10 Oct 2011

Fresh messages, new language needed to achieve sustainable energy future; when’s the inflection point?

Written by Jim Pierobon

Advocates of a more sustainable energy future can blame Solyndra, Al Gore, President Obama, James Hansen, Bill McKibben or environmental interests groups such as the 350.org, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. The fact is a growing number of, if not most, “green” initiatives are not likely to achieve their missions of stopping and eventually reversing changes that are warming the planet the way they are communicating now.

Climate activist Bill McKibben at a recent rally protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline in front of the White House. McKibben asserts if the pipeline is approved, "it's game over for the climate." Credit: Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

If you listen carefully to what leading thinkers are beginning to talk publicly about, what needs to change is this: stop claiming “it’s game over for the climate;” stop asserting there will be a lot less of a habitable planet for the grandchildren of today’s adults and polar bears inside the Arctic Circle UNLESS elected officials do this, industry does that and each of us uses 15% less energy each month.

Several speakers at the “SXSW Eco” conference in Austin, Texas weighed in with a reality check last week. One of them, John Rooks of The SOAP Group, which conducts a biennial green advertising language study, asserts that “sustainability” generally has lost its meaning to most people. It points to how corporations are using the word for their own purposes and, in many cases, are succeeding. But that’s not resonating with the public or with policymakers. “How do we make people care?” is the challenge at hand now, Rooks says. The answer isn’t the same for all psychographic / demographic groups.

Michael Brune, who was recruited from the Rainforest Action Network last year to become Executive Director of the Sierra Club, told The Energy Fix during a recent trip to visit with the Club’s Maryland Chapter in the Catoctin Mountain National Park, that messaging has been way too “esoteric.” He’s mapping plans to work more from bottom up, using grassroots networks on specific local issues to strengthen their hand.

Brune should know. He’s succeeded in securing $50 million from the philanthropy of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to boost what is already one of the most successful and credible environmental campaigns EVER: Beyond Coal.  In the interview, Brune also explained how he’s trying to lead an “ecological U-turn” without imposing a “moral obligation” on audiences.  Brune’s approach could be the manifesto for green advocacy going forward, especially with a stalled global economy and “Tea Party” Republicanism crowding out rational discourse in the U.S.

Andrew Hutson, Manager of Corporate Partnerships at the Environmental Defense Fund, said his organization believes the climate change debate is an inflection point. “We haven’t done an effective job of communicating things the public should care about,” Hutson said in a telephone interview with The Energy Fix. “We have to make it  personal to them. We’ve long thought that as long as we’re right on the facts, people will agree with us. That’s not enough when you’re wrong on the politics.”

While evidence abounds that material environmental degradation is happening, the ‘sky is falling’-type approach did not move enough Americans to act during Barack Obama’s “honeymoon” (aka his first two years) as President when a lot of fundamental progress could have been made. It most likely is no longer going to work for green advocates, including those trumpeting the value of “green” jobs solely on their “green” merits.

If the United States, along with China, don’t change their ways, it does not matter what the rest of the world does. The stalemate burdening international climate talks reminds us every year of just how difficult this challenge is to overcome.

What could move a LOT of Americans is explaining what is likely to happen to them, personally; to air they breathe, to the water they drink, to the prices they pay for gasoline and electricity, to name a few consequences. And that’s even with the measurable progress that continues to be made on several fronts. Many of those harbor lessons environmental advocates seem to be ignoring. More on that in subsequent blog posts.

The next bellwhether in the U.S. will be the Keystone XL Pipeline. It’s backers await a decision by the U.S. government to proceed building a 2,000-mile-long pipeline to transport crude oil from the tar sands of south central Canada to the refineries in the Texas Gulf Coast. Mining, producing and moving this crude oil to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur most certainly entails significant risks. But some benefits to the consumer and the U.S. economy cannot be dismissed with the nation’s current energy supply chain operating the way it is and U.S. dependence on unreliable supply sources. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs and risks is what is feeding the heated debate and getting some environmental leaders arrested after protesting in front of the White House.

If you haven’t yet, be sure to read this post by ThinkProgress.org blogger Stephen Lacey. Among other things, it challenges, quite credibly, the very need for the pipeline. Hat ‘tip’ to you Stephen.

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