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The Next US Climate Strategy: Celebrate the EPA
Alex Steffen, 23 Jul 10

I have a few thoughts about what's next for climate action in the U.S.

In the wake of yesterday's devastating announcement that the U.S. Senate will not be advancing a climate bill, of any kind, there's been a crash of morale across the spectrum of American environmentalists, climate advocates and bright green business types. And, yes, the Senate and the President have shown an extreme degree of moral cowardice on what is one of the most important issues ever to face our nation. Advocates who've spent years of their time and huge portions of their limited resources fighting for a climate bill have every right to be down.

But not to stay down. We already know what the next big battleground in this fight will be: the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, it's worth remembering, has the right -- confirmed by the U.S Supreme Court -- to regulate greenhouse gasses as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. That makes it both our next best hope... and the neoconservatives' next target.

The stakes are high. The EPA has enormous capacity to create change, if the President were to direct it and act boldly. A recent study suggests that better Federal regulations on electricity generation, auto standards, landfills and appliances could spur a 22% reduction in greenhouse gasses by 2030. That figure, however, almost certainly low-balls the Federal government's total capacity to make change, especially if it ties in policies that impact land use and transportation (not just fuel standards for cars). A climate-focused EPA, backed by a clean energy and smart-growth focused Administration, might actually do significantly more to build a thriving bright green economy than a milquetoast climate bill.

That's why the minions of coal, oil and car companies are already gunning for the EPA, and we can bet that we have yet to see the full force of their hate machine turned on the EPA and its allies. That's why it's absolutely critical that the EPA not only be lobbied and pressured, but defended.

The best defense, I think, is celebration. The EPA is a great American institution. It has a terrific, and particularly American, story to tell about leadership in the face of environmental crisis. The EPA should be something every American values. It should be a source of national pride. Attacking the EPA is like stomping on the flag, or should be. That's why the next big fight in the climate war is a cultural one: help the American people fall in love with the EPA.

Because the environmental movement is largely made up of technocrats -- lawyers, scientists, policy activists -- it often forgets the power of story. It needs to relearn, and fast, because this is a moment when policy matters a lot less than narrative.

How the American people react to attacks on the EPA will depend almost entirely on what they think the story of the EPA is. And that is subject to influence. Stories that celebrate the EPA and the Clean Air Act and their heroes and accomplishments can hep people understand why they value what the Agency has achieved (which is, after all, a heroic set of acts, as bold in their inception and for their time as putting a man on the moon).

There's even a fabulous occasion to build on: the coming 40th anniversary of the founding of the EPA (by a Republican, Richard Nixon) on December 2nd, 1970. That's a golden opportunity. The EPA is the nation's environmental defense department, protecting us against pollution and planetary disasters: it ought to be celebrated with flag-waving and fireworks.

There ought to be a nationwide effort to celebrate the EPA and tell memorable stories of its successes. That effort should include strategic communications work in the next few months, pitching magazines and TV shows that have long lead-times to cover the anniversary, and offering helpful resources for telling one of America's greatest success stories. (One thing in particular that ought to be done immediately is gathering interviews with old-guard Republicans who helped create the EPA; getting it on the record that this was a bi-partisan achievement, and something Americans of all stripes can support).

That effort should be followed by funding efforts through all levels of media, down to small-town rural America, to have locally respected figures share stories about things that are better now because the EPA acted then. Money and training should be provided especially to allies in red states to help get the story out. Church groups could be asked to celebrate the kind of caring for the vulnerable and for creation that the EPA represents. Hunting and fishing conservationists could remind their constituencies of the important roles the EPA has played in reducing rural pollution, keeping waterways clean and arguing for the preservation of habitat. There's a lot to value about the EPA even if you're a conservative, rural person.

Major tellings of the EPA story, from a PBS documentary to a Smithsonian show, should be encouraged, pushed, even directly commissioned if needed. Talks should be scheduled. Op-eds by leading thinkers solicited and placed. Holding the nation's intellectual high ground still matters, especially in parts of red state America where hipper, more urban media have no reach.

Popular ideas channels should be courted. How about a "TEDxEPA" for the first week in December? How about a multi-group blogging effort putting out a story a day about the EPA, its history and its plans? How about getting the EPA's Twitter feed (I assume it has one) picked as a suggested feed for a month, launching a ten-million-strong fans of the EPA campaign on Facebook, holding a big-prize video competition on YouTube? We've all seen the tactics, but when was the last time we saw them applied to celebrate a government agency?

Emergency efforts ought to be kicked into gear to help university students understand the EPA, and why they should support it. Campus action networks should be organizing everything from birthday parties to academic seminars about the EPA this fall. Those of us who are a bit older need to remember that for today's college students, the founding of the EPA is ancient history, happening sometime between the emancipation proclamation and the emergence of Lady Gaga. They need to be given stories that help them understand why the EPA, and more importantly, the American environmental movement as a whole, is on their side.

A rapid-response network should be set in place to counter right wing lies about the EPA, to keep pressure on editors and journalists who run stories that lack integrity, to counter the Carbon Lobby's latest talking points quickly.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Cultural outreach. Storytelling. Ideas-sharing. Celebration. Artistic competitions. Most of all, a huge strategic communications effort, starting yesterday, to brand the EPA as a great American institution on the side of the little guy: a patriotic success story about protecting average Americans and their kids from corporate polluters.

Bullet-proof the EPA with the love of the American people, and we may avoid a climate catastrophe yet.

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We could easily mitigate carbon without ever even mentioning carbon dioxide.

This seems to be becoming more an issue of proving who's right and wrong, rather than a deliberation about how to best protect Earth's living systems.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 29 Jul 10

The climate strategy should really not be focused on promoting the EPA, but rather getting the word out, at how much of a danger we are all in from this current climate change. If people do not understand the severity of the ecological problems in our society, they never will promote the EPA or a climate strategy, at all.
Joe A.

Posted by: Joe from California on 29 Jul 10

People love comfort, Corps. love to sell them that... and if Governments love its People, they should have Agents who love to help all of these and those Agents will be loved by their People auto magically... :)

Posted by: Kris on 30 Jul 10

TO be honest, rather than make an environmental environment, why don't juts give donation to a countries that have a lot of rain forest such as Indonesia and Brazil? i mean, all countries in the world rely on that countries to fight the global warming. We can't let them only fight by them self, me must help.

Posted by: Frederik on 8 Aug 10

Great idea, Alex. Clearly the EPA is an important leverage point.

Posted by: Andrew Gaines on 9 Aug 10


Thanks for this foresight and this encouragement to integrate fighting/defending within celebrating/thriving!

I love this kind of thinking = it's simply so preposterous (in a totally cool way : ) that it just might work = help us fun loving humans evolve without making much more of a mess.

With respect for your heads up on this need for terrifically tenacious defense given what some of the criminally insane among us "gunning for the EPA" &/or "hate machine turned on the EPA" are likely to do, I agree that celebrating just might be necessary enroute to some seriously epic wins. Got anything better to do? I don't think so ...

Anyhow, a mindset that's open to changing the general rules of this game (including the rules of engagement : ) may prove a valuable human resource. More specifically, and for the purpose of actually implementing tenacious D, something like the influence gained from appreciating successful fighting dynamics as evident via Tai Chi, Aikido, etc. (as well as other means of resolving conflict more non-violently : ) may prove a means for focusing such a resourceful mindset.

As just one example, a principle like non-resistance in hand-to-hand combat often proves quite effective in hastening one's opponent's face-first nose-dive straight into the mat. Let's celebrate best practices in rapid response defending the common sense of protecting this environment that's in fact, home for all of us.

I trust you catch my drift ...



Posted by: paul h on 11 Aug 10

If only Mr Obama would have balls to support's a great non-profit organisation that can raise the population awareness.
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Posted by: Bryce Littell on 23 Aug 10

If you consider what even the smaller EU nations like Portugal have done to address renewable energy development, it underscores how sadly far behind we in the US are. As a percentage of GNP, our federal spending for green technology development is far lower than other developed countries. Look at what tiny Portugal has done with a $22 billion dollar investment that has paid for itself and produces green electricity.

Posted by: Michael Grossman on 23 Aug 10

Take a glance at the EPA's current Facebook fan page and you'll see the sad state that it is in. People are venting misinformed frustration all over the comments section. I'd recommend bringing this celebration of the EPA over to their Facebook wall, and taking on any hostility you'll probably encounter. A little bit of sanity, reason, and ninja skills is all it takes.

Posted by: Jonny on 3 Sep 10

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