Does the Gay Marriage Fight Point a Way Forward on Climate Change?

Progress on climate change is stalled by politics. Is it time to take a page from the marriage-equality playbook?

Caught up in climate change politics, can we learn something from the fight for marriage equality? (Photo: Getty Images). 

Jun 6, 2013
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

A Los Angeles activist works for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal program by day; at night he delves into the immigration bureaucracy separating him from his family.

A reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper demands that his editors cover climate on a war footing. When he’s ignored, he joins the new green abolitionists he’s previously covered from a distance.

A Boston investor calling himself a Scott Brown Republican arranges venture capital for clean technology—he’s not a tree hugger, he simply sees it as the economy of the future.

Historically, solutions to knotty environmental problems have come from politicians carefully crafting compromise bills. This time, with political solutions nowhere in sight, models from unlikely sources may show us the way forward in the fight to stop climate change.

Current Politics: Hopelessly Stalled

Failure to move climate policy forward is a failure of politics, not of policy.

Numerous scientific reports show that the world can power itself 80 percent or even 100 percent with renewables by 2050—all that’s missing is the political will to do so.

But partisanship in Washington has suffocated any national action on climate. A cap and trade bill passed the House of Representatives in 2009 before dying in the Senate without even a floor vote; four years later the Beltway establishment won’t even discuss it. And, the possibility for the passage of other carbon-capping concepts—say cap-and-dividend or a carbon tax—are similarly nowhere in sight.

With Congressional action deadlocked, environmentalists look to the executive branch. By some measures, President Obama has done more than a watered-down climate bill ever could. He signed forward-thinking fuel-efficiency standards, and his EPA has made it harder for the dirtiest of our aging coal-fired power plants to pollute. These actions, and a few others, were enough for New York magazine to crown Obama “the environmental president” in May 2013.

But the President’s “all of the above” energy rhetoric also embraces expanded offshore oil drilling. And then there’s the single defining issue on the White House climate agenda: the Keystone XL pipeline.

Most observers expect Obama to approve the contentious pipeline, despite a 2010 “game over for the planet” warning from James Hansen, one of the nation’s top climatologists who recently retired from NASA to become a full-time activist.

Marriage Equality and Immigration: Role Models for a Climate Movement?

“Two, three, four years ago, nobody would have imagined how gay rights would have transformed this country—it’s so inspiring,” said former Vice President Al Gore, in February 2013, at an event in Long Beach, California. “That same conversation phenomenon has to happen on carbon.” 

The almost total turnaround on marriage equality—from both houses of Congress passing the Defense Of Marriage Act during the Clinton administration to present day, with almost all Democratic Senators and a few Republicans favoring marriage equality—has been stunning.

Scott Wooledge, a longtime LGBT activist who chained himself to the White House fence in 2011 to advocate against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” says that climate advocates would be wise to borrow one public relations tactic from the marriage equality movement: Get personal.

Every time a state passes a marriage equality law, an elderly couple waiting decades for a marriage license is first in line, says Wooledge. “That’s not a coincidence. It’s partly a sign of respect within the gay community, but it’s also part of an orchestrated effort to put that human face of love on a political campaign,” he says.

Another burgeoning social movement, immigration reform, has similarly deployed personal narratives to move the ball down the field.

“The DREAMers have made the immigration reform movement, moribund for a time in the 1990s and early 2000s, relevant again,” says Refugio Mata, who spent 12 years fighting deportation proceedings on behalf of his parents, only recently succeeding. In his day job at the Sierra Club, he helps Latinos make direct connections between asthma and nearby power plants.

DREAMers—“Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors”—is an awkward acronym for people who arrived in the United States as children, only to learn that they are not citizens.

Another parallel between immigration reform and the climate movement: shifting demographics. As older deniers die off, they will be replaced by younger voters more likely to believe in climate change.

Still, immigration reform and marriage equality have four assets that climate change does not: electoral consequences; bipartisan agreement on the problem if not the solution; cultural roots; and a long history of fighting.

Washington insiders perceive environmental advocates as ineffective in forcing electoral consequences; there is no bipartisan consensus on the cause of the problem, even though 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientists say that climate change is both occurring and caused by man; and global warming is probably too new to have roots or history.

Simply put, these hot-button social issues seem further along in the political process than does climate.

The New Abolitionists

Wen Stephenson, 45, was a card-carrying member of the mainstream media—an editor of The Boston Globe’s Ideas section, a former editor at National Public Radio and The Atlantic.

But last October he demanded that his editors cover the climate crisis as one on the magnitude of World War II. They refused. He now writes about and considers himself to be a New Abolitionist—a term that he didn’t invent, but that which he did popularize.

“It’s a moral crisis,” says Stephenson. “The political obstruction is at an all-time high, and we don’t see a political solution. A radical movement can succeed when the political system is broken.”

Stephenson is very careful not to draw precise factual analogies between climate and slavery, but he does see strong parallels between the two systems. And his view is resonating among wealthy green donors and activists who recently compared the Thirteenth Amendment to the Keystone pipeline, calling it “a presidential choice that will signal a fundamentally new direction for our nation.”

Today, five years after Gore suggested young people block bulldozers to prevent construction of coal-fired plants, they’re literally super-gluing themselves to TransCanada offices and chaining themselves to Texas trees in the path of the Keystone pipeline’s southern leg.

And, students up and down the East Coast, inspired by Bill McKibben’s “Do The Math” tour, are now demanding that universities divest their endowments from fossil fuels in a movement explicitly modeled on the anti-apartheid South Africa divestment movement of the 1980s.

“The divestment campaign is important because it means that we’re finally going on offense against the fossil fuel industry, as well as playing defense against one dirty fuel project after another,” says McKibben.

Should these activists be dismissed as radicals by most of their peers and parents? Or will they be seen as this generation’s conductors on the Underground Railroad?

McKibben, who sees the melting of the Arctic as the most worrisome climate development since An Inconvenient Truth played in theaters, says that he’s most hopeful about “the rise of a global grassroots movement.”

Stephenson’s outlook is considerably bleaker.

“If we haven’t fundamentally changed the politics of climate in this country in the next seven years, it’s over,” he says. “It may already be over—we don’t really know, do we? All we know is the window is closing. That’s why we have to communicate the urgency and the scale of the crisis.”

The Green Economy: An Unfulfilled Opportunity

There are more solar energy jobs than actors in California, and more solar energy jobs than ranchers in Texas. Tesla, the luxury electric vehicle manufacturer, has finally turned a profit. Clean-energy stocks are outperforming the S&P 500. Indeed, optimism pervades the renewable-energy industry—there’s a sense that the age of fossil fuels is going the way of kerosene and whale oil.

One of these clean-energy apostles is Rob Day, a self-described “Scott Brown Republican.”

The politically moderate Massachusetts native started at Bain & Company—no, not the one associated with Mitt Romney—and is now a venture capital investor specializing in clean technology. Among his successful investments: Digital Lumens, maker of intelligent lighting fixtures.

He has been around long enough to see fads come and go, and, he says, the clean-tech movement, both in the U.S. and abroad, is here to stay.

Several products—rooftop solar panels, LED lighting, a few others—are seeing very strong growth even in the absence of federal policy that would stimulate both the research, development, and deployment of clean-energy technology

“We will see a significant change in how people view clean technologies, from being outlier new green technologies to being simply part of their everyday lives,” he says.

But his rosy outlook flies in the face of a recent somber warning from the International Energy Agency—that, short of a planetary-wide, all-hands-on-deck approach to low-carbon energy, the clean tech movement is progressing way too slowly to limit global warming.

“Despite much talk by world leaders, and a boom in renewable energy over the past decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago,” said Maria van der Hoeven, the IEA’s executive director.

So, What’s Next?

The world possesses the tools to solve global warming, as Gore stated seven years ago in An Inconvenient Truth. What it doesn’t have is the political will, either within the American system or internationally. A wartime footing is a political impossibility absent drastic changes to the political system.

“I certainly hope that seven years from now, we’ll be talking about how everything came together five years ago, with a second-term president who recognized the issue of climate change as his true opportunity for a meaningful and lasting legacy, working together with a newly elected Congress, that was voted in by the people with a mandate to tackle the issue,” says Michael Mann, a noted climatologist at Pennsylvania State University.

But, assuming that Mann’s hopes will not become reality, and indifference is not an option, what can we—what should we—do?

Live the American dream 2.0: A chicken in every backyard, a solar panel on every roof, and an electric vehicle in every garage. Do whatever it takes to change the American political system: Elect Republicans who acknowledge that climate change is both real and manmade, or elect only Democrats. And, whenever and however, tell and share the personal stories of those at risk from climate change.

Then, and only then, might the Earth of 2100, she of a projected 15 billion occupants, be able to look back, shake her head, and marvel that she was somehow able to survive the slow advance of a seemingly terminal plague: fossil-fuel-burning human beings.

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