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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Environmentalists should renew message and appeal to states

DEEBA YAVROM / AGGIE FILE

The environmental movement can take advantage of its lost political power

Environmentalists have good reason to be sullen these days. This dear planet is tumbling unimpeded towards phosphorous depletion, ocean acidification, warmer climate and mass extinction. Developing countries are unable to tackle high birth rates and inefficient resource use. Our country, with the world’s largest economy and most influential power, is now governed by a political party with parochial views on the environment.

Environmental interests have no voice in Washington except the senate filibuster. Until this Republican-dominated political cycle runs its course, demands for new federal action will be fruitless. Legal organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation will be on the defensive to protect the country’s existing, barely adequate anti-emission policy from Republican assault instead of on the offensive trying to tackle ever more threatening problems. In this woeful political situation, what can conscientious environmentalists do to affect positive change?

Environmentalists should take an intermission from power to strengthen their movement’s foundations. Thanks to internal weaknesses, the environmental movement whittled away its last major opportunity to influence legislative policy, when Obama and the Democrats swept Washington in 2008. To avoid a repeat, the movement should prepare itself before the next liberal administration provides it another romp with power.

First, the environmental movement should shift its focus to encouraging state government action. One inadvertent bright point of our divided political climate is that many Democratic localities have stayed blue in the face of 2016’s Republican upset. As the Constitution leaves powers not granted to the federal government to state governments, states like Hawaii and California have already implemented sweeping environmental agendas. Our Golden State has sustained strong economic growth while implementing cap-and-trade policy, clean water rules and electric vehicle incentives — defying conservative warnings of dampered productivity.

Environmental groups should urge such sympathetic administrations to forge ahead with regulation. In particular, they should target Pennsylvania, a large producer of oil and coal led by a Democratic governor. Not only do state actions shift large populations within our country towards sustainable energy, but they also serve as trial and error to discover the most effective environmental legislation. Courageous states, in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, can “serve as [laboratories]” for innovative solutions to excess greenhouse emissions. As with our historical progresses towards slavery abolition, women’s suffrage and civil rights, future federal policy is bound to draw from the successes of the states.

Second, the environmental movement should work its hardest to depoliticize the issue of climate change. Fossil fuel special interests have been remarkably successful at lumping climate change with issues like abortion and immigration into the public’s perception of a “liberal agenda.” They have seized upon a tiny contingent of skeptical scientists to hinder “anti-business” environmental policy and undermine public faith in scientific consensus. These groups have also incentivized military-friendly Republicans to ignore the Pentagon’s warnings that climate change is a “significant risk” to national security.

Environmentalists should assert the factual higher ground by pivoting towards neutrality. They should strive for the bipartisanship of the late ‘60s, when laws like the Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act enjoyed broad, bipartisan congressional support. The movement should keep climate change as far above the partisan fray as possible. When climate change is raised in political discussion, climate supporters should frame it in terms of national security, which both the left and right have a stake in. Ecological organizations ought to avoid commentary on unrelated social and economic issues, and emphasize their political neutrality by giving voice to climate-conscious conservatives. And above all, advocacy groups like Greenpeace and Ecowatch must purge themselves of malignant fringe groups, like the anti-vaccine and anti-GMO movements, for the sake of their scientific credibility.

The 2016 election was a blow to the already dismal prospects of environmentalists. But this new political order is also a great opportunity. By coalescing support and perfecting policy in sympathetic states, and reasserting its non-partisan objectivity, the environmental movement can make a great comeback as a lean, mean, green political machine.

Maybe the global thermometer is half-empty after all.
Written by: Sid Bagga — sabagga@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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