This is a joint post with Andrew Cheon, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Columbia University. Cheon and Urpelainen are working on a book on activism against fossil fuels and joined the People’s Climate March both as concerned citizens and academic researchers.

On September 21, hundreds of thousands joined the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York City. While the marchers were a diverse group, it was diversity among liberals and leftists. The anti-globalization, anti-corporate, anti-agribusiness, socialist, and labor activists were all there in large numbers, making a lot of noise.

Even among the large number of ordinary New Yorkers who joined the march, liberal political views were strong. We did some short surveys of a random sample of participants to understand why they joined the march. We’re still processing the data, but it’s already obvious that almost everyone from the march identifies with the political left. So far, we have yet to see a single marcher who identifies with the political right.

The leftist bias of the PCM is not surprising. Most activists against climate change are liberals and progressives. Conservatives in the United States often associate climate activism with the liberal agenda. While climate change need not be a political issue, in practice it’s a much higher priority to left-wing than to right-wing activists.

But is the leftist bias a problem? Some commentators seem to believe so. According to Sieren Ernst, the PCM could have reached conservatives with more cautious messaging and steering clear of the anti-corporate message. Ernst disagrees with Grist’s David Roberts, who earlier wrote that the PCM cannot change climate politics in America because conservatives are beyond the reach of the organizers.

This disagreement is at the heart of the matter. If the PCM could have mobilized masses of conservatives to demand climate action, then it’s pretty clear that the organizers should have focused their messaging and framing to create a broad base that includes both the political right and the left. That would have been a huge breakthrough in climate politics.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one, even if Ernst is correct that there are many conservatives who are now concerned about climate change, it doesn’t mean that they are willing to head to New York to organize a march.

The organization of the march was a huge effort – endless meetings and working groups over at least a year – and the people who contributed were passionate activists. These are not people who just worry about climate change. These are people for whom activism is a lifestyle, a passion, and an obsession.

Any serious effort to reach out to conservatives would have required an extensive network of conservative activists willing to dedicate at least a year of their lives to the march. How many conservatives consider climate change such a top priority? There’s a world of difference between accepting the science and devoting countless hours to grassroots activism for a cause.

The second problem is that the organizers of the march are dependent on the people who show up. If an anti-globalization group shows up and contributes time and money to organize the group, what can the organizers do? In some of the organizing events we attended, there were hundreds of groups present. If the organizers had started discriminating against participants based on their political views – with the obvious exception of, say, hate groups – the whole effort might have collapsed.

Inclusiveness is both the strength and weakness of grassroots activism. Almost everyone’s welcome, and there is no centralized planning committee to decide who can join the march. This means that vocal fringe groups participate. Nobody can stop them.

So, the debate about the PCM and conservatives is largely hypothetical. Everyone agrees that we need more conservative climate activists, but the PCM, by its very nature, was not a great mechanism for reaching conservatives. The PCM achieved its goal of mobilizing liberals and progressives to demand climate action, greatly increasing the salience of climate change in the United States. Given that the PCM was organized by thousands and thousands of passionate liberals and progressives, all with diverse goals and perspectives on climate change and other social issues, their ability to really connect with conservatives was limited.

We absolutely need people who can talk climate science to conservatives, such as the self-identified evangelical and top climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. In her column, Ernst also notes that climate groups such as Citizens’ Climate Lobby are demanding climate action without a liberal or conservative bias. The Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which offers explicitly conservative approaches to climate policy, is another notable effort to promote climate change mitigation from a conservative perspective.

However, it’s wishful thinking that and their allies could play this role. If the PCM organizers had tried to reach out to conservatives, they might have alienated their own supporters without convincing conservatives. A staunch conservative probably does not want to hear what Naomi Klein or Bill McKibben has to say about climate change or the future of the American economy.

To end this post on a positive note, we should not forget that radical activism on the liberal side of the political spectrum may itself even contribute to the success of moderate conservatives. If liberal activists are loud and visible, they may actually enhance the political clout of moderate conservative climate activists. In the academic literature, this is called the “radical flank effect” (gated content). For example, Martin Luther King was considered a radical by many until Malcolm X and the Black Panthers showed up. The existence of a radical alternative may make a moderate climate activist more acceptable to the public.

Naomi Klein‘s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is one of the more comprehensive and ambitious books I have read in a long while. Conveniently organized in three parts, the book makes three basic claims. First, capitalism is the key reason for our addiction to fossil fuels. Second, current solutions, such as the greening of business or major the big green environmental groups, are not solving the problem. Finally, grassroots mobilization against fossil fuels and for a new economy can solve the climate crisis.

As a piece of writing, the book is a real show of strength. Filled with interesting case studies and beautifully written, the book is impossible to put down. The argument against capitalism, which combines a critique of the growth imperative with a harsh judgment of the way the fossil fuel industry operates, is clear and logical.

This itself is notable. While many people, myself included, will disagree with Klein about the necessity of carbon pollution for economic growth, Klein cannot be accused of trying to hide her assumptions or being transparent what she’s arguing. In her view, fossil fuels remain the cheapest form of energy. In a capitalist society, economic growth is the overriding concern for the elite. Therefore, fossil fuels cannot be replaced without fundamental changes in our political and economic system.

Klein’s argument is one explanation for our inability to stop climate disruption. Another is the challenge of global collective action. If countries cannot enforce agreements on mutual carbon cuts, the argument goes, efforts to address the problem are futile. Yet another is the pernicious effect of the fossil fuel industry and its allies on climate policy. Even if capitalism can be green in principle, the reality is that, in many key countries, groups benefiting from fossil fuels — coal mine owners, electric utilities burning coal, oil and gas companies, the heavy industry, and so on — have tremendous political influence.

I don’t see a necessary connection between capitalism and carbon pollution, so to me Klein’s argument about capitalism is not compelling. Many of the destructive policies that cause climate change, such as fossil fuel subsidies, go against the logic of capitalism and free markets. Some capitalist societies, such as Denmark, have made tremendous progress toward decarbonization. I believe an alternative capitalism that puts severe limits on environmental destruction is possible. Private property need not destroy the planet.

Even some of Klein’s own chapters suggest that the case against capitalism is not always very strong. For example, Klein argues that the deregulation of the power sector in the United States and elsewhere has prevented utilities from investing in renewable energy. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is no empirical evidence for it, neither in Klein’s book nor in the literature on power sector deregulation and renewable energy. Second, there has been very little deregulation of the power sector in the United States. Most states continue to regulate electric utilities and have the statutory ability to impose renewable energy requirements on them. Indeed, renewable portfolio standards are thriving everywhere, including red states. This suggests that deregulation and capitalism are but a margin note in the grand story of renewable energy.

Despite my skepticism about Klein’s argument regarding capitalism, I found the book very valuable for my own thought and activism. Klein provides a compelling account of the booming movement against fossil fuels. In my view, this movement can welcome people who approve of capitalism. Efforts to stop “extreme energy” (Klein’s term) extraction are about environmental destruction and limiting the damage that the fossil fuel industry is causing. If this movement can, perhaps as a side-product, put pressure on governments to tackle the climate crisis, it can turn the tide. Klein’s account provides ample reason for optimism and is certainly inspiring. We can all join the movement regardless of our ideological dispositions.

To summarize, Klein’s book is an important contribution to the climate debate. Everyone working on the topic as a researcher or practitioner should read it. Few people in the field have tried to tackle the problem of climate change at the level of economic systems, and Klein does a fantastic job at it.

This past Sunday was a pretty intense day for me and the other about 310,000 people who attended the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York. The march was the largest on climate change in the history of the world, and there were thousands of supporting events around the world held at the same time.

While the energy and enthusiasm at the march was inspiring and empowering, the reason for why so many people marched was that we want to see more ambitious policies. The march itself does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it may draw more attention to climate change and send a signal to decision-makers that action is required. However, the march itself did not present a concrete political or policy demand. The event was inclusive and featured everyone, ranging from the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to anti-fracking activists, families, and religious organizations.

If there was no political demand, what may we expect? The march certainly drew more media attention than just about any other climate event — perhaps notwithstanding the unfortunate 2009 Copenhagen climate conference — in recent history. This kind of media attention creates a space for increased discussion of the dangers of climate change for people around the world and, in doing so, may put pressure on decision-makers to act.

There is also the direct effect on the participants. 310,000 is a huge number. If even a small proportion of these people go back to their communities and become more active, we may see a lot more local leadership on climate policy in the United States. New York City and State certainly seem to be ready for more aggressive policies than every before. Here in the City, the local 350 group is strong and has made great progress in raising the profile of climate change.

For me, the most inspiring lesson from the march was the opening of the NYC Climate Week on the day after. Usually protests on the street and debates among the elite — in this case, business and government elite — are far removed from each other. In the opening ceremony of the Climate Week, however, key business and government leaders emphasized how important the march was and how it is inspiring them to be more vocal on climate change. Many large corporations announced new commitments to 100% renewable power and, led by the Rockefellers, commitments to divesting from fossil fuels were also made. I believe this is the kind of convergence that can truly force change by showing that climate change is everyone’s concern. It is hard to say climate change is an extremist agenda if 4-star generals, business leaders, and ordinary families are all demanding action.

Many challenges remain. The PCM has inspired and empowered millions around the world, but activists must now follow up and turn this energy into concrete actions. I am working on this myself in a project that combines research and positive, solutions-oriented activism. The PCM probably also did not reach those members of the public, such as many conservatives in the United States, who are hostile to climate policy because they do not trust scientists and consider global warming an element of the liberal political agenda. Still, the PCM is a unique achievement in the history of environmental activism and creates an opening for real change.

By now, it is quite clear that both industrialized countries and emerging economies must act to mitigate climate change. China is already the world’s largest emitter of carbon and the gap between China and the United States grows every year. If India and other large emerging economies continue to grow at current or higher rates, their share will also grow rapidly over time. Accordingly to great new research from Berkeley, the effect of economic growth in developing countries on energy demand may be much larger than previously thought.

Although the economic and environmental gains from North-South climate cooperation would be large, our progress is not impressive. Industrialized countries insist on more action by emerging economies, citing China’s ravenous appetite for coal. Emerging economies retort with statistics showing that hundreds of millions continue to live in abject poverty within their borders.

These disagreements are both about distributional conflict and about values. Given the costs associated with climate change mitigation, the government of each country wants others to make more concessions. At the same time, industrialized countries accuse the elites in emerging economies of hiding behind the poor. In emerging economies, such accusations are dismissed as flagrant neo-colonialism.

Is there any hope of breaking the gridlock? My own sense is that this would require, first and foremost, a moral transformation in industrialized countries. We need to recognize that the case for emissions reductions is much stronger among the wealthy than among the poor. The true cost of reducing emissions among the lucky is limited to slightly higher energy prices, while overly aggressive emissions targets for the developing world would prevent the poor from gaining access to the modern services that we take as a given. Life without a fridge and other basic technologies is hard.

At the same time, we must not throw the baby out of the bathwater. Energy poverty is a compelling rationale for industrialized country leadership, but it is a dangerous message if it is used to justify inaction in the global South without an equally strong emphasis on industrialized country action. In a robust strategy, energy consumption levels would increase rapidly among the poor in developing countries while wealthier countries would invest in energy conservation and decarbonization. We, the wealthy, must accept our responsibility for creating the problem and our ability to solve it. Campaigns to prevent the poorest from using more energy are troubling. But so are campaigns to advocate greater use of fossil fuels for economic development without a strategy of climate change mitigation.

What I am proposing here is an idealist’s approach. I understand that the odds are long. Still, I would say that any approach to our global energy problems must both contribute to the eradication of poverty and mitigate climate change. If we choose to drop either one of the two goals, then we should just withdraw from the world since we are really not doing anything useful.

The cornerstone of a meaningful, effective life is action. We should always strive to be more compassionate and convert our passion into concrete acts that contribute to the welfare of all living beings.

But even if accept this statement as a principle to guide our lives, the challenge of choosing the right action remains. In a complex world, a commitment to virtue is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success. Without careful analysis, our passion may turn into a vicious cycle of self-aggrandizement and arrogance.

Effective action requires setting virtuous long-term goals and aiming for practical “small wins” that contribute to that goal. I am going to focus on the long-term goals here and return to the question of small wins later (for my academic research on small wins in climate policy, see Urpelainen 2013).

My view is that our long-term goal should be a compassionate society. It is important not to define our goals in abstract or tangential terms, such as economic growth or technological progress. The long-term goals need to reflect the ultimate goal of welfare of all living beings. For example, economic growth may even reduce the welfare of all living beings if it causes extinction or species or encourages factory farming. In this case, economic growth is not desirable.

My principles for a compassionate society are simple:

  • Our policies and actions should protect life and avoid suffering.
  • Our compassion should never be limited to human beings.
  • We should always focus on improving the lot of the destitute and the suffering. 
  • Public service is our greatest innovation and the key to a fulfilling life.

These principles are simple, but their application in reality is difficult. We often face trade-offs. Here are some very real moral dilemmas that I have faced in my own work:

  1. A planned meat-processing facility can alleviate poverty in a poor country by creating well-paying jobs, but the country’s regulations to prevent animal suffering leave a lot to be desired. Should we support the facility or campaign against it?
  2. A coal-burning power plant could eradicate energy poverty and reinvigorate local industry in a poor country, but coal carries a heavy environmental cost and contributes to climate change. Should an international development agency give a loan guarantee to enable the construction of the power plant?

Despite these trade-offs, principles are important. Without clear principles, we focus our attention on the wrong things and have no idea how to deal with trade-offs. For example, a development economist who is only interested in economic growth could cause a lot of suffering by ignoring other dimensions of a good society. Similarly, an environmentalist who has no compassion for human beings could stand in the way of improvements to the condition of the world’s poor.

One important obstacle to effective climate policy in the United States is the deep political divide between conservatives and liberals. In the conservative camp, which is skeptical of climate science, evangelical Christians are a core group, as about one-third of all Americans belong to this group.

Talking about climate change with evangelical Christians presents a difficulty to climate scientists. Most climate scientists talk about climate change in secular terms and evangelicals see the topic “as part of the liberal agenda”.

How can climate scientists and policy advocates engage the evangelical audience? Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley have written a book titled A Climate for Change to solve the problem. The book contains a basic introduction to climate science, addresses common misconceptions about climate change, summarizes the consequences of higher temperatures, and offers some practical solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There must be hundreds of such books and, to nobody’s surprise, none of them have had much effect on policy. Books about climate change are mostly read by people who are worried about… climate change and the global environment. Duh.

What’s different about this volume is that it’s written by two Christians and talks about the topic in religious terms. The authors argue that there is no tension between Christian beliefs and climate change. Further, the authors offer a theological argument emphasizing our freedom to choose our actions.

Theology notwithstanding, the argument is ultimately quite simple. We can choose to allow climate change or to mitigate it, just like we can either do nothing or help the poor. It’s our choice, and we must make that choice based on our values and beliefs. The Bible does not give even the most devout Christian a clear answer as to what we should do about climate change.

The book is engaging and well-written, and it is suitable for an important audience that is mostly neglected by climate scientists. Hayhoe and Farley offer an important contribution to the debate on climate science and policy.

Though my overall impression is positive, I have one complaint about the book. The part on solutions is a little thin, as it avoids talking about the most important question — federal climate policy and international cooperation. Personal energy conservation and investment in renewable energy are all good and fine, but a serious approach to climate change mitigation must be based on ambitious policies to constrain carbon dioxide emissions in all key countries.

The authors may have chosen to leave this topic for the future because many evangelicals associate climate policy with Al Gore and Barack Obama. However, talking about climate change to evangelicals is irrelevant for action unless it contributes to building a robust political coalition for action.

So, the next step for Hayhoe, Farley, and others in a position to engage evangelical Christians and other conservative constituencies should be to develop a political strategy that allows the federal government to act to constrain carbon pollution. My own guess is that this requires engaging both ordinary Americans and Republican activists.

What to do during those lazy weekends at the summer cabin? My preferred approach is to read biographies of people who don’t have the time or patience for lazy weekends. Although it provokes some guilt on the reader’s part, the benefit of inspiration more than outweighs the cost.

For this purpose, I strongly recommend Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a biography of Paul Farmer (Partners in Health). It’s a story of a man whose passion for serving the poor is difficult to describe in words without understatement. Kidder does a great job at describing Farmer’s intense efforts to provide the world’s destitute with high-quality healthcare in Haiti, Peru, Russia… and so on.

What does this have to do with climate policy? Farmer is a living example of what passion and commitment can do. He has spent decades serving and advocating for some of the most marginalized population in this world, with great results. His enthusiasm for his cause is simply infectious and makes me want to work much harder. And I’m saying this despite exceptionally glorious summer weather here at my home base in Oulu, Finland.

One of the most interesting and important papers I’ve recently read is “How Pro-Poor Growth Affects the Demand for Energy” (Gertler, Shelef, Wolfram, Fuchs). The paper begins with the notion that as household incomes increase, the demand for discrete assets that consume high amounts of electricity, such as fridges, grows rapidly. Consequently, economic development may result in a massive, discontinuous increase in residential electricity consumption. As large segments of the population leave extreme poverty, they start to purchase assets that lock in a high level of electricity consumption.

The evidence for the claim comes from impact evaluation data on a large cash transfer intervention in Mexico. The authors show that, by increasing household incomes, the impact evaluation caused a spike in the demand for refrigerators over time. Consistent with this result, cross-sectional data across households shows that electricity consumption went up.

The authors then conduct a simple prediction exercise for electricity consumption in developing countries between 1980 and 2006 using national data from 37 developing countries. The main finding is that higher income levels are strongly associated with electricity consumption in countries where economic growth is associated with low levels of income inequality.

Why is this such a big deal? Concerns about income inequality have prompted many emerging countries from China to India to invest in pro-poor policies. Our current demand forecast models do not account for these policies and may, therefore, underestimate the growth of electricity demand in the future. Since most demand growth is bound to come from developing countries, today’s forecasting models may understate the difficulty of providing billions of people with affordable energy while combating climate change. Further research on this topic should be at the very top of the research agenda in energy economics. For once, I kind of regret not switching from political science to economics. This is the kind of research that could and should have a huge impact on policy.

Every year, development agencies like the World Bank invest billions of dollars in energy projects. In June 2013, the Bank made a decision to restrict financing of coal-fired power plants to “rare” circumstances. The idea of this decision was to emphasize the Bank’s commitment to mitigating climate change. In the United States, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation restricts funding on all fossil fuels.

Since I’m an environmentalist, my gut reaction would be to cheer for these decisions, as they represent small steps toward a more sustainable world. However, I’m not sure these restrictions are cost-effective or ethical. The world’s poor consume little electricity, with the typical fridge in the United States consuming more per year than 9 Ethiopians.

In such a context, it strikes me as hypocritical and ineffective to raise barriers to electricity access for the poor of this world. We should, instead, focus our efforts on reducing the overconsumption of fossil fuels among the wealthy.

One could counter me by saying that renewable energy is now a realistic alternative and we no longer need fossil fuels. Indeed, that’s what organizations like the Sierra Club are saying. They believe renewables — especially solar — provide the best way forward for eradicating energy poverty.

My own experience, largely based on fieldwork in India and Tanzania, is that it’s more complicated than that. In some developing country settings, renewable energy is now the best source of power for the grid. In others, it is not. Off-grid renewables have made some progress in providing lighting and mobile charging for people, but they’re far from being able to provide modern energy services to billions at an affordable cost. We need to support renewables to tap into their potential, but we should not set unrealistic goals or forgo excellent opportunities to eradicate poverty by using fossil fuels.

In a complex world, blanket bans on fossil fuels are not a good idea. We absolutely need environmental and social safeguards on energy projects, as they can cause a lot of damage, but we should analyze these projects on a case-by-case basis. Providing the world’s poor with electricity should be a top priority for us, and sometimes natural gas — or even coal — is the best solution. If a power plant can provide badly needed electricity for millions and does not have a noticeable effect on global carbon emissions, it should be built.

This position may be unpopular among my fellow environmentalists, but I am by now convinced that it is the ethical one. There’s a huge difference between campaigning for measures to reduce or decarbonize energy consumption among the global wealthy and among the poor. The wealthy must lead efforts to mitigate climate change.

I’m planning to write a follow-up post on this to clarify my position on when we should make decarbonization a top priority in energy projects,  but that’s for another day — now I need to go back to work to reduce energy poverty in India through solar power.

I’m a big fan of a good rant, occasionally offering one myself about my true passion, BibTeX entries, to my sloppy co-authors. So it’s not surprising that What We Leave Behind, a 2009 book about waste by environmentalists Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, won me over. It was a thoroughly entertaining read. Highly recommended!

The book offers a lot of disturbing detail about the waste humans generate and how it shapes the natural environment. For example, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of how plastic waste maims and kills sea life (for more information and opportunities to act, see Plastic Oceans). The analysis of our global waste problem is compelling, if perhaps depressing.

The ranting truly begins with solutions. Both Jensen and McBay advocate a radical approach of active resistance. They believe that industrial civilization is on the path to self-destruction and that incremental reforms are woefully insufficient. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“It’s true that, as we discussed earlier, the collapse of large, centralized organizations can offer great opportunities for community-scale resurgence and resistance. Unfortunately, it’s also true that a partial failure of a state or economy without the thorough dismantlement of oppressive power structures also provides an opportunity for more ruthless power-mongers.”

This goes on, and on, and on… and on. But while the 500-page rant is entertaining, I doubt it provides a real solution to our environmental problem. To me, radical approaches seem effective when they mobilize large segments of the public as supporters. For example, Nelson Mandela’s fight against the apartheid system in South Africa was effective because, ultimately, both the black majority and the international community considered extreme racial discrimination worse than violent self-defense.

I doubt that’s true of environmental campaigns. Ethics notwithstanding, violent resistance may be effective in certain local contexts. For example, Indian farmers may defeat a coal-burning power plant through violent action if their plight appeals to the broader public. It doesn’t follow, though, that radical action in industrialized countries will bring millions of Americans, Europeans, or Japanese to the barricades. As bad as our environmental problems are, they are not an urgent concern in the everyday life of most people.

Effective activism should focus on winning battles. We need concrete targets and goals that reduce environmental degradation, build a strong environmental coalition, and win the hearts and minds of the general public. Violence and destruction of property alienate the general public and strengthen the hand of anti-environmental interest groups.

So, the rant is epic but misguided. Environmentalism is at times a frustrating vocation, but that’s yet another reason to maintain a sharp focus on effectiveness. As long as environmental campaigners set realistic goals guided by strategy and achieve them, life on the planet has better prospects. Acting out of frustration — something I find myself doing all too often — is a recipe for failure.


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