“I wish they wouldn’t call it The People’s Climate March.“ I said to a friend in the weeks before taking the bus up to New York City to attend the march. The messaging seemed out of line with the organizers’ stated intentions to include everyone. But my friend insisted that getting conservatives to attend the climate march was more than just a matter of words. The science was there; if people wanted to fuss about words and not believe the science, that wasn’t his problem. But it isn’t simply denial that keeps people from turning out for a demonstration.
Katherine Hayhoe, climate scientist turned political science professor and evangelical Christian, clarified the problem in a recent television interview, “It’s not a scientific issue…The answer has much more to do with who we are as humans, and how we function politically.”
“Would your father attend The People’s Climate March?” I asked him. Both of us have conservative fathers who believe that inaction on climate change is a serious failure of both the Republican and the Democratic leadership. He conceded that his father would not. And nor would mine. But the truth is, demonstrating is uncomfortable for many people, regardless of political affiliation, who perceive it as something that other people do—people more emotional, idealistic, and perhaps less rational than they are. My experience in trying to recruit people to attend the march was that, right out of the gate, the name on the fliers seemed to confirm their biases about who marched and how their values were different.
The march, of course, didn’t have any attendance problems—the crowd of an estimated 311,000 outstripped the organizers’ reach estimates by a factor of two, and it was about six-eight times larger than the previous best-effort in Washington, D.C. only a year and a half ago. A lot of work went into reaching out to labor groups, churches, and organizations that had never before identified climate change as a key issue, and that work was a striking success. But I’m not sure it was necessary to leave conservatives behind in the process.
I was made to revisit my concerns when at the march in New York I looked at the logistical material for the line up at the front of the march, in which participants were encouraged to group by six different affiliations—solutions, front line communities, building the future, a section entitled “we know who is responsible” under which “anti-corporate campaigns” were encouraged to line up.
Anti-corporate? “Corporations” are not one thing. Renewable energy companies and electric car companies are corporations. Whether the future is full of centralized or distributed, community, or utility owned power, the technology will be developed and delivered by corporations. I do not doubt that powerful incumbents in the fossil fuel industry use their political and economic power to block legislation on climate change. Their behavior is unconscionable, and it is not limited to oil companies. But the government has also participated in the corruption of American democracy, and it is there that conservatives tend to direct their outrage. There were no anti-government campaigns under the “We know who is to blame” section. For a movement that wants to be broad-based, would it not be better to welcome both sides and let them bring their own messages instead of sending unsubtle queues about who the march is really for?
Several days after the march this message came across my twitter feed, “I can think of few ways to marginalize a movement seeking to rally mass support faster than giving Naomi Klein the microphone. #sigh.”
Author and activist Naomi Klein is a board member of 350.org, the most prominent and successful grassroots climate change organization. 350.org is a small group of people that has done tremendous work bringing an awareness of climate change and helping to organize and publicize participatory actions for people all over the world. A brief twitter exchange with the tweet’s author led me the radio interview that had elicited his lament—an hour long segment on Boston’s WBRU that Klein was giving in connection with the march and her new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.”
When I moved back to the United States seven years ago after having spent many years working on investment in clean energy projects in Asia, one of the stranger things for me to discover as I familiarized myself with the cultural debate around climate change was the accusation made by certain elements of the right wing that climate change was a plot dreamed up by liberals to destroy capitalism. Having worked in a commercial enterprise with the goal of stopping climate change, the two things were unrelated in my mind. The roots of this fear are now more obvious to me even if it remains, in my mind, as unwarranted as ever.
But for Naomi Klein the fear is not unwarranted. On the contrary, she seeks to validate it. The title of her book is a provocation, meant to meet the opposition head on, reclaiming its territory as her own. Yes, she says, capitalism is to blame for climate change, and yes, conservatives were justified in their fears. But these two things, capitalism and climate change, are unequally matched. The climate can be specifically defined, capitalism cannot be; it is an economic system that takes many shapes in different societies, and can be modified or restrained to fit the needs of the future. As with the term ‘corporation’, a blanket condemnation of capitalism is hard to make sense of.
Many of the things that Klein calls for—small, locally owned energy enterprises, government control of dangerous activities, strengthened homeowners rights, and the end of predatory banking, breaking the link between economic growth and resource depletion—are not inimical or intrinsic to capitalism. The same is true for radical deregulation which, in her interview on WBRU, Klein conflates with capitalism. Radical deregulation is a trend that in past thirty years has seized both Democrats and Republicans alike. Not even Adam Smith advocated for it, and it has been criticized by Anat Adamti, David Moss, and Simon Johnson respectively of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT Business Schools, to name a few.
Even Klein’s statement that some profits are illegitimate is far from anti-capitalism. The mere existence of markets in a society does not imply that the amoral transactions that constitute them need to rule, unchecked, in its every aspect. On the contrary, it is important for a healthy society to evaluate where markets belong and where they don’t. Different societies will have different lines, but the need to establish a line is in itself uncontroversial. Even Milton Freidman would have balked at selling babies.
Klein demurs when it comes to solutions, saying that she is a journalist diagnosing a problem, and she will leave solutions to others. She is clear that she does not think that communism is the solution, acknowledging that the record of communist societies in dealing with the environment is terrible. In many ways, this acknowledgment negates her thesis. It’s not capitalism vs. the climate; it is destructive human activities vs. the climate. And these destructive activities can be mediated through any number of government systems. However we choose to organize society in order to deal with climate change, it will be some combination of market and non-market activity. Unless, of course, one is advocating full-throated communism, which Klein certainly isn’t.
And so it is not clear to what this language serves, coming from someone on the board of such a prominent climate change activism organization, except to alienate a vital section of the grassroots. This is a pity because there is much in Klein’s message—particularly in her eloquent detailing of the harm that major industrials run amok cause to human and infant health—that is important and underreported. It is a message that would resonate with almost anyone, regardless of political affiliation.
It would be one thing if none of this mattered, but it does matter.
In a column last week, entitled, “Why the [Awesome] Climate March Won’t Change America,” Grist writer David Roberts rightly pointed out that the climate march is hobbled in its ability to effect change because, diverse though it was on the liberal side of the spectrum, the right, by and large, did not turn out.
“[march organizers] would have been over the moon to have more Republicans. They deliberately kept the march’s message broad, avoiding specific policy demands, to allow a wide range of people to participate. I’m not one of the many back-seat drivers who blames the climate haws for the right’s intransigence of the issue. The right is to blame for the right. And right now, the right is unreachable on climate change. But the fact remains that the diversity on display was, broadly speaking, diversity within the left.”
Of course people are to blame for their own actions, but reasonable people can disagree on whether not turning out for the march is blameworthy if one is conservative. The march’s message might have sounded broad to Robert’s liberal ears, but it wasn’t terribly. Further, not joining the People’s Climate March is not synonymous with climate denial. Roberts says that, “The right is unreachable on climate change,” a characterization that is both inaccurate and dehumanizing.
Roberts confuses the denial and inaction of conservative members of Congress with the broad base of conservative voters, whom he dismisses as a bunch angry and entitled southern white men.
Let’s look at the numbers. The Yale Climate Change Opinion Survey details that of 726 self-identified conservative voters, 52% of them believe that climate change is happening, 26% percent do not, and 22% don’t know. Seventy percent of conservatives believed that the United States should increase the use of renewable energy “immediately”. Forty-two percent of those people believed that that the benefits outweighed the costs of greater government regulations. Two-thirds of respondents believed that America should take action to reduce its fossil fuel use. Only one third of respondents felt that the Republican Party’s position on climate change reflected their own, and a majority believed that their congressional representatives were unresponsive to their views on climate change.
So that doesn’t sound like unreachable on climate at all. It sounds like the Republican Party has a position on climate change that is increasingly untenable, and that there is a disconnect between the desires of the electorate and the actions of the Congress. It is not just a problem with climate change and the Republican Party. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 53% of Americans believe that neither political party represents them, and the most recent numbers for Gallup’s confidence in Congress poll show that number to be at a new historic low for the poll’s forty-two year history; seven percent of the public reports having a high degree of confidence in Congress, while two-thirds of the voting public has ‘very little’ or ‘no’ confidence in the Congress. All of this seems to indicate that Americans vote, but are not entirely happy with either options or the results, and that it wrong to categorize the public as a whole in terms of broad swaths of red and blue.
William J. Becker, Executive Director of the President’s Climate Action Project, has already taken Roberts to task for ignoring the data on conservatives. In a column yesterday, Robert’s breezily dismissed Becker’s data, saying he doesn’t trust polling and message testing because data doesn’t represent the way that people will act in the real world. He then goes on to describe how he believes the real word does act by citing the Ph.D. research of Irina Feygina, who…seems to have done a lot of work with polls and message testing. The first line of her Ph.D abstract reads, “Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial…” It appears some polls and message tests are more equal than others.
That said, of course polling and message testing are limited and are not predictors of political behavior. They are a grain of insight, nothing more. And that is an important insight, if you need polls to get it. I do not have the same, incredulous reaction to these polls as Roberts because, for me, they reflect realities that I see in my personal and work life. But from Robert’s descriptions of how ‘the conservative’ behaves, one gets the impression that his only exposure to conservatives is what he reads in the liberal media; that he is both the purveyor and the product of the very polarization he calls himself “obsessed with.”
I give you this:
Put a conservative in a room with a poll and ask him whether he supports cleaner air. Why of course he does! More efficient energy use? Sure! More solar energy? Yes, please! People like cleaner, more, and better, generally speaking.
Now imagine that conservative in his living room, watching Fox or listening to talk radio. Is he hearing about cleaner air? No, he’s hearing about job-killing regulations, which he hates. Is he hearing about efficiency savings? No, he’s hearing about Big Government coming to take his lightbulbs, and he hates that. Is he hearing about the recent flourishing of solar power? No, he’s hearing about Solyndra, about government boondoggles and giveaways. He hates those.
Would Robert’s dare refer so categorically to any other group but conservatives? And also, did it occur to him that his own reaction towards optimistic polls about conservatives and climate change is not far off from the behavior of ‘the conservative’ that he so grotesquely caricatures?
In the service of his Manichean depiction of America, Roberts shows a map of the United States, color coded red and blue by the straight majority of the districts that voted Democrat or Republican in the 2012 Presidential election. He contends that liberals exist in what he calls ‘urban archipelagos’ with the rest of the country awash in rural angry-white redness. This picture is radically oversimplified. Even a slightly color coded map shows a more nuanced and accurate picture. This map from the Chicago Sun Times is a good graphical representation of the margins of victory between Republicans and Democratic in congressional districts, making it clear that margins of victory are slim in most states. The geographical divide is also far more nuanced than Roberts would have us believe
There are people who vote for both parties all across the country, and they encounter each other every day in school, as neighbors, and at family gatherings. Contrary to what some pundits in rarefied circles would have us believe, we are not, as Americans, binary-red-and-blue-bots who avert our eyes from The Other on the rare instances that we happen to pass on the sidewalk. Among our ranks are Republican voters who believe in broad access to inexpensive healthcare and strong action on climate change and Democratic voters who believe in fiscal conservatism and second amendment rights. But for both parties, their decisions at the voting booth are restricted in primaries and congressional campaigns run by well-funded and organized groups with a few, narrow priorities. Few individuals are so involved in the political process that they can, or even would consider, participating in picking their political candidate, or even forming a relationship with their already elected official by way of writing, visiting, or demonstrating in order to influence that official to act on certain issues. Just because Republicans—and for that matter Democrats—care about climate change does not mean that it is an issue that they are organized to vote on.
The implication is that there is plenty of room to activate people who care about climate change. This is what 350.org has been and doing well, but it appears to be triaging a critical constituency as a hopeless case. David Robert’s bombast is extreme, but the risk is that the prejudice behind it, “Forget them, they’re hopeless. They might as well be from Alpha Centauri. Their values are not ours. Their very brains are wired not to care,” is, in fact, endemic to a large section of the environmental movement. Robert’s solution for funders—which appears to mirror the strategy of the grassroots movement—is to fund liberal causes, and build a passionate and active liberal movement. That’s what appeared to be happening at The People’s Climate March. But Robert’s strategy is internally inconsistent, doomed to failure by his own analysis. He himself points out that odds are that conservatives will continue to control the House of Representatives for any timeline that matters to climate change. So what, exactly, are we trying to accomplish?
It’s good news that some climate change advocacy groups still put science before politics. Groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby, which organized lobbying visits to more than five hundred Senate and House offices on this last summer to lobby for a revenue neutral carbon tax, has a non-partisan membership and has an fanatical ethos of respect for all people involved in the organizations, regardless of their political affiliation.
Others would do well to follow suit. No one movement will be enough, and the organizations putting people in the streets are powerful. They could be more so. The environmental movement has repeatedly claimed that “climate change is not a left or right issue.” If that’s true, they need to walk the walk. More alarming still, that truth—that climate change affects us all— seems to be threated in the minds of some by the creeping notion with that it really is a liberal issue after all. That is a pity not just because it is wrong and is in itself a fundamentally illiberal idea, but also because it is a dead end.
This post was also published on The Energy Collective.