Step It Up On Climate Change

Monica Evans, who co-founded and oversees the regional chapter of the Sierra Club in northwest Michigan, reminded us this week of the Step it Up rally to accelerate action on global climate change. She and her colleagues are hosting a regional event in downtown Traverse City on the afternoon of April 14, starting at 1:30 in the Chase Bank Courtyard across from Horizon Books downtown. There’s a parade and a potluck dinner afterward.

The Traverse City rally is part of a national day of action organized by environmental writer Bill McKibben, the author of the 1989 best seller on global warming, “The End of Nature,” and his students at Middlebury College in Vermont. The frame for the national action is to pressure Washington to begin aggressively cutting carbon emissions and protect America’s right to an optimistic future. The energy behind the campaign was drawn initially from Bill’s capacious mind and especially his expertise on global climate change.

But Step It Up also is a quintessential example of the power of social media. It’s grown into a national event due in large part because the communicating and organizing reach of the Internet is linking so many people together who care about the warming earth. Bill took a page out of MoveOn.org’s playbook and deployed what are now routine online information and advocacy tools — email, digital photography, video, audio, YouTube, blogs, action alerts, and archives. He stayed on message, persisently sending focused appeals to gather on American street corners. People responded. One of those corners is the place where Front Street and Park intersect in downtown Traverse City.

For those of us who live along the northern coast of Lake Michigan this is personal. Lake levels have been low for several years and are dropping again. We just ended the warmest of the 15 winters I’ve been around this place. Crystal Mountain, where my wife works as a ski instructor, closed today, 10 days ahead of schedule. During the week between Christmas and New Years Day, traditionally the busiest ski days of the year — and the most economically important — there was no snow at all. My daughter and I ran the snowless cross-country ski trails in our shorts and tee-shirts. The resort laid off over 50 employees. Jim  MacInnes, Crystal Mountain’s general manager, says the ski season starts a week later and ends a week earlier than it did in the 1980s.

When President Bush and his fellow warming skeptics argue — there are a bunch of those folks sitting on county and township boards around here — that reducing global warming gases affects the economy I’ve always wondered whose economy is he talking about? The struggling snow sports industry of the Upper Midwest? The Colorado Plateau ranchers and farmers challenged by a nearly decade-long drought? The small stores and family businesses in New Orleans drowned by Hurricane Katrina?

Bill McKibben and his colleagues are performing a public service. Step It Up is a model for the kind of home-grown, street level campaign that online tools and techniques are able to turn into a mass movement.  Frankly, it’s essential. In a world with climbing energy prices, rising land and housing costs, declining incomes, record population growth, battled hardened political intransigence, and several potential environmental calamities converging at once, expecting leaders to do more than talk is folly.

A quick tour through the presidential campaign Web sites of Barack Obama (see yesterday’s post), Hillary Clinton and John McCain makes that point clear. All talk about the global climate, and all have proposed fixes — like promoting ethanol production and “clean” coal — that have no promise other than making favored constituencies richer and global conditions worse. 

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Why Give Barack a Pass on Energy?

It’s understandable that many Democrats are enthused about Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He’s young, hip, smart, and charismatic. He’s an African American in a race that also features a woman and a Hispanic man. And he talks a good line about energy, the environment, the economy, national security and global climate change that intelligent progressives have accepted uncritically, including those at ThinkProgress.com.

But from this vantage his candidacy feels like it’s wrapped too tightly in the see-through cloth of hope and hype.

What leads to this conclusion? The good Senator’s mixed message about global climate change and energy. Here’s what his official campaign Web site says about global warming:

barack-obama.jpg“We need to take steps to stop catastrophic, manmade climate change. If we do not act, the consequences will be devastating for future generations, especially for the poorest global populations. Barack Obama believes the U.S. must act decisively and creatively to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

In the very next paragraph, under the heading “Increasing the Clean Use of Illinois Coal,” here’s what Senator Obama says about energy: “Barack Obama worked with Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) and others to promote research into a process that turns Illinois-basin coal into clean-burning fuel for cars and trucks and using advanced technology to limit carbon emissions. Today, fuel produced from coal powers a third of South Africa’s cars and trucks. The research could help us one day satisfy our energy needs from Illinois’ coal mines instead of Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. In 2007, Obama passed an amendment to a budget package to provide $200 million to research reducing carbon emissions from coal.”

In the parlance of public interest campaigning, this is what is commonly referred to as double talk. The idea of “clean coal” technology is a chimera, a kind of “holy grail” adventure periodically offered to the American public to justify the continued mining and combustion of the dirtiest energy source on earth. Coal is a mess to extract, producing acid mine drainage and all manner of other forms of water and land degradation in the Midwest and East, and ripping vast scars on the lands of the West. It’s even more hazardous to burn, emitting mercury and heavy metals, and producing enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and other warming gases.

The federal Department of Energy has wasted a lot of money to promote “clean coal” technology for 30 years. All that can be said is that the latest practices may burn a little less dirty, but that’s a long way from clean.

We should expert more from Senator Obama, and any other candidate for president, Democratic or Republican, on energy and global climate change. International scientific panels have reached consensus on the causes of global climate change — combustion of fossil fuels — and its solutions — develop much cleaner energy alternatives. Replacing coal with a national research and development program aimed at building an inventory of ecologically-sound energy sources should be a priority goal of any 2008 candidate. Voters have a responsibility to reject anything less, especially a candidate that masks his support for a state industry behind technological double speak. 

A final note. Voters ought to ask Senator Obama about his economic priorities. The Illinois coal industry, still the nation’s ninth largest, produces 32 million tons annually of some of the dirtiest high-sulphur Midwest coal, the type that already was causing the acid rain that has been diminishing the forests of the South and Northeast. According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the industry has been steadily consolidating for 30 years. In 1978, 70 mines in 10 Illinois counties employed 18,000 people. In 2006, there were 20 mines with 3,900 miners. In some southern Illinois counties coal jobs have disappeared completely. Doess Senator Obama really stand for the future, as he says? Or is he just one more articulate politician showing false compassion for a dangerous industry and a fading constituency?

Flip: Seizing The Message and Messenger

I can see already that one of the principal activities of Mode Shift is to make a difference in the 2008 presidential campaign, not by convincing readers to vote for a particular candidate but by helping to make the case for public priorities that deserve to be treated seriously. Resource conservation, public transportation, metropolitan patterns of develohillary-clinton-photograph-c11811455.jpgpment, global climate change, healthy food, and land conservation merit attention. And it’s our responsiblity as writers to frame the issues in a way that people understand and leaders can’t avoid. 

This month an Internet event that stirred millions of Americans and the political community provides solid evidence that things will be very different next year. The event,  a video critical of Hillary Clinton that borrowed heavily from Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh, attracted more than two million viewers in 15 days. The video provides more evidence of the eagerness of creative and politically involved  people at the grassroots to shatter conventions. The power of their ideas and their access to social media indicates that it’s not going to be possible for candidates, regardless of political party, to wave their hands at “energy” or “health care,” or “education”, or even “security” and think that’s going to be sufficient.

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The Associated Press summarized today’s events this way: “A copy of the original commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, has been remade into a satirical attack piece against presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, replacing the Big Brother figure with the Democratic senator from New York instead. It then ends with a message supporting her opponent Sen. Barack Obama and a fruity Apple-like logo that has been converted into an “O.” The woman runner in the commercial has also been modified so that she’s wearing an iPod. The creator of the so-called online video mash-up was identified Wednesday as Philip de Vellis, a strategist who worked with a digital consulting company that has ties to Obama. The Illinois senator’s campaign has denied being behind the ad.”

The more durable point is that a clever video with a powerful message broke through to reach people. It apparently was produced by one guy with a brain, a computer, an editing program, access to YouTube, and a bit of a marketing strategy. 

The same is possible for people interested in transportation, the environment, housing, energy, land, and infrastructure investments. The convergence of record population growth, declining family incomes, and rising energy, land, housing, and living costs is eroding the right of a majority of  Americans to a good and decent life. These trends threaten our national security and our economic well-being. They are the threads of a national emergency hidden in the complex tapestry of our economy, culture, and business practices. Concern about these issues turned them into top public priorities in Michigan and some 40 other states. It’s our responsibility to tease them out, display them in creative and visual ways that get to the point, and to do so with persistence and clarity of mission that can’t be ignored at the national level. 

The tools and technology of social media, particularly YouTube, provides thinking people access to the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. We have brains and creativity and passion. We also have computers, cameras, recorders, mixers, editing software, and access to mass dissemination platforms, all available at a reasonable cost. Look for much more out of the grassroots in exploring the American Mode Shift. We have the opportunity to break open the conventional packaging and make the 2008 race something special. Neither the parties nor the candidates will be able to fully control the message. You and I will have our say.      

What Is Al Gore Up To?

In case you missed it, Al Gore spoke to both houses of Congress today about global climate change, calling it a “planetary emergency.” As a reputation boosting, global elevating, and upcoming book promoting exercise, Gore’s confident stroll through the various hearing rooms that he once occupied as a sitting member was terrific theater. compactflor.jpg

But having been a Gore watcher since the 1980s, when he was a young congressman and I was a young correspondent, I just have this instinct that more may be operating here, if that’s at all possible. In a year when Gore has already won an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth” and could win a Nobel Peace Prize, you might think it intemperate to ask more of the man. Nevertheless its still fair to wonder whether a man of such remarkable ability has one more great turn in him. And that is another run for the presidency. 

I can only tell you that Gore is making a difference and his message is heard where it counts. This weekend, at the urging of my 15-year-old son, who’d seen “An Inconvenient Truth” in school, we changed out every single one of the 88 lightbulbs in our home with energy-saving compact fluorescents. The project began with this question. “What kind of light bulbs do we have?” Cody asked. “The old kind,” I replied. “You’re the environmentalist,” he continued, an eyebrow arched. So off we went on Saturday to Traverse City and dropped $320 to save energy and make our latest contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. The political point, though, is that Gore capably reached a 15-year-old with an important message and that kid responded. 

The other side of why Gore could be considered to have a duty to run is how the wing nuts in the other party respond to him. One of the earliest indicators of whether you are winning or losing a public interest campaign is how much vitriol you attract from your opponents. When they start calling you names you know you’re sitting pretty. Gore prompts his opponents to lose their minds. Call up Technorati.com, type in Gore, and read the right wing response to his Congressional appearance.

A last point: Though the news media are stirring around the idea that the Democratic field of 2008 presidentiial candidates is more seasoned and adept than the Republican candidates, it’s not all that clear. The Web sites of the Democratic candidates, even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s, are pretty lame at this point, even on the issues that tens of millions of voters care about, including energy and global climate change. Gore on the other hand has a clear message, expertise, and the courage of his views on a momentous issue of his time. And that issue melds into so many others that challenge the country and the planet: clean government, efficiency, fiscal policy, transportation, and energy-wasting, time-consuming metropolitan development patterns that are challenging in substantive ways the rights of Americans to lead productive lives.  Hillary may not survive her unconvincing explanation of why she voted to approve the war. Barack’s peak may be right now and he has only one way to go, and that’s down. Bill Richardson has to do more than be viewed as a rumpled commoner. Al Gore tread confidently into Congress today and he was the smartest, most politically astute, and hottest politician in the place. There’s more happening here than just a couple of hours of earnest testimony.  

George Lakoff and the Mode Shift

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A couple of months before it became clear in 2004 that John Kerry didn’t have a clue about how to frame his election bid — “Lt. Kerry reporting for duty,” is the memorably stupid way he started his nomination address — a University of California at Berkeley linguistics professor named George Lakoff (see pix) burst onto the national political scene to remind progressives that the message was everything in public policy and politics. His 2004 book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” was a tutorial in message development that was widely shared among very smart and committed liberals who couldn’t understand why a plain talking president who so transparently skirted the truth was going to win the election.

I know how hard this idea of framing and values can be for advocates. Within my own organization, which is pretty good at framing and message, it’s still hard at times to make the case. Despite years of stressing the need to think carefully about words and values and framing, about message and messenger, there is a tendency among some of my colleagues to be concerned first about details other than the message, like organizing or holding a meeting or something. 

Lakoff’s message was direct. Campaigns are won and lost on message. Advocates who set the message agenda and are disciplined about sticking with it — Republicans were great at this until history exposed their hypocrisy — almost always win. If the message agenda is broken, campaigns generally lose. What happened to Kerry is that the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth made a direct hit on his message — a decorated war veteran running for president — and obliterated it. It took Kerry a month to formulate a response and by the time he did, the election was already decided.

Now Lakoff is out with a new book, “Thinking Points,” that replays many of the message tutorials but also ventures into a new domain: advocating for a four-point strategic policy program that would make America more just and prosperous, and progessives more revered.

Frankly, I’m less concerned about what the four strategic objectives will do for progressives, and by this Lakoff means the Democrats. An old friend once told me that we have two parties in America. The stupid party and the evil party. Take your pick. The Republicans could easily embrace Lakoff’s strategic recommendations because at the grass roots, conservatives are just as keen about these idea.

But as a marker of how much momentum smart growth and the American Mode Shift have gained in the popular imagination and public policy, “Thinking Points”  is a small revelation. Of the four strategic initiatives that Lakoff recommends, two are right out of the Mode Shift play book.

The first is establishing a new agricultural production system that provides Americans healthy food. At the Michigan Land Use Institute we call this Entrepreneurial Agriculture because reshaping the food production system to produce healthy fresh food means farmers are more profitable. Communities can conserve valuable ground that adds to rural character. Less energy and no toxic chemicals are needed. People are healthier, making them happier and simultaneously reducing health care costs. “In exchange for growing healthy food for our communities and protecting the sanctity of our earth and commons for future generations we will invest in sustainable farming,” writes Lakoff.

Lakoff’s second strategic objective is a national program to build public transit systems, what he calls “transit for all.”  The energy, cost, and accessibility improvements that transit provides, along with the economic development opportunities are well understood. Investing the $70 billion that it costs the United States to import oil each year in rapid transit design and construction would yield countless social and economic benefits. It is possible only if a coaliton of untraditional allies, among them environmentalists, labor, economists, energy, and national security interests cross ideological boundaries and work together. “The most effective long-term strategies start with the most commonplace activities: eating, traveling to work, and working in a business. Home is where we live. Start there.”  

Given Lakoff’s standing among Democrats, don’t be surprised to hear some of their presidential candidates talking about these ideas this year and next. By the way, they might also be interested in Lakoff’s other strategic objectives, which are related to the first two. They are clean elections and ethical business.