I have been following climate and energy campaigns in several countries for almost seven years, both as an active participant and an interested observer. These campaigns have grown stronger over the years, and they appear to have withstood the disappointment with the Copenhagen Conference and the negative publicity surrounding climate science and the IPCC. But they have not achieved the goal of triggering the energy revolution that we so badly need.
This does not surprise social scientists. Climate change is a global problem that cannot be addressed without international cooperation. Climate change is a complex problem that is difficult to understood. Climate change is a huge problem that provokes emotions of despair not empowerment. Climate change is an economic problem drive by fossil fuels, and these fossil fuels are immensely profitable for powerful special interests.
For these reasons, it is difficult to convince politicians and citizens that urgent action is needed. Why should we do something when the Chinese keep polluting? If the science is complicated, why can’t we wait until it is settled? Given the budget deficit, should we not wait until the economy recovers? Now that the economy has recovered, should we not wait until fuel prices go down? And so on.
Climate and energy campaigners have tried to form a coalition for rapid action in several ways. They have emphasized the immediate benefits of clean energy, such as manufacturing jobs and future competitiveness. This is the message of the Repower America campaign, for example. They have made side deals with powerful interest groups. For instance, the American Power Act provides generous loan guarantees and tax credit worth $54 billion dollars to the nuclear industry. And they have argued, especially in the United States, that climate sustainability and energy independence go hand-in-hand. Perhaps the most important example of how this strategy can help are the military veterans who support climate legislation.
Yet it is clear that climate campaigning remains an unprecedented strategic challenge. If people all around the world could feel the effects of climate change right here, right now, in the form of repeated natural disasters, I would imagine that building support for clean energy would be a walk in the park. There is an enormous gap between the true severity of the problem — potentially catastrophic consequences — and its present visibility — very limited and easy to dispute because weather conditions vary regardless of climate change.
The problem is even worse than this. Not only is climate change difficult to sell as a problem to the public, but it is also an immensely grueling topic for the campaigners. How are you supposed to cheerfully campaign for the common good when no local victory is big enough to turn the tide (it is a global problem), the consequences of failure are truly terrifying (it is a potentially catastrophic problem), and the lobbyists spreading disinformation about climate science appear to have unlimited resources (powerful special interests profit immensely from fossil fuels)? For starters, Gillian Caldwell of the 1Sky campaign offers 16 tips for avoiding climate burnout.
The one thing that climate campaigners do have going for them is that you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to realize how important climate advocacy is. Even if climate change is difficult to address, it will remain a priority for environmental groups. It will continue draw highly talented and motivated individuals who will do everything they can do find clever ways to build a winning coalition. Of the people who have truly impressed and changed me, most are relentless climate advocates. For me, that’s a good enough reason for optimism.