The Resurgence of an Evolving Climate Movement, Part 2

Ken Wu is executive director of Majority for a Sustainable Society (MASS) and co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance

For Part 1 of this article, click here.

In the first part of this article, I described what specific challenges the climate movement faces when confronting its own limiting tendencies as well as industry funded public relations campaigns. In this second part I outline what I think are four essential ways the climate movement must evolve in order to overcome these obstacles.

FIRST, we must become a lot more political, in the sense that it’s fundamentally the laws, policies, and agreements that shape our greater society and economy. And it’s our society and economy which are the foundations of our personal lifestyles. What is available, affordable, practical, and possible in our lifestyles is largely a product of the society in which we live – what clean energy sources exist at what price relative to dirty energy, how available public transit is, how well or poorly our cities are designed for walking, cycling, and accessing our needs, how energy efficient our buildings are, and so on.  

No individual is an island unto himself; the way we live is fundamentally shaped by the economy and society in which our lifestyles are nested.  

Western individualism sees each person as an island divorced from society and economic circumstances. As a result, many North American environmentalists instinctively emphasize efforts towards personal lifestyle purity as a fundamental remedy to environmental problems despite being in a system that, at this time, is based on fossil fuels in almost every regard (hence the need for larger societal change). Needless to say this is a virtually impossible task that plays well into the hands of fossil fuel advocates who are bound to find “inconsistencies” and “hypocrisy” in the personal lifestyles of all those who care about the fate of the planet!
Government regulations that shift our energy choices at their sources, that is, at the point of resource extraction or energy production, from dirty to clean energy, or from low to high energy efficiency in our technologies, will automatically be incorporated into the lifestyles of all consumers, whether or not they are environmental idealists.
In addition, studies show that voluntary or “non-compulsory” methods to reduce carbon emissions have a minor impact and real progress occurs through regulations and tax shifting. If we want to change both corporate and individual behaviour, putting an escalating price on carbon, banning coal-fired plants, and strengthening regulations and standards are vital.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t pursue personal lifestyle reforms – just that if the goal is to actually change the outcome for the climate, the major leaps forward will come through regulations, government policies, and political action.
SECOND, as much as the climate change movement emphasizes the problems, we must also emphasize the solutions and a positive vision of a sustainable, low carbon society. That is, how a low carbon society would support ramped-up green businesses and jobs, create more livable cities, foster greater community, improve our health, support global peace and stability, and sustain the natural diversity and beauty of the planet. 
After repeatedly hearing about impending disaster, many people tune out. We can’t psychologically stay in emergency mode forever.  If the “inconvenient truth” is always a negative crisis message, it’ll be easier to hear the “reassuring lies” over the long run. However, if the truth is also a positive alternative vision – that we can have a better quality of life in a sustainable society based on clean energy, efficiency, smart planning and liveable communities – it’s a message most people can stay with and promote. That’s not to downplay the need to get the facts out about the real crisis – just that we must lead our message with positive solutions more often.
THIRD, our positive solutions must emphasize the economy, on how people can make a living. The economy is usually the top concern in public opinion polls, with the environment often lagging far behind except in limited “peak years” like 1990 and 2006. As long as the environmental movement fails to emphasize how people can realistically make a living in lieu of stopping destructive industries, it will stay in the margins, always too weak to transform the status quo. Publicly emphasizing the viability of a clean and efficient economy will help expose the falsehood that there is no practical alternative to fossil fuels, a “fact” often assumed to be true due to the alternative’s lack of exposure.
The basic fact also remains that if we don’t significantly shift our economy towards efficiency and renewables, the factors causing the problems will only continue – that is, our huge appetite for energy and jobs in the absence of clean energy alternatives will ensure that burning fossil fuels will always have the popular support to continue until it triggers runaway global warming.
LASTLY, the climate movement must become broader-based, aiming to mobilize the mainstream public, not just progressives and environmental activists – that is, we must actively engage green businesses, unions, faith groups, scientists, farmers, First Nations, and a larger diversity of ethnic communities, among many others. Small groups of angry “activist superheroes” will not save the planet – only an informed, large-scale movement that represents a majority cross-section of society will have the power to fundamentally change it. This will naturally undermine the fossil fuel advocates’ PR claims that the movement consists primarily of “others” who are different from regular Canadians.
The current climate resurgence will be different than the previous surge in 2006. Movements naturally evolve, and hopefully in a way that allows them to make sufficient inroads to change the fundamental outcomes. In 2013, I believe that we’ll see the return of hope.

For Part 1 of this article, click here.

Image Credit: Ken Wu at McLaughlin Ridge by TJ Watts from Ancient Forest Alliance.

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