OPINION: Turn up the Heat in the Climate Battle

Are environmental groups still relevant as the world battles climate change? On the face of it, this seems a farcical question. Environmentalists have worked tirelessly to alert the public and decision-makers alike to the dangers of climate change and to advocate a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels. And on June 26, many celebrated when the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill [PDF] - the first U.S. climate legislation ever.

But as the climate debate enters a decisive phase - with negotiations in full swing to hammer out an international agreement in Copenhagen this year - there is a darker side. With few exceptions, current national goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are weak and typically push action to the distant, rather than the near, future. Although part of the environmental community has responded critically, other groups claim that more stringent climate action is simply not politically feasible - and that asking for more risks the collapse of any climate deal.

The Obama administration's chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, has rejected calls for industrialized countries to cut their emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. He not only opposed such cuts as "not feasible" for the United States, but strikingly judged them as "unnecessary." ACES is muddying the waters by pegging reductions to 2005, rather than to the internationally recognized benchmark of 1990. The reason seems clear:  given the strong growth of U.S. emissions in the interim, proposed reductions of 17 percent relative to 2005 look much better than the measly 4 percent relative to 1990.

Even some of the European governments that paraded themselves as climate champions while George Bush was in the White House are now backtracking on climate goals. Strong corporate pressure, reinforced by the jitters of the global financial crisis, has given them pause. Rich countries are evading their historical responsibility for the bulk of emissions. Instead of strong domestic action, "offsets" are being presented as the great savior - asking poorer nations to shoulder the burden that wealthy countries are not prepared to bear themselves. From a national perspective, offsets may be an option; from a global perspective, they amount to a rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

As far back as 1998, my Worldwatch colleague Christopher Flavin criticized international climate negotiations as a "black box - a process largely invisible and incomprehensible to the public." His article, "Last Tango in Buenos Aires" (the city where the negotiations of the day were being held), sounded a clarion call for decisive action. But the years and rounds of meetings since have mostly brought delays and excuses, steadily kicking the can down the road. The refrain has become predictable: "We didn't succeed in [place name], but we still have the upcoming meeting in [place name] to get it right."

Well, we are reaching the end of the road. In Worldwatch's State of the World 2009 report, climate scientist Bill Hare argues that fossil carbon dioxide emissions will need to come close to zero by 2050 - decades earlier than what most governments envision - and that deforestation needs to end well before 2030. The longer we delay serious action, the greater the danger of reaching destabilizing tipping points.

Segments of the environmental movement, especially grassroots-oriented groups, have been quite vocal in their criticism of current policies. But others have endorsed weak proposals, arguing that they can be improved upon later - without offering a strategy for doing so or a reason why the balance of forces should be expected to be more favorable later on. Their slogan of choice is "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Catchy, but is it convincing?

The ultimate outcome of any process is the product of ideas and proposals put forward by different actors, as well as the relative power of these actors. Environmental groups that fail to turn up the pressure are effectively narrowing the scope of what is politically possible. It is like waving a white flag while the battle is still raging.

Some may honestly feel that there is no other way - that status quo forces in government and the corporate world are too powerful. But there's also an inconvenient truth. Not rocking the boat often equals respectability in mainstream opinion for environmental organizations. Having access to the corridors of power, whether in Washington, Brussels, or other world capitals, gives the appearance of influence and importance - and surely helps in securing future funding.

While compromise and horse-trading may be essential in politics, the Earth's climate is not swayed by it. In light of the disappointing trajectory of climate policymaking, environmentalists need to rediscover their roots. Rallying public opinion is critical to gain leverage in the titanic struggle over the Earth's fate.

Environmental groups need to hold fast to the demands of climate science, continue to offer credible alternatives, and criticize and expose inadequate policies. (For all the celebration following the House passage of ACES, this legislation is in great need of strengthening as the Senate considers it.) There is nothing wrong with continuing quiet lobbying and consultations. But that alone will not suffice.

What is needed now is smart and persistent public messaging and mobilizing constituents so as to put legislators and corporate executives on notice: politics as usual will not save the planet. It is time to turn up the heat in the fight against global warming. The livelihoods, and lives, of hundreds of millions of people are at stake.

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C.