The Emerging Environmental Majority

Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly has an article that contains one of the best potted histories of American environmental movements (yes, plural) that I’ve seen lately. (She also explains why some of us reject the label environmentalist.) She traces the contribution of hunters, anglers, and foresters on the first wave of American environmental policies, and of farmers, hydrologists, and soil conservation scientists on the second wave. She describes well the third wave, as 1970s urban and suburban pollution fighters as counterparts to the conservationists already on the scene (and usefully explicates the professionalization of the environmental movement into a DC-based watchdog mode after the bipartisan passage of landmark environmental legislation in the Nixon era).

When it comes to describing the present, however, she seems to engage in a little wishful thinking. She quotes a leading environmental group’s CEO as claiming that global warming will almost certainly “be the glue that brings everyone together.”

I’m not so sure. There has been an intentional strategy for the last five years to connect all other environmental concerns to global warming–to create an umbrella issue under which all other concerns find their place. In the process, all sorts of useful collaborations and conversations about other environmental issues have significantly slowed. It has led to more polarization, not less, and the complicity of the mass media in the strategy has led many Americans to believe that the dangers of global warming have been exaggerated.

Climate change is a threat to our economy and the economies of other nations, whether or not people are causing it. We can certainly find common ground on strategies and investments to protect the poor from natural disasters, even if anthropogenic global warming has been exaggerated. Investments in energy efficiency save money, reduce pollution, and create healthier cities–but enforcing a “this-is-really-about-global-warming” orthodoxy repulses many willing partners in that enterprise. Clean energy technologies (including nuclear energy done right) are something that global warming advocates and skeptics might agree on, if the conversation were about something other than reducing greenhouse gases (like public health, or national security). Liveable, walkable neighborhoods make the lives of all kids, all elders, and all disabled people healthier, regardless of their beliefs about the climate system. Addressing biodiversity loss and the decline in ecosystem services required for flourishing economies is necessary whatever our stance on climate science and policy.

Unfortunately, most of the possibilities for common ground get lumped by greens into the category of “co-benefits”: a strange label which makes it sound as if these benefits are really side-effects of trying to fix global warming. That means potential partners are still asked to see themselves supporting an agenda they may not support. That’s asking a lot.

In the process of finding other things to work on, global warming advocates, skeptics, and the ambivalent will find that they have a lot in common (love of family, concern for the poor, care for future generations, sense of place). It may feel like changing the subject instead of winning a argument, but we’ve gone about as far as we can go in the public debate over global warming, thanks to the politics which have infected our public square and even our scientific establishment.  Nature is slowly providing the data we need to reach stronger conclusions about climate change, but we dare not let our paralysis about climate keep us from the rest of the task of stewarding natural resources for the common good.

Larson’s “environmental majority” is already here, and has been for sometime. Americans are already agreed that we cherish clean water, clean air, healthy food, a rich natural heritage, and vibrant natural resource-based economies. We can’t wait for the emergence of a “climate majority” to rededicate ourselves to the task of caring for these essentials.

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