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The Resurgence of an Evolving Climate Movement, Part 1

Ken Wu is executive director of Majority for a Sustainable Society (MASS) and co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance. Read Part 2 of this series here.

After years of apathy and political inertia, North America’s climate sustainability movement has found itself in the midst of a timely resurgence, as is evident by the recent massive expansion of Bill Mckibben's 350.org movement against the Keystone XL pipeline.

With climate change regaining its footing as a central political issue, now is the time to pressure governments to enact the needed laws, policies, and agreements required to curtail runaway global warming. But unless the moment is seized right, climate action will be stymied again – and there is no time to wait for another opportunity.

During his State of the Union address on February 12, 2013, US President Barack Obama stated:

"For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change…We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late."
 
Recent studies project that the Earth’s average temperature is on course to rise over four degrees this century, far beyond the two degree rise when “runaway” global warming kicks-in due to positive feedbacks that make it extremely difficult to halt.

The question now is if the climate movement will grow strong enough, fast enough, to ensure sufficient government regulations, carbon pricing, policies, and international agreements to stop runaway global warming.

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The climate movement faces two likely obstacles when tackling global warming issues today: PR pushback from the fossil fuels industry and the movement’s own internal shortcomings. Addressing these issues simultaneously will require a broad-based response that coordinates political action, positive solutions and a smart economic emphasis.

Understanding the Obstacles
 
It’s important to recognize that the climate movement will have to face up to the influence of industry profit. Highly coordinated campaigns designed by Big Oil and their political backers are crafted to influence both public understanding of complex issues as well as policy creation.

Recent research, for example, has uncovered the efforts of the Koch brothers, US oil industry billionaires, to deny the scientific legitimacy of global warming, to dismantle regulatory bodies like the US Environmental Protection Agency, and to paralyze action on climate change at the international level.
 
In Canada, campaigns like Ethical Oil and the federal government’s depiction of environmentalists as ‘foreign funded’ ‘extremists’ both operate like the larger climate denial machine, which distracts and detracts from fact-based arguments by calling the credibility of environmental organizations, or individuals, into question.

But you’ll also hear a number of other arguments that seem to be becoming standard fare in climate denial or pro-fossil fuel talking points. You’ll hear, for example:

  • that fossil fuels are indispensable for a flourishing economy flush with employment opportunities
  • that alternative energy, while a worthy ideal, is just not viable
  • that putting a price on pollution through mechanisms like a carbon tax would dismantle the economy
  • that even the dirtiest fossil fuels in North America, like Alberta's tar sands, are more environmentally and morally superior than conventional oil from other nations with poorer human rights records
  • that emerging technologies will make all fossil fuels clean and safe, including coal and bitumen

 

It's along this last point's line of thought, or wishful thinking, that you see the emergence of "clean coal" and "ethical oil," all of which rely more on rhetorical constructions than breakthrough technologies.

Room for Improvement

While the public relations campaigns launched by fossil fuel funds are undermining progress for climate sustainability, the environmental movement’s own entrenched tendencies might be partially to blame.

Some of these limiting tendencies are, for example:

  • An underlying emphasis on voluntary, personal lifestyle reforms instead of the primacy of societal change through politics, laws, regulations and policies that reshape our economy, land-use, cities, and infrastructure.
  • Being the movement of “no” or “stop”, that is, too much negative emphasis with proportionately less attention to solutions and alternatives.
  • An insufficient focus on the economy, on how businesses can flourish and people can have jobs when destructive industries are restricted or phased-out.
  • Aiming to mobilize the “same old, same old” minority, the 20% of strong progressives and environmentalists in society – or the minuscule fraction of activists among them.

 
Seeing the Way Forward

By surmounting its own limiting tendencies, the movement can counteract many of the fossil fuel industry's PR attacks and also move out of the margins, beyond the turf of mainly environmental idealists and activists, into a force that moves the much larger mainstream public with the power to change the status quo.

To read Ken's thoughts on how the climate movement might evolve to overcome these challenges, stay tuned for Part 2 of this article.

Image Credit: Ken Wu beside a fallen redcedar near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island by TJ Watts from Ancient Forest Alliance.

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