Richard Graves on 28 Aug 07



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