Environmental Activism as if We Wanted to Win: It's Time to Stop Acting and Start Doing What Matters


After seven years of a dark depression, induced by the failure of federal climate legislation back in 2009, the U.S. climate movement finally broke free of its deadening pessimism at COP21, and emerged from Paris energized.

But the genuine feelings of optimism are coming home to an obsolete strategy to protect climate, one designed more to play to the media and activists than to win, and one that has already proven unable to protect the planet.

This is the perfect moment to shift to a genuine strategy with a strong chance of success. But so far, it seems more like paint-by-numbers.

For a better approach, environmentalists need only look to our own movement. On issues like forest protection, we are on a roll. Huge commitments by major consumer and retail brands from Nestle to Disney to Unilever are transforming timber and agriculture across whole continents. Years of effort will be required to make it all work, but groups like Greenpeace, RAN, and WWF have engaged companies in complex ways, using carrots and sticks that enabled and, in some cases, compelled them to make leapfrog gains.

On climate, however, our methods are often outdated and ineffective. Perhaps because we care so passionately, we seem to lack the strategic precision we need to win. We're making mistakes on the very issue that matters most.

To me, the movement seems to be acting in a stage play, rather than carrying out a strategy. Our efforts are more like a choreographed rendition of an old Shakespearean classic than a fresh and powerful new performance.

In this Off-Beltway play, environmentalists play a role cast for us back in the 1970s - one we reprise almost reflexively every season. Along with us, oil company executives, Republican and Democratic politicians, and above all the nation's media play the roles assigned to them, almost as if they were reading from a script.

Environmentalists are cast as the public interest champions. Big oil executives are the villains, modeled literally after stereotypical tobacco industry executives. Republicans are able obstructionists, while Democrats are well meaning but inept allies, ever intending yet always failing to come through with a bold regulatory solution. What's changed?

If anyone varies from the script, they're forced back in line. We seem to want a world in which the environment loses. It's as if the media, political, and fundraising system is structured to compel us to stick to the old plan.

Back in 1974, I organized students to join me on protest lines to demand action against the world's seven largest oil companies. Their power had to be broken, we insisted. With an ambitious politician, we called on government to "Tax Big Oil" and then "Tax Pig Oil," and positioned our candidate as "the man the oil companies fear most."

I went on to similarly target other corporate adversaries on a range of environmental issues. But I found that, once I had their attention, it was time to change my "ask." It turned out many of them were smart and reasonable, and if I showed respect and understanding for them, they would return the favor. We could accomplish a lot together, and we did. As adversaries-turned-allies, we enacted recycling laws, protected forests, improved labor conditions at factories, and helped stop genocide in Sudan.

We can do the same today to protect climate, not just with a few oil company executives, but even more effectively, with senior leaders of the world's most influential consumer and retail brands. They collectively dwarf the power of Congress or the President to save the world's oceans, forests, and climate -- and because they care what their customers think of them, they care what we say about them, a lot.

By replaying the 1970s classic -- suing big oil to prove they once hoped climate change wasn't real, and now hope it's not as bad as we fear - we already know how the story ends. Big oil wins, the public loses, and the earth suffers. That's a narrative the media wants us to play for their benefit. It attracts eyeballs, sells ads, and promotes consumerism - -exactly what it's supposed to do.

But that doesn't make the narrative accurate, or effective. When ExxonMobil first announced that it supported a federal price on carbon almost a decade ago, and pumped millions into advocating it, I was thrilled. That was the break we needed, in my strategic estimation. But many of my colleagues were aghast. That's ExxonMobil -- the demon. Their commitment can't be real. It must be a trick.

Most ignored the news, failing to even engage with the company, to learn whether its position was genuine. Instead, they went straight back to the 1970s narrative, ignoring every indication of authenticity, while leaping on instances that suggested the company still cared about profit first.

Today, when I remind people that many of the most important advocates of a carbon tax are oil companies, and that ExxonMobil remains the clearest proponent, most are still surprised. Even if they've heard it before, they don't believe it. It doesn't fit the narrative.

None of us need feel sympathy for a giant company. They'll survive just fine. But we're idiots if we remain so locked into our prejudices that we won't open our tent to those we most need to win. We begin to look like -- Republicans and Democrats. We look like we're more interested in feeding our institutions than advancing our mission.

By contrast to our failures in federal climate protection, the dramatic evolution that is transforming the forestry sector has gone almost unnoticed by the media and public. It's a story that doesn't fit the established media narrative. It's not dog bites man, or man bites dog. It's man pets dog, and dog snuggles man. Who cares?

We ought to care. It's a winning formula. Environmentalists need to decide if our objective is to get more media coverage, reopen old wounds, and validate old prejudices, or actually save the planet.

If we as activists want to save the planet, here's what to do. Look to the companies we influence the most: the world's leading consumer and retail brands. They can be our villains, if we want to lose. But let's make them our heroes, so we can win.

To save the oceans, ask them to work with us to stop chemical run-off from farms and ranches, stop cargo ships from dumping their fuel at sea, prevent plastic debris from entering the oceans in the developing world, and approach government together to set aside hope zones, protected areas where marine creatures can flourish. None of that is particularly challenging, given a few off-the-shelf technologies, if the world's brands signal to their suppliers that these are their expectations.

To save the world's forests, and restore the carbon-sequestering capacity of soils, stop tearing down the world's remaining natural forests; begin to restore forests already degraded; and evolve to systems of forestry and agriculture that are climate positive and sequester carbon underground. Agricultural practices must continue to be improved, but we are within reach.

To protect climate -- and boost jobs and sustainable growth -- put a price on carbon in the U.S., and use the proceeds to cut taxes on jobs and small business. Ask every company to set its own internal carbon price too, to drive down their footprints, as hundreds already have. Finally, increase use of renewables and efficiency, and fund basic energy and renewables research, then let the market choose from an array of low-carbon and no-carbon options.

"Will the companies do that?" some ask me. Not if we don't ask them to. We're not actors in a play. We're not audience members waiting to see what happens. We're buyers, citizens, and human beings. Our choices have an impact.

As environmental leaders, it's not our mission to play a role in which we pander for the cheers of our audience of donors and supporters, then die as failed martyrs. What we're doing is real. We are seeking to protect our home. Accolades feel good, but they're meaningless. The preservation of life is all that matters. Let's stop the play, and get to work.