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Is environmentalism bad for fighting climate change?

Ethan Elkind, director, Climate Program at Berkeley Law | May 30, 2012

Sure, it sounds like a paradox.  The environmental movement has done a lot of good for the planet and for pollution.  But in the face of the greatest environmental threat of our time, the movement may be fundamentally ill-suited to tackle the climate crisis.

For most of its history, environmentalism has essentially been about stopping things, or at least slowing them down.  Whether it’s sprawling subdivisions, industrial development on sensitive habitat lands, or factories spewing pollution, environmentalists have mobilized support to prevent these projects from happening, or at least make them more efficient and therefore more expensive (think scrubbers on smokestacks or building efficiency codes).  The successes are undeniable: significantly cleaner air and water and the prevention of some environmentally destructive projects.

But when it comes to fighting climate change, a movement designed to stopping things is counter-productive.  We need the opposite dynamic, because our task now is to build our way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  That means building a significant amount of new housing, services, and job centers in urbanized areas near transit; building renewable energy facilities both locally and in rural regions; building new rail and busways through developed cities and towns; and fostering a regulatory environment where innovation in clean technologies can take place without years of delay and uncertainty brought on by often well-intentioned environmental laws.

Unfortunately, the broader environmental movement has helped to stymie each of these efforts.  Whether it’s resistance to loosening environmental review and land use requirements in infill areas, Clean Air Act impediments to on-farm renewables, or permitting processes for renewable energy projects, the movement has been schizophrenic at best, counter-productive at worst.

To be sure, there are many environmental advocates and groups that are deeply committed to building these kinds of projects.  And there are often reasonable disputes involving alternatives and opportunities for local mitigation.  But the movement is organizationally and culturally built on an agenda of local resistance to building things.  As a result, environmentalists have largely failed to articulate a compelling, progressive agenda for fighting climate change.  While we see bits and pieces, such as local visions for infill development and reports on clean and local energy systems for select cities, as a whole, the movement lacks leadership and vision to make a case to the public about what needs to be done to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

Ironically, in this leadership void, members of the business community have now become some of the leading voices for fighting climate change.  Infill real estate developers, clean tech innovators and installers, and even car companies are now doing more to advance a low-carbon agenda than many environmentalists.  In some cases, you’re more likely to see climate change leadership from Silicon Valley venture capitalists then you are from some of our most respected environmental institutions.

Perhaps this outcome is not terrible.  After all, the case for fighting climate change is about economic growth: doing more with fewer resources and developing and harnessing our local, sustainable resources.

But businesses will tend to push their narrow economic agenda.  We still need environmental leaders who can make the case to the public and to decision-makers that there is a positive, over-arching vision for fighting climate change.  We can provide citizens with better and more convenient housing options, we can end our dependence on large electric utilities and oil and gas companies and instead spend that money locally, we can clean our air and water and stop wasting finite resources, and we can feel positive about the prospects for preserving our standard of living for future generations.

But to make these arguments, the environmental movement may need to eat some sacred cows.  Individuals may need to make sacrifices about the kind of projects that get built in their community, whether it’s a wind turbine, a new bus or railway, or a multifamily housing unit.  We may need to pay more upfront to modernize our electric grid and invest in new technologies.  But at the end of the day, we – and the planet – will be better for it.  It’s time the environmental movement made that case.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Is environmentalism bad for fighting climate change?

  1. I found your article very informative and I totally love how the concepts are explained in this blog post. Thanks for sharing your insights. It helps a lot.

  2. Now that the CO2 level has reached 400 ppm (well past 350 or Bust), if the republicans gain control the presidency and both houses of Congress during the 2012 elections (they already control SCOTUS), more and more sci-fi scenarios will become sci-fact.

  3. I agree with Meredith. This article has it backwards. It’s not that environmentalism can’t address climate change. The problem is the obsession with CO2 can’t save the ecosystem, and the moral turpitude of shifting the burden of global warming to future generations could just as well and perhaps more compellingly be articulated as the injustice ongoing right now, in exploiting the poor and developing nations by stealing their resources and outsourcing our pollution.

    The amplifying feedbacks are irreversible and were fait accompli at least a couple of decades ago if not more. Environmentalism was perverted from its inception by corporations and the big green groups that get funding from them. We have “regulated” pollution, not curbed never mind eliminated it, we have continued to plunder the earth and destroy habitat and most of all, increase our own numbers well past anything that is sustainable, no matter how many windmills or solar panels are deployed.

    The environmental movement was the best hope we had and it’s been smothered by the profit motive, and a misplaced blindness to all the other existential threats, by CO2. You’ll never convince people that the tornado hit them because of climate change. Even in the southwest where the drought is record breaking and so is the wildfire, deniers are able to ignore the source and permanence of climate change.

    Too bad we didn’t focus instead on the cancers, heart disease, and obesity that leave no one unscathed in this country now. Maybe people would have taken the need to conserve more seriously if we had.

    The endless preening of different groups craving funding and attention is a huge impediment to real progress. (More on Wit’s End blog).

  4. SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.

    The first paragraph of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

  5. The reason for what you’re describing is that the most successful efforts of the environmental movement have been able to rely on concern over the local environment (i.e.: NIMBYism) versus the global environment as a whole. The latter is too abstract a construct to motivate people as powerfully.

  6. When I read this title, I immediately knew I wanted to respond. I decided first to read the actual article and become fully aware of the issue that this question was addressing.

    Currently, in Valencia High School, we are watching Prophets Of Doom (the movie released in 2011) and it addressed this issue. Personally, I went ahead and watched the documentary Earth Keepers, where this issue also was brought up. From what I learned in both films is that these issues can lead to the collapse not just of the countries and societies affected by this issue, but tips the balance of our planet to be able to correct this issues; water, waste and a new energy source.

    I believe that we need not to take down the corporations and industries directly causing this issue, instead to reconstruct how they operate and their source of energy to operate on. We need to localize food by creating bio-shelters that operate by devouring waste and creating it into energy for life to grow on. This will solve hunger, and our waste issue as well as purifying our water supply. Our transportation systems that ship food long distances which our economy is based on, needs to revert back to previous fuel sources and also run on new cleaner solar and the ion-core battery system that is being developed and perfected to this day.

    It is not about blaming others for the issues we face today, instead to redirect how they function to increase the standard of living of the public instead of depleting it.

    This is an issue that I have been pondering on and on about since 7th grade 2007-2008. I still think that I am not entirely correct, thus I continue to think about this issue in the hope that I will attain my aspiration; to help and lead a new evolution not a bloody revolt.

  7. To say that environmentalism is founded on resistance reflects a very surface-level understanding of what it’s all about. Climate change is not the problem, climate change is only a symptom of the broader systematic problem which is ecological degradation and social injustice. Environmentalism is about nurturing respect for the world around us and the people who inhabit that world through solutions that operate with an ecological understanding. “Solving” or “fighting” climate change requires far more than market-based solutions; it requires a paradigm shift. Sacrificing environmental values is counter-productive as all problems are interrelated in an ecological network.

  8. In California the enviromentalists have already done their best to stop or slow down the spread of solar energy projects in very remote, seldom-visited areas. While I understand, and appreciate their concerns, nonetheless, this is counter productive if we want more clean energy. Perhaps we can’t actually have our cake and eat it too?
    Wind turbines were recently shown to increase local temperatures, and they are well known to kill many hawks, owls, and eagles.
    Meanwhile in far north North Dakota they’re drilling over a hundred new oil wells a day in just one small area. In Alberta, Canada they’re drilling a whole lot more. I was recently in Edmonton, Canada and the town is jumping, lots of young people on the streets, everyone in a good mood with money to spend, everyone working for the oil companies.
    Here in the US most places are depressed, decent paying jobs are more scarce than ever, many people are pessimistic. If stopping global warming means fewer jobs here….then it becomes a real issue of: is it worth it?

  9. It is refreshing and challenging to see an article pointing out how environmentalists actually obstruct progress toward sustainability. As Anthony St. John ’63 pointed out in his comment, the younger generation would indeed be wise to participate in the upcoming election to protect their future quality of life. In particular, they have a compelling interest in supporting candidates for office who will balance budgets and end wasteful and unsustainable spending. It is hoped that voters of all backgrounds will ignore the red herring of identity and class politics (for instance, the bogus “War on Women”) and focus on the important economic and foreign policy issues which are directly relevant to their present and future quality of life.

    • Just to clarify my position so there is no misunderstanding, the long-term quality of life for our youngest and future generations including protecting them from increasingly unacceptable consequences of climate changes we are already experiencing in California; plus protecting voting, civil and women’s rights, education and American Democracy; and elimination of poverty and wars are what I believe to be most important.

      Republican politicians, and republican superPACS that own and control republican politicians are anti-what I think are most important. Eisenhower was the last great republican president that I voted for, Nixon changed everything and the GOP has gotten worse ever since.

      Thankfully today, our youngest generations have the power of global, people-to-people communications and action to take control of their own future.

  10. Now that the CO2 level has reached 400 ppm (well past 350 or Bust), if the republicans gain control the presidency and both houses of Congress during the 2012 elections (they already control SCOTUS), more and more sci-fi scenarios will become sci-fact.

    Never before in history have the youngest generations had as much political power as they have today, hopefully they will vote in overwhelming numbers to protect and preserve their own long-term future quality of life.

    It’s truly up to the younger generations, along with women who want to protect their own rights, to protect the future by overcoming the power of money and destructive propaganda.

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