Is Environmentalism Bad for Fighting Climate Change?

Sure, it sounds like a paradox.  The environmental movement has done a lot of good for the planet and for pollution.  But in the face of the greatest environmental threat of our time, the movement may be fundamentally ill-suited to tackle the climate crisis.

For most of its history, environmentalism has essentially been about stopping things, or at least slowing them down.  Whether it’s sprawling subdivisions, industrial development on sensitive habitat lands, or factories spewing pollution, environmentalists have mobilized support to prevent these projects from happening, or at least make them more efficient and therefore more expensive (think scrubbers on smokestacks or building efficiency codes).  The successes are undeniable: significantly cleaner air and water and the prevention of some environmentally destructive projects.

But when it comes to fighting climate change, a movement designed to stopping things is counter-productive.  We need the opposite dynamic, because our task now is to build our way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  That means building a significant amount of new housing, services, and job centers in urbanized areas near transit; building renewable energy facilities both locally and in rural regions; building new rail and busways through developed cities and towns; and fostering a regulatory environment where innovation in clean technologies can take place without years of delay and uncertainty brought on by often well-intentioned environmental laws.

Unfortunately, the broader environmental movement has helped to stymie each of these efforts.  Whether it’s resistance to loosening environmental review and land use requirements in infill areas, Clean Air Act impediments to on-farm renewables, or permitting processes for renewable energy projects, the movement has been schizophrenic at best, counter-productive at worst.

To be sure, there are many environmental advocates and groups that are deeply committed to building these kinds of projects.  And there are often reasonable disputes involving alternatives and opportunities for local mitigation.  But the movement is organizationally and culturally built on an agenda of local resistance to building things.  As a result, environmentalists have largely failed to articulate a compelling, progressive agenda for fighting climate change.  While we see bits and pieces, such as local visions for infill development and reports on clean and local energy systems for select cities, as a whole, the movement lacks leadership and vision to make a case to the public about what needs to be done to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

Ironically, in this leadership void, members of the business community have now become some of the leading voices for fighting climate change.  Infill real estate developers, clean tech innovators and installers, and even car companies are now doing more to advance a low-carbon agenda than many environmentalists.  In some cases, you’re more likely to see climate change leadership from Silicon Valley venture capitalists then you are from some of our most respected environmental institutions.

Perhaps this outcome is not terrible.  After all, the case for fighting climate change is about economic growth: doing more with fewer resources and developing and harnessing our local, sustainable resources.

But businesses will tend to push their narrow economic agenda.  We still need environmental leaders who can make the case to the public and to decision-makers that there is a positive, over-arching vision for fighting climate change.  We can provide citizens with better and more convenient housing options, we can end our dependence on large electric utilities and oil and gas companies and instead spend that money locally, we can clean our air and water and stop wasting finite resources, and we can feel positive about the prospects for preserving our standard of living for future generations.

But to make these arguments, the environmental movement may need to eat some sacred cows.  Individuals may need to make sacrifices about the kind of projects that get built in their community, whether it’s a wind turbine, a new bus or railway, or a multifamily housing unit.  We may need to pay more upfront to modernize our electric grid and invest in new technologies.  But at the end of the day, we – and the planet – will be better for it.  It’s time the environmental movement made that case.

Reader Comments

6 Replies to “Is Environmentalism Bad for Fighting Climate Change?”

  1. The more I think and read about these issues, the more I realize how little we can rely on government for solutions to our environmental problems. In the end, the hands of the government are tied by the general electorate who just want to continue consuming products, services and benefits at the lowest cost, regardless of the long-term consequences. Any proposals to curb consumption and benefits for any reason (no matter how legitimate) will end very badly for the politician who proposed it (just look at Greece, France and Italy for example).

    You guys are the experts, so please tell me what you think about the following primary role of government: Addressing the terrible public ignorance regarding the environmental situation we face today with the same enthusiasm with which they hold political rallies.

    It is a fact that environmentally friendly policy changes will make things more expensive in the short run and, unless the electorate understand the urgency of these matters, no politician will be able to do anything constructive and still remain in office.

    I therefore maintain that government should first educate the public about the fact that the world already consumes like we had 1.5 planets, that the average American has a carbon footprint 10 times that which is sustainable and, above all, that the potential for creating jobs and economic growth in the green economy is truly humongous.

    After this, government can begin slowly incentivising growth in the green economy through tax breaks and subsidies. And finally, once the public consciousness has risen to a sufficient level, government can start openly using taxpayer money to build a sustainable future.

    The fundamental requirement, however, is that public understanding. Without it, government is powerless to address our environmental crises.

  2. The more I think and read about these issues, the more I realize how little we can rely on government for solutions to our environmental problems. In the end, the hands of the government are tied by the general electorate who just want to continue consuming products, services and benefits at the lowest cost, regardless of the long-term consequences. Any proposals to curb consumption and benefits for any reason (no matter how legitimate) will end very badly for the politician who proposed it (just look at Greece, France and Italy for example).

    You guys are the experts, so please tell me what you think about the following primary role of government: Addressing the terrible public ignorance regarding the environmental situation we face today with the same enthusiasm with which they hold political rallies.

    It is a fact that environmentally friendly policy changes will make things more expensive in the short run and, unless the electorate understand the urgency of these matters, no politician will be able to do anything constructive and still remain in office.

    I therefore maintain that government should first educate the public about the fact that the world already consumes like we had 1.5 planets, that the average American has a carbon footprint 10 times that which is sustainable and, above all, that the potential for creating jobs and economic growth in the green economy is truly humongous.

    After this, government can begin slowly incentivising growth in the green economy through tax breaks and subsidies. And finally, once the public consciousness has risen to a sufficient level, government can start openly using taxpayer money to build a sustainable future.

    The fundamental requirement, however, is that public understanding. Without it, government is powerless to address our environmental crises.

  3. At the same time, though, you could argue that the “win-win” worldview embraced by many in the climate change community is fast becoming a similarly problematic “sacred cow.” Clean energy and climate change has become the field where ambitious types can “do well while doing good.” There are new products to sold, power plants to be financed, start-ups to be created, supply chains to be be radically re-thought, policies to be designed. That appeals to people who have environmental values but who are temperamentally more attracted building something than to suing environmental evildoers or standing athwart a local real estate development yelling stop (I include myself in this group).

    But the inconvenient truth that you don’t hear the “win win” and “green jobs” folks acknowledge very often is that it is costly to do things in a more climate-friendly way. If it wasn’t, we’d already be doing them that way. At some point or on some level, I suspect addressing climate change is going to mean doing less, not more. It’s going to take not only new investments but tough trade-offs and changes in culture and values.

    That kind of thing is the province of traditional environmentalism, so while I’m all in favor of everything you said, I think its more a case where each of the two genre/discourses need to learn from the other than a case where one needs to change to suit the other.

  4. At the same time, though, you could argue that the “win-win” worldview embraced by many in the climate change community is fast becoming a similarly problematic “sacred cow.” Clean energy and climate change has become the field where ambitious types can “do well while doing good.” There are new products to sold, power plants to be financed, start-ups to be created, supply chains to be be radically re-thought, policies to be designed. That appeals to people who have environmental values but who are temperamentally more attracted building something than to suing environmental evildoers or standing athwart a local real estate development yelling stop (I include myself in this group).

    But the inconvenient truth that you don’t hear the “win win” and “green jobs” folks acknowledge very often is that it is costly to do things in a more climate-friendly way. If it wasn’t, we’d already be doing them that way. At some point or on some level, I suspect addressing climate change is going to mean doing less, not more. It’s going to take not only new investments but tough trade-offs and changes in culture and values.

    That kind of thing is the province of traditional environmentalism, so while I’m all in favor of everything you said, I think its more a case where each of the two genre/discourses need to learn from the other than a case where one needs to change to suit the other.

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About Ethan

Ethan Elkind

Ethan Elkind is the Director of the Climate Change and Business Program, with a joint appointment at UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. In this capacity, h…

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