Commentary: Activist etiquette

5 suggestions for avoiding pitfalls in environmental activism and advocacy 

October 31, 2015

By Peter Dykstra
Environmental Health News

I’ve been around environmental news and politics for decades, either chronicling it or participating in it. It’s a crucial time right now, so I respectfully offer five hunks of advice, based on the past mistakes I’ve seen. Or had a hand in.

1. Don’t expect climate deniers to go away anytime soon.

When beliefs become political articles of faith, they die hard, or not at all. It’s been more than a decade since climate denial escaped the surly bonds of reality. If a torrent of peer-reviewed science and on-the-ground evidence of a changing climate can’t change calcified minds, what will?


A few of the lions of denial will soon fade, but more likely it will be old age, rather than politics, ecological turmoil, economics, or common sense. Senator James Inhofe soon turns 81; Charles Koch turns 80 this weekend, and David Koch is 76.

It’s tragic that the U.S. Congress has become a citadel of anti-science behavior. That won’t change soon, either. Climate deniers like Joe Barton and Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher of California and others routinely coast to re-election in politically safe districts.

If that doesn’t convince you, stop by my house in Georgia. I’ll introduce you to some neighbors who haven’t given up on the Civil War yet. If Appomattox Denial can last for 150 years, climate denial stands to be durable as well. Deal with it.

2. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons for clean energy advocates to hate fracking. But ….

Fracking once flared brightly in the dreams of many an environmentalist. As late as 2010, the venerable Worldwatch Institute saw natural gas as a long-term partner in the move away from fossil fuels. The Sierra Club, embracing the “bridge fuel” language of the day, took $25 million from Chesapeake Energy and others, to be used against the frackers’ coal competitors. (Now that was a mistake, folks).

The more the world learned about fracking, the more the “bridge fuel” seemed like a wrong turn. The secrecy, the land swindles, the water consumption, the sand consumption, the health questions, the never-ending truck traffic, the backdoor politics, the methane leaks, the gas flares, the bomb trains, the earthquakes. I shudder to think about what North Dakota, or parts of Texas and Pennsylvania, will look like in a couple of decades after the boom goes completely bust.

There are more than enough reasons to fear and loathe fracking. But it’s a mistake to do so without taking a high-altitude look at what it’s done to the global energy landscape. Russia’s gas dominance and Saudi Arabia’s tarry tyranny are on the financial ropes. Coal, at least domestically, is on death watch. Nuclear power plants are shutting. Arctic oil and gas aren’t worth the bother or risk. All primarily because fracking has knocked the bottom out of oil and gas pricing.

Doug Grinbergs/flickr

This is hardly a godsend, since fracking’s price impacts have also slowed, but not killed, wind and solar growth. But it’s a part of the picture that shouldn’t be ignored.

Think of fracking as the despicable rich uncle you loathe to see at the holidays: He’s nothing but trouble, but in the end, at least you’ll get something out of it.

3. PLEASE stop saying we’re doomed in ten years.

Finite predictions are almost always trouble. The great stand-up philosopher Henny Youngman observed this when he said, “My doctor told me I had three months to live. I told him I couldn’t pay my bill, so he gave me another three months.”

In late 2005, climate scientist Jim Hansen started laying the ten-year deadline in his speeches. In 2006, he told NBC News, “I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change ... no longer than a decade, at the most.”

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth set the same timetable in 2006: “We have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe."

But as Hansen’s and Gore’s Doomsday Clocks cranked up, others were winding down, or gone. In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists assembled an impressive array of 1,700 scientists to sign a Warning to Humanity. “No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished.”

And ten years before that, Mustafa Tolba, head of the U.N.’s Environment Programme, foretold an even earlier doom, predicting: “By the turn of the century, an environmental catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible, as any nuclear holocaust.”

The long eye of history will certainly look well upon the prescience of people like Gore and Hansen, NGO’s like the Union of Concerned Scientists, and world bodies like UNEP. But setting a doomsday deadline for climate action helps no one, save possibly for the deniers who delight in using it as an example of “alarmism” after the deadline passes. Just don’t do that.

4. Environmental interest is cyclical: 1970, Earth Day; 1990, another big push. We’re due for a third one. Oh, and the interest only lasts a few years.

The birth of the modern environmental movement is often placed around 1970. Telegenic environmental catastrophes frequented the evening news—an awful oil spill along the coastline at Santa Barbara, the flammable Cuyahoga River—as concern grew about the environment. Young environmental groups like the NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund flourished; new ones were born—Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace—and old-line groups like the Sierra Club found new blood, all as Congress and the unlikeliest of treehuggers, Richard Nixon, passed a flurry of key conservation laws. The enthusiasm faded after a few years.

By 1990, another series of telegenic disasters re-awakened environmental politics: Bhopal, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdez, and chilling stories about global warming and ozone holes. Earth Day’s 20th Anniversary was marked with a massive Washington rally and a two-hour prime-time ABC TV special. And again, it faded.

The third wave is overdue, and the telegenic disasters are beginning to pile up: Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima, Sandy. Be ready for it, and work quickly.


5. Don’t take climate action as a given by the new President.

Humor me for a minute on this one. Let’s say, come January 20, 2016, that it’s not Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Ben Carson being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. What if it’s Hillary Clinton? What does it mean for climate change?

If the past two Democratic Presidents are any indication, don’t expect much in the first term, even with a sharpened global focus on climate. Bill Clinton and his Vice President, Al Gore, focused on a failed BTU tax proposal in their first term. Climate change didn’t even rate a State of the Union speech shout-out until late in the second term in 1998.

And in a 2012 story in The Guardian, environmental leaders revealed that they were summoned to a White House meeting two months into Obama’s first term and told flat-out that the issue would have to wait. It wasn’t until Obama’s 2012 re-election that the words “climate change” were frequently uttered by the White House, let alone acted on.

So if Hillary Clinton gets in, I have a modest proposal: Michelle Obama made nutrition her signature issue; Laura Bush had education as her centerpiece. Perhaps the new First Lady could tackle climate change as his primary issue? Just sayin’.

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