A couple of months ago, before the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began spewing tens of millions of gallons of raw crude into the Gulf of Mexico, Dave Rauschkolb was just some guy with an improbable—some might even call it loopy—dream. A surfer and the owner of three restaurants in Seaside, Florida, Rauschkolb had almost single-handedly organized 10,000 people to gather on 90 Florida beaches and join hands one Saturday in February to protest an offshore-oil-drilling bill that was making its way through the State Legislature. He’d called the event “Hands Across the Sand.” In April, after President Obama announced that he would open up vast new expanses of America’s seawaters to offshore drilling, Rauschkolb heard from a woman in Virginia and a man in New Jersey who wanted to hold similar events on their beaches. He offered to help. Then the BP oil spill happened, and Rauschkolb had an idea. What if he took “Hands Across the Sand” national? He envisioned throngs of Americans joining hands on beaches all over the United States and, before long, he wasn’t the only one dreaming big.
When the Deepwater Horizon disaster occurred on April 20, the American environmental movement was already suffering perhaps the lowest morale of its 40-year existence. What had become environmentalists’ primary mission—to convince the world to do something about climate change—was, after a few hopeful years, rapidly slipping away from them. Climate activists were being outmaneuvered by the highly superior political-media operation of their fossil-fuel-industry-funded opponents. The chances of enacting any meaningful climate legislation in the United States—an essential precursor to getting the rest of the world to act—were dropping precipitously. And now, from 50 miles off the Louisiana coast and nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico, came this terrible, visceral image of self-inflicted environmental destruction caused by our addiction to oil. “Those of us who have worked on global warming for decades just can’t believe that here we are in a society that really has made almost no change based on the warnings that have come out,” John Passacantando, the former executive director of Greenpeace USA, says. “The deep feelings of hurt and failure triggered by the spill are just overwhelming.”
And yet any environmental activist who has been in the game long enough knows the power of a good catastrophe. “We really worry about the spill itself, but in the past it seems to have taken horrific events like this to wake people up,” says Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and founder of the climate-change group 350.org. In 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning Cuyahoga River helped give birth to the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act; in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident gave a dramatic boost to the anti-nuclear movement. “One hopes that what’s happening in the gulf will have some of the same kind of effect,” McKibben says. “This has the potential to be a galvanizing moment for the climate movement.” The Obama administration appears to have reached a similar conclusion. After spending his first eighteen months in the White House refusing to aggressively push for meaningful climate and energy legislation—reportedly at the behest of Rahm Emanuel, who deemed the issue a political loser—Obama, seeking to capitalize on the spill, has now apparently devised a plan that he hopes could get a bill on his desk before the end of the year.
Granted, it takes a couple of steps of logic to get from Deepwater to the warming of the planet—to explain how even if the oil now spewing into the gulf had ended up in our gas tanks, it would have done environmental damage. But given how unsuccessfully the environmental movement has pressed the rational case for climate-change action, some activists are wondering whether rational, dispassionate thinking is overrated. Over the last few months, they have begun to subtly (and not so subtly) shift their messaging away from scientific, or even explicitly environmental, arguments and toward more direct, emotional, and, frankly, manipulative appeals. “The problem with the environmental movement is not that it hasn’t been polite enough, it’s that it’s been too polite,” says Passacantando. “Henry David Thoreau was once asked if he regretted anything, and he said, ‘If I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior.’ I think that’s what we might take from the Deepwater-well blowout and the failure to pass meaningful climate-change legislation.”
So while the live-streaming underwater oil cam and the photos of oil-slickened pelicans are fresh on everyone’s mind, activists have begun working them to their advantage. When they heard of Rauschkolb’s highly visible (and relatively easy to engage) Hands Across the Sand stunt, the Sierra Club delivered about 25 of its top field staffers to organize beaches in eighteen states and Greenpeace sent five employees and 500 of its top volunteer activists. McKibben’s group 350.org made sure that members of Congress were invited to events at beaches in their districts. Friends of the Earth’s media team taught local organizers how to write press releases and deal with reporters. All told, more than a dozen national environmental groups, as well as liberal groups like MoveOn, signed on as sponsors and activated their massive e-mail lists.
Which means that at noon on Saturday, June 26, organizers hope that hundreds of thousands of people in almost every state (and more than a dozen countries) will go to their beaches (or somewhere symbolic, like the White House) and hold hands in what could be the most visible public response to the environmental catastrophe in the gulf to date. “People have been asking, ‘Where’s the outrage?’ ” says the Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone. “The outrage is going to be very clear on June 26. Hands Across the Sand will be a major turning point to push things in the other direction and toward a clean-energy future.”
It was only two summers ago that Barack Obama and John McCain were each pledging, if elected president, to dramatically cut greenhouse-gas emissions and, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, 80 percent of Americans believed global warming was real. Then the roof began to cave in.
Between Obama’s Iowa caucus win and his inauguration, Pew found a fifteen-point drop in the number of Americans who believed global warming should be a “top priority.” The economy was tanking, and the White House’s new occupant decided that passing comprehensive climate legislation would have to take a backseat to dealing with the financial crisis and achieving health-care reform.
Last November, a Washington Post–ABC News poll detected an eight-point drop in the number of Americans who believed global warming was happening. That same month, thousands of private e-mails between prominent British and American climate researchers were hacked from a computer server at the University of East Anglia. The e-mails, while embarrassing (in one, a climatologist describes the death of a leading climate-change skeptic as “cheering news”) did nothing to undermine the science behind global warming. But that didn’t stop global-warming deniers from claiming the e-mails did just that (“This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” one told the Times) and, in a feat of political jujitsu reminiscent of the Swift Boat vets, spinning them into a pseudoscandal that was soon dubbed “Climate-gate.”
In December, the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen—the culmination of a two-year process that was supposed to result in an international treaty curbing carbon emissions—ended without any binding agreement, in no small part because of the failure of the U.S. to enact its own climate legislation. Then, in February, an epic blizzard blanketed much of the East Coast—including America’s media and political capitals—with several feet of snow. “It’s the most severe winter storm in years, which would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global-warming theories,” Sean Hannity crowed from the Fox News studio in New York. Meanwhile, in Washington, Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe—Congress’s No. 1 climate-change denier—built an igloo near the Capitol and festooned it with signs reading HONK IF YOU ❤ GLOBAL WARMING. The following month, Gallup reported that 48 percent of Americans thought the seriousness of global warming was exaggerated—the highest percentage since it started asking the question thirteen years ago.
The relentless string of setbacks the climate movement had been subjected to over the preceding eighteen months had coalesced into something worse. “It wasn’t just drip, drip, drip,” says one climate activist. “We were past that. The patient was bleeding out.”
Worst of all, the rapid collapse of the public consensus on climate change had occurred at a time when the scientific consensus about global warming was growing stronger. “After $100 million has been spent in the last year, why don’t have we have more power?” Betsy Taylor, co-founder of the climate-change group 1Sky, found herself wondering this spring. “Why isn’t this a hot-button issue? Why haven’t we engaged more deeply with the public?”
Or as Andrew Revkin, who late last year left his job as the Times’ climate-and-environment reporter to write an opinion blog for the paper’s website and work as a senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University, puts it, “I could spend the next twenty years trying to write really good stories about climate, the way I’ve spent the last twenty years doing that, but I lost the sense that that was a route to efficacy. If the social-psychology research shows people don’t change their stances on these issues based on new information, and I’m in the information business, then what the hell am I doing?”
The elemental mistake environmentalists made over the last few years—and one that Al Gore in particular can be faulted for—was assuming that people approach the subject of climate change the way environmentalists do: seriously. But they don’t. For a few reasons, including perhaps the fact that the threat poses a planetary existential crisis, Americans are wildly impressionable, inconsistent, and illogical in their opinions on the subject. Indeed, public consensus in some respects can be as unstable as the weather: Jon A. Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford, has attributed some of the lower polls in part to an unusually cool 2008 and this past harsh winter.
Although the release of An Inconvenient Truth was hailed as a seminal moment for the climate movement—in language not dissimilar to that of environmentalists talking about the BP spill—in hindsight the documentary was a decidedly mixed blessing. “Most of the people who went to see that are what I’d call mainstream liberal Democrats,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “They liked Al Gore, they trusted Al Gore, they voted for Al Gore. For God’s sake, they were willing to plunk down good money to watch the guy do a slideshow.” The movie, in other words, persuaded the persuadable. But for those not interested in accepting climate-change science, the film set itself up as an easy scapegoat. “An Inconvenient Truth intensified the polarization, because Gore is fundamentally a politician, no matter how many hours he spends looking at sea-ice models,” says Revkin. “And that will always hamper his credibility with a portion of America.” In a January survey, Leiserowitz found that 53 percent of Americans didn’t trust Gore on global warming.
If you’re marketing a product, consumer irrationality can be very helpful; a confused consumer is an easily manipulated one. But while the original Earth Day is a triumph of modern branding—and corporate America has become expert at slapping the “green” label on its wares—environmentalists have struggled to come up with a successful formula for selling climate change. They still, for instance, aren’t even quite sure what to call it. Some prefer “global warming” since most people don’t like hot weather. Others like “climate change” on the grounds that higher temperatures won’t be the only dangerous outcome. Still others, like Gore, are partial to “climate crisis.” There’s even disagreement about the greenhouse analogy. Some environmentalists prefer the “blanket effect,” arguing that people are more familiar with blankets than greenhouses—only to face the counterargument that blankets are too warm and fuzzy.
A much bigger misstep has been to talk about climate change as an “environmental” problem. Leiserowitz, who has been conducting a series of surveys on Americans’ attitudes about climate change since 2002, has found that their most frequent association upon hearing the words “global warming” is “melting ice,” followed by “rising temperatures,” and then “impacts on nonhuman nature,” such as polar bears. “People overwhelmingly say melting ice is a very bad thing,” he explains. “The problem is that hardly any Americans live next to a melting glacier. It just reinforces the idea that the consequences are very distant.”
“The fact that the issue has been framed as an environmental issue instead of a human-well-being issue is fundamentally problematic,” says Ed Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. “It needs to be portrayed as something that’s going to harm us and our loved ones, because that’s the kind of thing we respond to.”
Even before the brown pelican became the iconic image of the Deepwater explosion, the polar bear’s reign as the climate movement’s mascot was coming to an end. “The child with the inhaler or the worker in Ohio that doesn’t have a job or the mom filling up her car with $4-a-gallon gas—those are more effective symbols of what the future holds if we don’t have change in our energy policies,” says Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress. Late last year, a handful of former Iraq and Afghanistan vets established a group called Operation Free, which, with a partner group, VoteVets.org, is responsible for the most visceral climate-change ad in recent memory. Titled “Tough,” it features footage of American troop convoys in Iraq getting blown up by IEDs—some of which, the ad contends, are made in Iran—and then, over an image of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an Iraq vet declares, “Every time oil goes up one dollar, Iran gets another one-and-a-half-billion dollars to use against us.”
A Marine scout sniper team leader who served two tours in Iraq, Matt Victoriano now spends many of his days driving around in Operation Free’s biodiesel bus to talk about clean energy and climate change—at least until he finds out whether he’s been accepted into the Special Forces. “Mission after mission when I was in Iraq, I was guarding supply routes so that our fuel could get to our forward operating bases,” he told a small crowd in a parking lot in Greenville, South Carolina, one recent morning. “And it dawned on me later that we can’t defeat the terrorists, we can’t defend the country, and we can’t protect our own citizens with our energy policy as it exists today.”
“Almost everyone gets the message,” he said earlier, as the bus rolled through Virginia. Victoriano, who is slight with dark brown eyes and speaks in clipped sentences, had four days’ growth of beard and Oakleys perched atop his head. He looked less like a new environmentalist than an old sniper, and as he talked about the climate movement, he expressed frustration about some of his environmental allies. “One guy who was working for an environmental group wanted everybody to show up and make T-shirts, paint T-shirts, and mail them to a Senate office,” he recalled about one of the stops the Operation Free bus had made. “No, I don’t do that. It’s useless.” He preferred harder-hitting messages, like the “Tough” ad. “When I saw that I said, ‘It’s about time!’ Everybody likes to pussyfoot around this shit. That ad throws it right in your face.”
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.
“There are a lot of really talented lobbyists in D.C.,” says McKibben, “but they don’t have anything to work with. Senators know there isn’t that much behind them.” If this summer’s BP anger is to be channeled into a fundamental rewiring of how people think about the planet, environmentalists have to get them to think about it often and in unexpected, depoliticized places. To that end, Ed Maibach at George Mason is teaming up with the nonprofit group Climate Central to invade the local TV weather forecast, which most Americans recently reported trusting for information about global warming. This is the kind of statistic that makes climate scientists crazy. As does a recent poll suggesting that almost two-thirds of all TV meteorologists think there’s no scientific consensus on the subject. Still, since that’s where the message is getting across, Maibach set out to shape it, enlisting a Columbia, South Carolina, weatherman named Jim Gandy as his guinea pig.
Unlike some of his TV colleagues, Gandy is a believer; he was shocked a couple of years ago when a geology professor asked him if global warming was real. Next month, Gandy will begin dropping into his nightly weathercasts the first of a dozen 30-second climate-change segments he has produced with Climate Central. One will explain that while today about six June days in Columbia hit 95 degrees, the number will almost double by around 2050, “if we keep pumping heat-trapping pollution into our atmosphere.” Another will discuss the likely increase in the number of days that hit 101 degrees by likening them to a game of craps being played with loaded dice. “I don’t live in a red state. I live in a dark-red state,” he says. “If you can convince these people of global warming, you can convince anybody.”
Maibach hopes that within the next couple of years, the local news will be flooded with Jim Gandys, forcing viewers to integrate thinking about climate change into their daily routine. Other environmental groups are focusing on similar projects. For years, the conventional wisdom has been that making household decisions to install compact fluorescent lamps—rather than fight for political legislation—is, in the words of some critics, an “unstrategic use of virtue.” But recent neuroscience and behavioral-economics research suggest that changing people’s individual behavior may be the best way to grow a movement. To that end, the Natural Resources Defense Council recently presented what it calls a “behavioral wedge”—a list of fifteen fairly simple and affordable actions, from taking one fewer airline flight per year to eating poultry instead of red meat two days a week, that could reduce America’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent by 2020. McKibben’s 350.org is organizing global “work parties”—rather than political rallies—this October, during which people install solar panels on the roofs of their homes or dig community gardens in the neighborhoods. Later this summer, Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is planning to launch a program called Repower at Home that will focus on helping Americans create more energy-efficient homes. “The human brain is best attuned to deal with problems that are really close and really immediate,” says Keith Goodman, who’s in charge of the project. “This is designed to help us get over that action hurdle. By giving people tasks that are more urgent at the household level, we can build that momentum.”
A key task the project hopes to solve is the problem of public signaling. “One reason the Prius has been so successful is because it’s distinctive-looking,” says Goodman. “Prius owners brand themselves with it. But when you look at other things you can do, like get your home weatherized, that’s totally invisible. All those peer and social effects don’t happen.” Repower at Home plans to experiment with door stickers or yard flags, for example, to signal homes that have programmable thermostats. It’s also building a website where people can document their own energy-efficiency efforts. The goal is to make efficiency cool. “How do you make it aspirational?” asks Goodman. “We need to make people feel that unless their home is efficient, they can’t even have people over for dinner.”
On Thursday, June 17, John Kerry appeared before his fellow Democratic senators, who were gathered in the Capitol’s Mansfield Room for a caucus meeting, to make an impassioned plea for a comprehensive climate-and-energy bill. The centerpiece of his presentation was a short video that sought to answer the question Why Now? Since it was aimed at a bunch of politicians worried about reelection, there was the requisite mention of recent polling data that seem to show public support for legislation that limits greenhouse gases. But most of Kerry’s video featured the images—and corresponding messages—that environmentalists have been working so hard to associate with climate-change. There were pictures of oil-soaked birds and beaches, workers building wind turbines and installing solar panels, a kid with an inhaler, and even a brief shot of an unshaven Matt Victoriano with some other vets in Kerry’s office. The video ended with a replay of the “Tough” ad. There was nary a polar bear to be seen.
No one in Washington seems to have a handle on what Obama’s Oval Office speech signaled—or how much of this new climate-change message is getting through. Although a number of pundits and even some environmentalists thought the address effectively doomed Kerry and Joe Lieberman’s efforts to get the Senate to put a price on carbon—“Deadly Silence on Carbon Caps,” read the Politico headline—supporters of a carbon cap had a different read. “My sense has always been that the person in the White House who most wants the cap is the president,” says an environmental lobbyist, “which is an important player to have.”
“I don’t know what else people want him to do,” says one senior Senate Democratic aide, who argues that Obama has been working hard on climate issues both publicly and privately (for instance, calling senators to lobby against an unsuccessful effort by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions). On June 23, Obama will host a bi-partisan meeting of senators at the White House to discuss climate-and-energy legislation. “He’s really fighting for this stuff,” says the Senate aide.
What, exactly, is the president fighting for? Just as during the health-care debate, he’s been maddeningly vague—at least in public. But behind the scenes, the road map the White House and its Senate allies appear to be devising entails drafting new climate-and-energy legislation over the next few weeks and then introducing it when the Senate returns from its Fourth of July recess. The bill would likely include new safeguards on offshore oil production and policies to reduce oil consumption, such as increasing the deployment of electric vehicles and raising efficiency standards in buildings. It probably wouldn’t include a comprehensive carbon cap but, instead, would impose one just on utilities. The thinking, according to one lobbyist, is that “the two main sources for global-warming pollution are coal-fired power plants and using oil for transportation fuel, so if the Senate adopts a cap on carbon pollution from utilities and reduces oil use through fuel economy standards, electric cars, and natural gas trucks, then that would represent some significant carbon pollution reductions.” Once the bill passes, it would go to be reconciled with the House’s own climate-and-energy legislation (which does include a comprehensive carbon cap) before being sent back to both houses for a final vote, likely after the November midterm elections—when, presumably, politicians will be less nervous about the consequences of their vote.
Or, conversely, the White House and the Senate could fink out and resign themselves to a so-called energy-only bill, which includes no cap on carbon. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. But if the end result is an energy-only bill, says McKibben, it will show that Obama and the senators “are afraid to deal with these things because they find them politically hard. So what we have to do is keep trying to change that political reality as much as we can.” In other words, the movement will have failed to meet the moment. And there’s nothing reassuring—and actually something rather terrifying—in the knowledge that another moment will surely come again.