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The Climate Change Movement Needs a Reboot

J. Mijin Cha

A few weeks ago, released a series of internal documents from the Heartland Institute, one of the leaders of the climate denial movement, which shows the Institute’s strategy for pushing their climate denying message. Among their ideas was a corporate-funded plan to teach children that climate change was “controversial,” which included modules on whether climate science was controversial and how classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant was also controversial. Actually, these ideas are controversial only to climate deniers. There is broad consensus in the scientific community that climate change is indeed happening and that human produced carbon dioxide is a significant contributor. But, let’s not let facts get in the way.

A few days after the climate denying documents were leaked, it was revealed that a scientist posed as a Heartland board member to obtain them. Misleading? Yes. Does it discredit what the documents reveal? Absolutely not. Some have even argued that climate change advocates should go even farther in fighting fire with fire. So, what was in the documents that is causing such controversy?

Not surprisingly, Heartland receives a lot of money from big corporate interests and conservative foundations. What is surprising is that the memos show the anti-climate change work is largely funded by private individual donations and not by the big fossil fuel companies. Nearly half of Heartland’s revenue over the past six years came from just one donor. And, when contacted by reporters about the leaked documents, many firms who donated to Heartland for other programs quickly distanced themselves from the climate deniers. It seems, then, that the drive to misinform the public about climate change is largely being driven by individuals as part of a broader ideological quest.

In fact, climate change has been slowly entering into culture war territory for a while now. A few months ago, the Washington Post’s Michael Gershon discussed the escalation in hostility around climate change discussions. Gershon made the case for distancing science from ideology and the need to remove climate change from culture war rhetoric. However, his reasoned argument was derailed when he felt the need to place blame for the climate controversy on climate change advocates who “discredit their (climate scientists) work through hyperbole and arrogance.” No mention, though, of the rabid climate deniers who physically threaten and intimidate climate scientists and how they contribute to pushing climate change into culture war territory.

Gershon’s blame game in an editorial about how we need to remove emotions (and to be fair, my response to it) show just how polarized discussions around climate change have become. We have entered into an era of public discourse where issues like solar energy are being framed as issues of liberty and freedom. Not to mention the backlash against seemingly innocuous policies, like bike lanes and smart growth. To see the somewhat dry issues of renewable energy and sustainable development discussed in the same vein as reproductive choice and marriage equality is strange, to say the least.

While part of the blame for this dynamic can be placed on conservative ideologues, climate change and environmental advocates must also accept part of the blame. A recent report showed how funding for the environmental movement is heavily skewed towards large, professionalized environmental organizations and not smaller, grassroots focused groups. The report highlights how environmental funders have largely favored narrow, inside-the-beltway types of lobbying campaigns instead of supporting more localized, community-focused approaches. As a consequence, the environmental movement has not achieved large-scale wins in a long time, as evidenced by the implosion of the cap and trade bill. Indeed, the most recent environmental win, the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline, was achieved through a strong organizing campaign that brought thousands of people to D.C. and not through an insider game.

So, where do we go from here? How do we remove climate change from the culture wars and back into technocrat land, where it belongs? The first step would seem to be an internal refocus for environmental advocates and a shift away from the top-down, insider game approach towards more community-focused organizing. Corporate money can never be matched through funds but it can be neutralized by mobilized communities.