Political Animal


April 04, 2013 5:06 PM Green Fissures

By Ed Kilgore

A couple of times I’ve mentioned Jason Mark’s long piece at TAP about growing tensions within the environmental movement, and am surprised it hasn’t created more of a buzz (in Google-searchable public venues, anyway). Maybe some think he’s airing dirty laundry, or perhaps others don’t agree with some of his premises. But there’s not much question that the most immediate dispute he’s talking about—whether supporting greater use of less-damaging energy sources is the proper short-term strategy for fighting climate change, or that amounts to surrender—is a reasonably big strategic problem for progressives generally. Here’s how Mark puts it:

The biggest divide may be between those who would do anything to cut carbon emissions and slow climate change—going so far as to support natural gas and nuclear fuel, or even supporting geo-engineering and other controversial ideas—and conservationists who don’t want to trade one earth-damaging practice for another.
“I feel like the community has splintered,” says Chris Clarke, a writer in Joshua Tree, California, and a co-founder of the group Solar Done Right, which has battled the construction of utility-scale solar stations in the Mojave Desert that involve destroying vast stretches of wilderness. “Some people are unwilling to call themselves ‘environmentalists’ because ‘environmentalist’ has now come to mean climate-change mitigation at any cost.”

I wrote just the other day about David Roberts’ post at Grist on growing evidence that greater (albeit much better regulated) use of shale gas could be essential to the greater use of renewable energy sources. But as Mark points out, intense and unconditional opposition to fracking is rapidly becoming the most important grassroots environmental cause. It certainly doesn’t help that very recently the Sierra Club’s reputation took a big hit for quietly accepting very large sums of money from a company heavily involved in fracking. Now that same Sierra Club is criticizing other environmental groups for collaboration with fracking schemes.

There are a tangle of issues buried in these controversies, from suspicion of “post-environmentalist” writers like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, to conflicts over the priority accorded to climate change as opposed to more traditional (and also more popular and tangible) environmental concerns, to the strategic and tactical issues any social or political movement faces. And this is all happening at a time when the sense of urgency about environmental challenges is peaking—yet the bipartisan support the cause used to enjoy is all but gone.

I don’t have any big answers to these dilemmas, though as a Political Animal who watches the vast forces resisting progressive change closely every day, I am not inclined to believe an inflexible position on every issue, even if it’s justified, will accomplish much in the near future. Unfortunately, the near future is already kind of late for the kind of action we need.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Peter C on April 04, 2013 5:30 PM:

    I’d hope that environmentalists realized that we were in a life-and-death struggle with a Party which has decided that the Second Coming will solve all our problems as long as St. Peter doesn’t detect the taint of Democratic pseudo-Socialism – a Party which controls the House and a filibuster-proof minority in the Senate and has decided that no problems are to be addressed, lest government be shown to be effective. The Republican Party platform for the past 2 cycles basically calls for us to burn as many non-renewable carbon energy sources as fast as we can pump them into our SUVs. Their mindset about alternative energy is that it is one giant boondoggle a la Solyndra. They see science as an attack on their religious freedom. And, you don’t get to have a reasoned discussion when half of the people in the room have their hands clamped over their ears and are shouting ‘LA, LA, LA; I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!’ at the top of their lungs.

    We need to deal with global warming, but, frustratingly, a powerful subset of us is unwilling to even accept that the planet is globe-shaped. We’re not going to make progress while we’re sharing power with the ‘Drill, baby, Drill!’ crowd.

    I’m hopeful that we can prevent a climate-change-induced catastrophe, but we’re going to have to start by agreeing to live in a reality-based universe.

  • Mimikatz on April 04, 2013 6:15 PM:

    Every bit of news, it seems, suggests that climate change is happening much faster than anticipated in the 2007 IPCC report, and that we are headed for the most pessimistic scenarios in that report. (Remember they didn't even analyze a scenario in which we would accelerate emissions beyond what was then business-as-usual because they didn't think we would be that stupid.). It looks likely that within the next two decades we are going to experience heat waves, droughts, floods, superstorms and storm surges, as well as the water and food shortages that will inevitably follow. I don't think we will stay on the current carbon emissions trajectory past that, because we will be experiencing e beginnings of collapse by then and that will cut emissions and throw us back into more self-sufficiency.

    One would think that within that time frame enough of the people who are now 40 and under will begin to get seriously concerned about their and their children's future, enough so to force politicians to finally act, and to hold accountable those who don't. After all, kids who are 10 now have at least the potential to live until 2080-2090, when it is estimated average ambient temperatures will have risen by 9 degrees F, maybe even more in the hardest hit areas (in the
    southwest and upper plains). Or perhaps the rest of the world will be imposing sanctions on the US for keeping it's head in the sand. Only time will tell, and it isn't on our side.

    On the posted controversy, it all depends on how safe the alternatives are. Frakking and natural gas usage in general can release lots of methane, and methane is a more potent, if shorter lived, green house gas than CO2. Nuclear requirs a level of vigilance that is incompatible with a profit-making entity, even one that is just trying to keep costs down. There is enough potential for solar roofs on office parks, parking lots, storage facilities and the like, really any large flat roof, that we don't need to destroy the desert. Better to keep it closer to where it is being used. Wind has great potential in the midwest. Efficiency could do a lot, as well as reductions in consumption by the biggest consumers.

  • Ron Byers on April 04, 2013 6:33 PM:

    Environmental purity is not going to be worth a bucket of warm spit when the mean temperature has risen 4-6 degrees, major hurricanes are as common as rainstorms, my Florida property is underwater and my home in Missouri is in a climate zone as dry as Las Vegas.

    Sometimes you have to get her dun.

  • emjayay on April 04, 2013 8:31 PM:

    As I've commented before (and thanks guys for those intelligent comments above) there is a significant and corporate propaganda brainwashed and OK I'll say it, ignorant and Christianist segment of our society that will make things such that we do nothing about what is after all a nonexistent problem. Eventually things will seriously go in the toilet at an expotentially increasing rate as predicted by 99% of people who have been studying these things. Then the boneheads will go beserk and demand bombing of coal fired electrical generating plants in China and seeding the atmosphere with reflective bits and blowing H-Bombs in volcanoes to make them go off. It's just the way it is.

    Meanwhile we have to do what we can in any way we can think of. One thing that has not been done at all is some kind of certifying deal for manufactured products. We buy certified organic produce and dolphin safe tuna (yes I know that has been perverted by the industry, but still...). How about certified environmentally OK products? That would not include pretty much everything made in China. Free trade has its merits, but offshoring pollution does not. Basically burning coal should stop tomorrow.

  • emjayay on April 04, 2013 8:36 PM:

    Mr. Bengelder moved near that same farmer and bought another of his donkeys. A few days later he complained to the farmer that he couldn't train the donkey to pull his childs wagon.

    The farmer told him he just had to use kindness and food rewards to train donkeys. "Here, come into the corral and I'll show you how to teach a donkey to do anything you want.

    The farmer picked up a 3' piece of 2x4 with a handle carved on it and wailed the donkey right over the head nearly knocking it unconcious.

    "Good Heavens.... I thought you said to use kindness and food rewards!", Mr. Bengelder cried.

    "First", the farmer replied, "You have to get the donkey's attention."

  • mb on April 04, 2013 9:10 PM:

    I saw a program a couple of years back that featured prognosticators from all sorts of disciplines gathered together to discuss their major concerns about the future. Each had a specific concern and pet fear but every one of them, when pressed to pinpoint the number one threat we face, identified water shortage as the primary challenge of the future.

    Maybe fracking is harmless -- or less harmful than alternatives, but when they hide the ingredients of the fracking fluid from the public and exempt it from regulation, it makes me wonder how safe it could be. "Oh," they say, "we've been fracking for years." Yeah, but now it's happening at an unprecedented level in an unregulated environment. Seems like a recipe for disaster.

    If we solve our oil problem with natural gas and, in the bargain, make our already bad problems with water worse, what have we gained? Seems water deserves a little higher priority than we currently afford it. I hope I'm not around if/when it (water) gets really scarce. I've lived through gasoline shortages -- I imagine water shortages will be a lot less pleasant.

  • Sue on April 05, 2013 9:46 PM:

    I totally agree with mb.the thousands of holes leaking methane and the danger to our water negate any argument for cracked gas.

    Conservation and renewables have NEVER been tried seriously!