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Straight Up: Joe Romm and Bill McKibben Discuss Effective Political Action
Joe Romm, 28 Jul 10

Bill McKibben — some-time guest blogger and the author most recently of the must-read book Eaarth — has a challenging review of my book Straight Up in the Washington Monthly.

He literally challenges me to talk more about political movements on my blog, Climate Progress, such as the one he cofounded, I accept.

Indeed, I issue a challenge of my own to to change its focus and get more political! I’d love to hear your thoughts — and I’m quite sure that McKibben would, too.

So I’ll mostly dispense with the parts in which he explains why you should buy the book if you’re interested in climate or the Web — “this book—a collection of some of his thousands of blog posts—is a good way to think not only about climate but about the uses of the Web” — and cut to his challenge:

In fact, my main dispute with Romm’s work is his relentless focus on Washington….

But Romm’s hyper-realism may ignore more important political possibilities. He’s paid less attention to the emerging popular movement on climate change than to the machinations of the Senate, but if we’re actually going to get change on the scale we need, it’s quite possible it won’t happen without an aggressive, large, and noisy movement demanding that change. And Romm, who would have a good deal of useful things to say to such a movement, hasn’t been very interested. He’s deeply Washington centric. And in that he’s not alone—most of the D.C. green movement has pretty much written off organizing out in the hinterlands in favor of lobbying in the offices of senators and congressmen. The problem with that strategy, though, is that effective lobbying depends on senators and congressmen actually perceiving that there’s some pain involved in doing the easy thing and stalling action. (Pain beyond wrecking the planet—I’m talking real pain, like losing an election.)

Mostly guilty as charged. While I do think I have published more pieces on 350.0rg and protests at coal plants than the status quo media — or even most climate science blogs — I certainly have focused mainly on DC politics, especially in the past couple of years.

As I argued in the book and on Climate Progress in my June 26, 2009 post on the House approving the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy jobs bill:

We do need to savor moments like these, since, as I note in that article [“One Brief Shining Moment for Clean Energy”], given modern conservative ideology, which is 100% anti-conservation, “the country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and [large] Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun.”

Turns out even that isn’t enough.

I couldn’t agree more with McKibben that real politicking requires strong grassroots people who are essentially single issue voters. If there is no political cost to voting against climate action, why would a conservative ever vote for it, given all of the other benefits there are to opposing a price on carbon and clean energy, most notably:

  1. Support from the big fossil fuel companies and other big polluters (in money and lobbying and advertising)
  2. A powerful message to demagogue opponents who are mired in wimpy progressive messaging

Now as far as I can see, isn’t focused on creating a political cost to voting against climate action. If you go to the website, you’ll see this:

I’m not certain how telling world leaders it’s time to put solar on government buildings has a better chance of moving us toward 350 ppm than working as hard as possible to pass some sort of national U.S. climate legislation, even stuff that is too moderate. Nor is it clear what the point is of showing the world the we’re ready for climate solutions. The polls all make clear we’re ready. How does that get you one more vote anywhere for the World-War-II-scale effort needed?

For the record, to have a shot at getting back to 350 ppm this century, we probably need 12-14 wedges — strategies and/or technologies that over a period of a few decades each ultimately reduce projected global carbon emissions by one billion metric tons per year (see technical paper here, less technical one here) — by 2040 if not sooner while shutting down pretty much every traditional coal plant (i.e. those lacking carbon capture and storage) in the world [see "How the World Can (and Will) Stabilize at 350 to 450 PPM: The Full Global Warming Solution"].

Achieving 350 ppm in the lifetime of anybody you know ain’t about half measures or Earth-Day type rallies. Otherwise, is nothing different than, or

Now this is not by way of criticism of what McKibben has accomplished in less time than I have been blogging. He’s gotten a lot of people energized. But he ends his challenging review:

I hope the green groups, and Romm as their most important chronicler, regroup and reconsider strategy. It’s not impossible to imagine a mass movement devoted to changing how we handle global warming. Two years ago a few of us formed a campaign called, devoted to spreading the (very critical) news that NASA scientists had set 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide as the most the atmosphere could safely contain. Since we’re already at 390 parts per million, we require urgent action if we’re to scramble back below the red line. Last fall, managed to pull off 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 181 countries, what CNN called the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” Still, that movement remains in its infancy and still finds too-scant support from D.C.’s green groups.

In some larger sense, it’s a reminder that blogging needs to work hard to escape the hermetic seal of the Web. The promise is that the Web will serve as a window open to the world, and Romm serves that promise well; but writing about politics will never replace the need for actually doing politics.

Well, CNN may have called it “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” but what political action actually occurred?

I myself saw over 100,000 rally for climate and clean energy action on Earth Day, but what political action occurred? What is the difference between a big rally and a blog — other than the carbon footprint and the music?

Here’s my challenge to McKibben and — let’s see some real political action! No, I’m not going to put the burden of passing a climate bill this year on — the politics and the politicians for that are basically set in stone.

But let’s see you help kill Proposition 23, the battle over California’s climate law that pits extremist anti-science polluters against bipartisan support for the clean energy economy. If that wins, it’s gonna be mighty hard to convince anybody we have a shot at 450 ppm, let alone 350. And the margin of victory counts. Help kill it by more than 10 points. Make it politically untenable to support such initiatives, so we don’t see similar ones cropping up everywhere.

And no, you don’t need to have the US focus. There are a couple of other countries that are flailing around politically right now in need of a backbone. Canada and Australia come to mind.

Holding rallies about solutions will never replace the need for actually doing the messy business of electing politicians who support tough climate laws and defeating those who oppose them. It will never stop emissions from going straight up.

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on Joe's excellent blog Climate Progress, where it triggered a great conversation in the comments section between Bill McKibben and Joe Romm and others.

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This subject is as important as any we might consider and it raises a question that has been the source of great frustration to me and, I'm sure, to many others.

In the United States, alone, there are countless organizations dedicated, in one way or another, to protecting and cleaning up "the environment", McKibben's a good example. The question I keep asking and that's never answered satisfactorily - why on Earth don't these organizations and the millions of individuals they represent unite to form a single organization, the specific purpose of which would be to prosecute that "effective political action" Mr. Romm rightly argues is so important?

We all know the grave ramifications of an inadequate response to climate change. We know of the special interests wanting to maintain the status quo, and that they are buying off our political representatives. We know that it will take lots of voters, a "critical mass", if you will, to inluence of our government to act responsibly with regard to climate change.

Yet, despite knowing these simple and obvious facts, those organizations intent on protecting our environment continue to act, at least for the most part, as individual and distinct entities with, I suggest, little to no coordination and even less meaningful impact on climate change legislation or executive policy. We only need to look at the incredibly irresponsible "handling" of climate change legislation and executive policy in recent months by this Congress and this Pesident, to understand how ineffective the organizations I'm discussing here have ultimately been.

Unless we have a focused and aggressive political agenda, prosecuted by a single entity created specifically to organize and to represent that critical mass of environmentally minded organizations and keenly interested voters, America's response to climate change will continue to be way too little, way too late.

Mr. Romm, Mr. McKibben, how about you two "movers and shakers" getting something like this started, and pronto? I believe there are millions of folks out here, just like me, who will enthusiastically unite behind just such a movement. They will do so because they will understand that achieving and acting in critical mass will be the only thing to get our country pointed in the right direction and acting responsibly to address climate change.

Posted by: austintatious on 29 Jul 10

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