Back on May 11, I had a chance to meet up with Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of the major environmental group Oceana, in Washington. I’d met Andrew on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands, and he’s a guy I rely on to get a read on what’s going on among the green groups, a guy who’s frank, smart and funny. At the time the BP oil spill was nearly three weeks old, but the crude hadn’t really hit the shores yet, and it still seemed possible that this might be a serious but contained event, one that wouldn’t necessarily change the entrenched politics of energy in DC. But that’s not what Andrew thought. He believed not only that the spill would likely continue well into the summer—he was definitely right there—but that it could fundamentally reignite an environmental movement that had lost momentum in the months after the disappointing UN climate change summit in Copenhagen and months of delay on cap-and-trade in the deadlocked Senate. “People are going to see oil on the beaches of Florida, maybe up the East Coast,” he told me. “Those pictures aren’t going away, and that’s going to change things.”
He may be right. As Jason Zengerle puts it in this week’s New York magazine, after years of trying and failing to move the public with pleas for the polar bear and wonky arguments on energy efficiency, the environmental movement has embraced the visceral images of the oil spill and learned “the upside of anger.” In the oil spill, greens have been given an accident—of unprecedented size in American history—that demonstrates the environmental and human consequences of our need for oil:
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 [former Greenpeace USA executive director John] 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.”
Zengerle points out, as others have, that the environmental movement has always gotten boosts from horrific events: the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill led to an offshore drilling moratorium, and the images from Cleveland’s burning Cuyahoga River and the smog of Los Angeles led to the first Earth Day. Three Mile Island handed anti-nuclear activists a decisive victory. But climate change has never had that single moment where the issue crystalized for average Americans—unless you want to use the example of An Inconvenient Truth, but Zengerle makes a pretty good case that the documentary preached to the choir and almost no one else:
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.
Gore, like a lot of environmentalists, approached climate change as an environmental problem, the biggest environmental problem of all time. But as greens have learned, Americans don’t care about the planet—meaning, despite all the scary scientific evidence that has been arrayed in front of them, Americans can’t grasp the long-term, existential threat of global warming. Bad air that makes us hack—definitely. A river contaminated with chemicals that give our kids cancer—we’ll march to stop it. But environmentalists failed to make global warming real—maybe because it was impossible.
Has the oil spill changed all that? Certainly it’s given greens a welcome PR jolt. A new generation of environmental leaders like the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune are getting face time on the major networks, and it’s certainly not hurting fundraising. At the very least, the spill will likely result in a rollback of offshore drilling, which was poised to expand as recently as two and a half months ago—with President Barack Obama’s support.
But as greens get mad, I wonder whether public rage over the oil spill can really form the foundation for lasting movement on climate change. Even before the spill, greens had been shifting away from a strictly environmental message to one that emphasized energy independence, green jobs and security—as the Republican pollster Frank Luntz counseled them back in January. Zengerle writes about a new group called Operation Free and its partner VoteVets.org that created a visceral ad combining footage of American troops getting blown up by IEDs—made in Iran according to the ad—with a picture of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The message was spelled out: our dependence on oil is funding America’s enemies.
Of course, that assertion isn’t as clear-cut as it seems—but it sure does make for a good soundbite, which is something greens haven’t always been great at. But not everyone is a fan of the hard-hitting message, as Zengerle shows:
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.’ ”
I agree—it might poll well, but the connection between energy security and climate change seems specious. (Now national security and climate change—the idea that a warmer world will be a more unstable and dangerous one—makes sense, but that’s not what Operation Free is talking about.) More than that, it’s disingenuous. As Bradford Plumer wrote recently in the New Republic, if you want to tackle climate change, you need to tackle climate change. After all, if our only priority were reducing dependence on foreign oil, we’d want to drill, baby, drill until there wasn’t a single drop left in American territory. (Not that it’s likely to make that much of a difference.) Or maybe we’d start turning our ample coal reserves into transportation fuel—a process that releases more than twice as much CO2 as petroleum does. Those options would help cut oil dependence, but they wouldn’t do a thing about climate change—and might even make it worse.
None of this is to say that green groups shouldn’t capitalize all they can on the oil spill. There’s more at stake than the debate over climate change—groups from the Environmental Defense Fund to the National Wildlife Federation to Greenpeace have done vital work on the Gulf coast, raising awareness about the damage the spill could do and exposing major flaws in BP’s response. On June 26, with the help of major green groups, a Florida restaurant owner and surfer named Dave Rasuchkolb will launch Hands Across the Sand, a protest that will see hundreds of thousands of people around the world join hands to protest offshore drilling. It will be a major event, immeasurably amplified by the oil spill. But the next day environmental groups will still have to make the case that climate change and carbon emissions must be dealt with directly—and I’m not sure that’s gotten any easier.