Environmental Conflict and Climate Change: The Grassroots vs ‘Big Green’

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As the news hit that we won’t be seeing a climate bill in this Congress, a group of panelists at the Netroots Nation annual conference looked at the relationship between grassroots action and the national environmental groups.

Video update: Netroots Nation panelists Jamie Henn of 350.org and Brad Johnson of hillheat.com talk about grassroots vs ‘Big Green’:

Post by Alexa Jay

CSW was at the Netroots Nation annual conference this week in Las Vegas — a gathering of progressive voices working to bring technology to bear in influencing the public debate.  The conference is in its fifth year, and has enjoyed enormous success as a forum for thousands of progressive activists to exchange ideas and share strategies.  We’ll be reporting on the climate and environmental panels we attended and other discussions that took place. Note that keynote sessions and many panels are now web-archived.

On July 22 we were at a panel on Environmental Conflict and Climate Change: The Grassroots vs Big Green.

The argument: large national environmental groups, with their relatively deep pockets and access to insider Washington circles, are failing to reach grassroots constituents, those who should be benefiting from their work.  The panelists were asked whether ‘Big Green’ groups have been held hostage to the fate of the climate bill in the Senate, to the detriment of local environmental actions that can engage the grassroots and may provide a more reliable path to lasting change.

Michael Kieschnick of CREDO Mobile fired an opening shot: “Big environmental groups are systematically suppressing the enthusiasm of the grassroots.”  He argued that Big Green groups are failing to engage the grassroots in the process of deciding what to fight for, what the goals are, and who our enemies are. “Name names and vow to take no prisoners,” Kieschnick said. Don’t just ask the grassroots to write to our allies in Congress. Better to call out our opponents and bring pressure to bear.  We can’t possibly win without the grassroots, Kieschnick said, but they are now being left out and are typically just asked to send money and e-mails.

We need to be more pointed about identifying the real political problems, i.e., don’t just send out communications about how the coal and oil companies have too much power. That’s too low a bar for truth-telling. Instead, Big Green should acknowledge when they have made compromises that are so far away from the legislation that’s really needed that it leaves us with a bill that generates no grassroots enthusiasm.

The environmental justice and green jobs activist Majora Carter said that she doesn’t follow the trajectory of the climate bill closely, because it’s a given that it will be watered down and unlikely to protect the most vulnerable communities in the first place. “None of us doing work on the ground have time to wait for legislation, because there are people whose lives are at stake,” Carter said.

The grassroots critique of Big Green appears to lean toward: Don’t hang so much on legislative action.  In particular, no really progressive legislation can come out of the Senate as it is now and as it’s likely to be for some time. The movement needs to come up with a strategy that doesn’t involve demoralizing the grassroots by pulling their energy into supporting inadequate and watered-down legislation and calling it a success. (This argument could be applied to a range of legislative issues broader than just climate and clean energy.)  The national environmental groups aren’t justifying their multi-million-dollar budgets with what they’re accomplishing in Washington, and can do so only if they redirect more of their resources toward supporting and mobilizing grassroots-based action.

The discussion at this point touched on a key problem for the climate community: how do we build a constituency around a complex science-based issue that has enormous implications for how we organize our society, but that doesn’t yet resonate sufficiently with most of the public?  Part of the answer lies in engaging people in a constructive path forward, the panelists argued.

There are two thrusts in the climate and energy movement. The first seeks to tear down the infrastructure of the dirty energy economy, shutting down coal plants, capping carbon dioxide emissions, and neutralizing bad corporate actors. This can be seen as analogous to some aspects of the protest model of the 1960s: identify the threat, build a resistance movement, and take it out.

But, Carter argued, the climate and energy challenge is not like other environmental challenges—it lacks singular bad actors because we are all a part of the fossil fuel economy. We are all part of the problem with the way of life we have embraced.

The second component of the movement is the fight for green jobs and a clean energy economy—a fight to rebuild the infrastructure of society.  And that takes a vision of what a new energy economy would look like, how it can include elements of society that have been left out, a positive vision that can engage and inspire.

Dave Roberts from the environmental site Grist.org said the left doesn’t know how to organize a movement like that.  But the good news is, there is a great deal of grassroots energy and action that could and should be supported and brought together: “One thing that could happen—I would like to see one big green group devote itself to going and finding all the positive things happening and the local and state level, putting money behind funding those things, elevating them, sharing them, linking up best practices, putting more of the movement’s time and energy into building up a new world so that it’s at least on equal footing with tearing down an old world,” Roberts said.

Yet there is still enormously important work to be done within the older model: stopping new coal-fired power plants from being built, demanding that energy corporations stop funding climate denial, and holding obstructionist politicians accountable for serving their corporate sponsors instead of their constituents.

The panel was set up as a conflict between Big Green tactics and grassroots strategies, but it’s clear that the large environmental groups have a lot to offer in supporting local actions that can help bridge older and newer strategies.

As one example, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune described their coal strategy.  The campaign began by focusing on a handful of outdated coal plants in the Midwest with no pollution controls, and sought to expand by focusing on every single new coal plant in the country.  They found early success by partnering with local community groups, and have gone on to stop 129 new plants throughout the country.

“We are at a point where the protest work and the solutions work are converging.  We now have the opportunity to fill the void with something new and positive—by putting resources into retiring the oldest, dirtiest coal plants in the country and replacing them with clean energy,” Brune said.

While these messages—the need to tear down our old energy infrastructure and the need to build up a new one to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable society—are clearly not mutually exclusive, I’m interested in how they can be integrated with the fundamental message of what we are doing to our climate system.  The Obama administration made a political decision to focus its climate and energy messaging on green jobs, i.e., offering positive-message solutions, perhaps out of fear of alienating people with climate change ‘doom and gloom.’ But those messages can and should be mutually reinforcing, and we need them to be to find a truly compelling way of communicating the human impact of climate change and what we can do to fight back.

More CSW posts from Netroots Nation 2010:

Al Franken: “Net Neutrality is the First Amendment Issue of Our Time”

‘Merchants of Doubt’ responsible for climate confusion – book review

Netroots Nation: On holding the Obama Administration accountable on climate and energy

Netroots Nation Day 2: Separation of oil and state

Supporting Science, Benefiting Society

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