Some environmentalists question the wisdom of such macho posturing. Marshall Ganz, a Harvard expert on movement-building who works with some climate activists, calls the “Tough” ad “awful and jingoistic.” “Talk about shortsighted,” he says. “You don’t achieve radical change by trying to finesse and pretend it’s something it’s not. It’s as if instead of Dr. King saying ‘Freedom now,’ he’d said, ‘We don’t really want freedom, just a little bit, and actually it’s to support America in the fight against Russia.’ ”
But most climate activists appear to have made their peace with the security argument. In fact, Operation Free relies on Clean Energy Works—the coalition in charge of the national lobbying campaign for the climate bill—to do much of its local organizing. “You have people who support the more tree-hugging, polar-bear portion, and they look at us and they’re like, ‘Ehh, you’re just military guys,’ ” Victoriano said. “But in the end, after they listen to us talk, they go, ‘Okay, yeah, this is good, this is poignant, and this is going to be more decisive than anything we can do. We need to jump on board and roll with you guys.’ ”
Greenpeace currently has two of its boats stationed in the gulf, along with several photographers who are there to “bear witness and in a lot of ways behave like journalists,” explains Molly Dorozenski, a Greenpeace staffer. (Greenpeace, for instance, takes credit for having revealed a liability waiver BP was asking its contract workers to sign.) Almost every other environmental organization is retooling its message to engage the catastrophe. VoteVets.org’s latest ad features a National Guardsman assigned to clean up the BP spill who complains, “When I signed on with the National Guard, I did it to help protect America from our enemies, like in the Persian Gulf, not to clean up an oil company’s mess here, in the Gulf of Mexico.” Billy Parish, the founder of Energy Action Coalition, is working to develop a program that would allow consumers to earmark any energy savings to gulf-restoration efforts.
“This is unlike any moment I can remember since I’ve been doing climate campaigning,” says May Boeve of 350.org, “where you have a really engaged public and a really engaged press presence. We often have to really pull people and the press kicking and screaming to pay attention. But right now, for each event we do for the oil spill, there’s substantial interest.”
“People overwhelmingly say melting ice is a very bad thing. The problem is that hardly any Americans live next to a melting glacier.”
Of course, the person whose interest matters most is Obama. Despite his grandiose campaign promises to do something about climate change—“This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” he proclaimed on the night he sewed up the Democratic nomination—he has spent most of his presidency pursuing what Eric Pooley, in his new book The Climate War, quotes White House aides describing as a “stealth strategy” on the issue, deliberately refusing to elevate it lest the president stir up the opposition. Alas, the opposition hardly needed Obama’s involvement to be stirred up, and when environmentalists complained that Obama wasn’t doing enough, especially in the wake of Copenhagen, it only made the White House more reticent on the issue. “Our side did not make Copenhagen look like a win for the president,” says one senior environmental leader. “And if you were [David] Axelrod, you’d be like, ‘Fuck them. POTUS went over there at their request and then they made them look bad.’ ”
The spill, however, appears to have changed Obama’s political calculus. Now he’s making a new push to pass comprehensive climate-and-energy legislation that’s currently stalled in the Senate. “The votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months,” he said in a speech in early June. And while his prime-time address to the nation on the spill last week was not the climate-change cri de coeur many environmentalists were hoping for—indeed, he mentioned the word “climate” only once—the White House is at least paying the issue more prominent lip service, and shifting its place on the public agenda. “The fact that Obama is talking about climate-and-energy legislation in a prime-time speech from the Oval Office is qualitatively different from what was happening before the spill,” says Pooley. “Not so long ago, these kinds of remarks were confined to afternoon events at solar factories.”
If the environmental movement can’t win the media game this summer—as more beaches close, more dead turtles wash onto shore, and the currents channel oil up the Eastern Seaboard—they will have missed an opportunity of a generation. They know this. But they also know (from watching the health-care debate drag on and on) that even if Obama does invest political capital on a climate-change bill that results in meaningful legislation (a big if), the fight may easily continue beyond the moment when BP eventually kills the well. Which means they have to build a real—and sustained—movement.