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John Kerry and the climate kids: a tale of 2 new strategies to fight climate change

The two campaigns will test contrasting theories of change.

Demonstrators at a youth-led climate strike in New York City on December 6, 2019. Hundreds attended the strike, the latest in a series of school walkouts dubbed “Fridays For Future.”
Scott Heins/Getty Images

Thus far, America’s efforts to address climate change have been woefully inadequate. That much is clear to just about everyone. But there is not as much consensus on exactly why that is, and what might change it. I was thinking about this as two bits of news appeared last week.

The first was that the Sunrise Movement, the organization responsible for much of the grassroots energy around climate change on the left, is expanding its on-the-ground presence, opening 10 new field offices. They will seek to organize and turn out the youth vote in the next election, not just at the presidential level but in support of state- and city-level elements of the Green New Deal.

The second is that John Kerry has put his substantial rolodex to work to enlist a large group of political and celebrity associates to launch a new initiative called World War Zero, aiming to “mobilize Americans and citizens everywhere to tackle climate change and pollution.” It will kick off with a “major social media campaign and an initial six-figure print and digital advertising buy,” along with a series of town halls across the country to engage people and raise awareness.

Both campaigns are born out of a sense of moral and political urgency. Both are populated by people of good will trying to do the right thing. But they reflect very different assessments of political economy and very different political theories of change, a cleavage that falls largely along generational lines.

There’s no reason to choose between them. The campaigns can proceed in parallel and serve complementary goals. But one seeks breadth of engagement while the other seeks depth of intensity, and insofar as I have any hope for climate politics in the US, it is with the climate kids and their intensity.

Let’s look at some of the underlying questions and differences.

World War Zero participants.
Some of the initial World War Zero participants, including Sting’s eyebrow.
World War Zero

WWZ is pursuing bipartisan support

As Kerry has stressed in interviews (see the New York Times, the Atlantic, and journalist Emily Atkin’s excellent newsletter Heated), he wants “to be inclusive and to bring people to the table,” as he told Atkin.

To that end, WWZ will support the broad goal of reaching net-zero carbon in the US by 2050: “I’m for getting to zero,” Kerry told me, “we can do it smart in a way that creates great jobs, but bottom line is, I’m for getting there, end of story.” But it will not advance or endorse any policy or plan in particular, including the Green New Deal. “We’re not going to be divided going down a rabbit hole for one plan or another,” Kerry told the Times.

The campaign touts itself as bipartisan, boasting participation from Republicans like John Kasich (once governor of Ohio, now a CNN contributor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (once governor of California, now a brand), Olympia Snowe (once senator from Maine, now a think tank fellow), and Hank Paulson (once Secretary of Treasury and CEO of Goldman Sachs, now a full-time philanthropist). It includes several people, including Kasich and former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who are avowed fans of natural gas fracking. It includes military officials like Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And it includes some unnamed Instagram influencers. There’s something for everyone.

Kerry says WWZ will use “unprecedented micro-targeting to make sure that the right validators reach the right audiences in ways they relate to, on their terms,” whether it’s disengaged young voters (remember those Instagram influencers), blue collar workers, or communities of color.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the COP25 Climate Conference on December 10, 2019, in Madrid, Spain.
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

“We are specifically focused on people who are not yet activated or engaged, and especially those who haven’t been receptive to the messages or messengers they’ve been hearing so far,” Kerry says. “We’re reaching out to them where they are, with messengers they trust and with messages that are compelling to them.”

Kerry imagines a “mosaic” that “spans ideologies and races and age groups,” which would provide “a hell of a contrast to the orange luddite telling you it’s a hoax from China.”

Climate advocacy has long relied on the education-and-engagement model

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not entirely unlike what Al Gore has been doing (and is still doing!) since the early 2000s. Remember in 2008 when Gore’s Alliance for Climate Change unveiled its $300 million “We” campaign? (You probably don’t.) Remember his Climate Reality Project that launched in 2011? It is still holding annual “24 hours of reality” events. The last one involved 1,750 presentations that reached 80 countries and all 50 states. And that’s on top of the town halls that Gore conducts with a rotating cast of guest stars in communities across the country, year after year.

For as long as I can remember, climate campaigns have been animated by the same basic idea: big ad outreach, lots of strange bedfellows from the military, business, or celebrity worlds, educational town halls, all pushing for broader awareness and engagement on the issue. These campaigns avoid specific policies or politicians out of fear of being divisive. They seek, like Kerry, to bring everyone together around the table.

At root, this strategy traces back through Gore to the scientists who first brought climate change to his attention. Because climate change came into US culture out of the scientific community, communication was dominated by scientists — and politicians who talked endlessly about “the science” — for years.

Scientists tend to be rationalists, and one thing many seem to believe on an almost preconscious level is that the key to action on climate change is education. The problem of climate change is obviously bad. It’s obviously getting worse. When people come to know and understand that, they will act. If they aren’t acting, it must be that not enough people know about it and how bad it is. The answer is always more education, more persuasion.

Climate advocates have run a gazillion studies on messaging and reaching new audiences. Everyone in the climate movement has become a lay messaging expert, constantly worrying over language and phraseology. (“Global warming”? “Climate change”? “Climate chaos”?) The pursuit of persuasion — some way, any way, to convince the stubbornly unconvinced of the reality and urgency of climate change — has consumed endless time and emotional energy.

But it didn’t work, and didn’t work, and didn’t work, despite endless scientific reports and summaries, endless arguments and explanations, endless validators from different communities, endless accumulation of new science and evidence.

From 2001 to 2016, poll numbers on climate change averaged out roughly the same. The number of Democrats who accept climate change science rose by about 10 points and the number of Republicans fell by about 10 points. The result was near-stasis during a crucial time when action would have mattered immensely.

gallup: human activities responsible Dunlap et al, Environment

Despite the best efforts of the climate persuaders, the larger tsunami of political partisanship in the US swallowed climate change whole.

There have been many, many credulous stories over the years, starting in the early 2000s, that conservatives are on the verge of coming around on climate change — that the youth are demanding change and a few brave Republicans are speaking up. The narrative rarely changes; the list of brave Republicans rarely changes; the heralded shift never arrives. Yet Democrats, especially those who consider themselves moderate and open to compromise, have trouble letting go of the dream.

What the kids realize that their elders don’t

Kerry and many older Democrats came of age in a different era; they were alive to witness, and often participate in, bipartisan victories. (As Kerry noted to me, he persuaded John McCain to go along with a boost in fuel economy standards in 2002.) Their political consciousness formed in a time when the basic institutions of American public life still seemed to work, or at least have some governing influence.

All young people today have ever seen is Republicans trying to tear those institutions down. They witnessed the theft of the 2000 presidential election; 9/11; the horrifically botched response to 9/11; the Iraq War; Hurricane Katrina; the 2008 financial crisis; the Tea Party’s frenzied resistance to the first black president; the birther conspiracy and the endless conspiracy theories to follow; and finally, the triumph of Donald Trump and unbridled American white supremacy.

They have watched the conservative movement hive off from mainstream US culture and create fun-house-mirror institutions of its own, meant to advance its tribal interests, until it has finally achieved a kind of twisted parity, creating two separate realities occupied by two sets of citizens with incommensurate interests and beliefs.

The right has become unreachable. That’s what the kids see: that today’s conservative movement doesn’t give a damn what John Kerry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a bunch of celebrities say. It’s not listening to John Kasich or Olympia Snowe or Stanley McChrystal. For today’s right, you’re with them, i.e., with Trump, or you’re against them. You’re in the tribe or you’re out. None of the people listed as participants in WWZ is in the Trump tribe. And if any of them were, if they signed an initiative with John Kerry, they’d quickly be ejected. (Rep. Justin Amash was a gadfly member of the tribe, then he wasn’t.)

Climate change is part of the right’s lump of evil

Amidst all the sorting the US has been going through, its people have also been sorting by temperament and personality. The personality that has clustered on the right grows out of heightened threat response. It prefers clarity and hierarchy and is averse to ambiguity and doubt.

One result of that sorting — and the right-wing media machine that has relentlessly taken advantage of it — is that the worldview of the hardcore conservative base has become increasingly Manichean, dividing the world and all its conflicts into good guys and bad guys. That’s what Glenn Beck’s famous chalkboard was all about: the One Big Lump of Evil, all the bad guys in cahoots.

Glenn Beck and his chalkboard.

Libs are the bad guys. Climate is their thing, one of the many ways they are trying to smuggle the contagion of socialism into America’s body politic. That’s the right-wing media view and has become, like all things right-wing media, the dominant view of the GOP, right up to the White House.

The Democratic elite has always seemed to believe that there’s a large, silent, persuadable middle out there that just needs to be told the news about climate change. But youth activists believe that the lines have been drawn, left and right, and most everybody is already on one side or another.

“There is no conservative or moderate solution to climate change,” Evan Weber of the Sunrise Movement told me. “There’s no quick market fix or easy bipartisan compromise waiting to be had. Actual solutions to climate change go against everything that the Republican Party stands for, and dealing with the climate crisis through a ‘moderate’ approach will mean the suffering and death of untold millions.”

Numbers vs. intensity in politics

There are two ways of dividing up the electorate on climate change (or any issue). One is by numbers, support vs. opposition. This is what WWZ and so many other climate campaigns have sought to influence. They want to broaden support, to raise the poll numbers, to get calls coming to Congress from every demographic.

But on climate change (as on so many other issues), the left already has the numbers. Majorities of Americans believe climate change is a problem and support clean energy solutions. This has been true for years.

The other way to divide the electorate is by intensity. Which side engages, makes calls to congressional offices, protests, and turns out voters in greater numbers? It is on that score that the right frequently wins.

Because the left is an unwieldy coalition of diverse interest groups and the right is more ethnically and ideologically homogeneous (see Matt Grossman’s Asymmetric Politics), the conflict often shakes out as: the left’s climate people vs. the entire right (and some parts of the left); the left’s labor people vs. the entire right (and some parts of the left); the left’s poverty people vs. the entire right (and some parts of the left); the left’s judicial reform people vs. the entire right (and some parts of the left); and so on.

Because the right sees a lump of evil everywhere outside its bubble, it is always mobilized, hyped up by a paranoid media ecosystem to see the threat of socialism behind every tax credit or efficiency standard. The left can rarely summon such intense unanimity, except perhaps on Social Security, LGBTQ marriage, and a few other issues.

Long story short, lots and lots of people who agree that climate change is a problem and that something ought to be done are nonetheless sitting out elections and the larger political process. They don’t need to be educated or made more aware. They need someone to pull their asses off the couch and get them voting and fighting.

The Sunrise Movement is seeking partisan intensity

You can’t get people off the couch just by saying “climate change is a really bad problem and we need to fix it by 2050.” People don’t necessarily know how to fit that into their worldviews and identities, even if it is delivered by their favorite social media influencer.

To motivate people to action, you have to give them meaningful changes to fight for, people to fight alongside, and, just as importantly, enemies to fight against. You can’t stay on the sidelines, welcoming everyone to the table. You have to pick a side.

It’s not that people on the right aren’t welcome to join in the conversation. It’s just that there’s no point standing, holding the door open forever.

Like many youth movements, Sunrise recognizes that the right has become a dumpster fire. It is committed to building a grassroots army that can amass the political power necessary to pressure Democrats into the same kind of intense unity around pushing climate solutions that the right shows in blocking them. The idea is to eventually bring Republicans to the table not through persuasion but through fear. Republican office-holders will come to the table when they are scared to lose their jobs.

Lovers of bipartisanship are forever saying that a truly comprehensive solution to climate change is only possible with bipartisan support, and that may be true. But unified Republican opposition is making bipartisan cooperation impossible, and there’s no time to wait.

The strategy that has won tangible policy victories at the state and city level is the opposite of bipartisanship: it consists in electing overwhelming majorities of Democrats. That’s the only strategy that’s worked in the last decade to produce decent climate policy of almost any sort at almost any level.

Republicans aren’t worth asking any more.
Sunrise Movement

Expanding that strategy involves going into local communities and pulling all those disengaged people up off their couches, offering them compatriots and winnable political fights. Over at Mother Jones, Rebecca Leber has an interesting piece on “Momentum,” the activist philosophy Sunrise has adopted, which offers organizers a few clear principles:

Devise a clear narrative for what you want to accomplish from the start, then think about your work in a cycle of “escalation”—attracting a wider base largely through rallies and mass protest—and “absorption”—in-person trainings and call-in sessions, where eager new members can become more effective soldiers in the fight.

This is what Sunrise has done: conduct big, flashy, media-friendly events and protests and then follow them up with intensive one-on-one efforts to absorb participants into an ongoing movement. It is high-touch, hands-on work, which is one reason the organization is opening all those regional field offices.

The media environment of 2019 is one of near-lawless information warfare, fought over attention. Persuasion, in such an environment, does not primarily involve outreach and education. Anyone who wants another explanatory slideshow can easily find one online.

It primarily involves visible demonstrations of intensity, purpose, and authenticity. That’s what people hear about; that’s what they want to be a part of.

Try everything, but trust the kids

For now, Sunrise has elected not to sign on to WWZ, despite being invited.

Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, told me: “While we have great respect for Secretary Kerry’s career and history of activism, we can’t sign onto something with unclear demands, policy principles, and strategy — especially when many of the initial signatories are people who we have fundamental disagreements with both about climate policy and broader questions about the future of this country.”

Prakash also questioned “the lack of representation in the original list of signatories by leaders of the climate justice movement, people who have been directly impacted by the climate crisis, and people of color.”

Kerry is eager to address the issue of representation — he notes that he wrote a book on under-represented groups in environmentalism — and says he is “actively recruiting” voices from marginalized communities. He is also keen to avoid duplicative efforts and emphasizes that WWZ “isn’t replacing efforts that are focused on one policy or another, or efforts focused on GOTV or politics.”

Time will tell whether Kerry can do better along those lines than elite-driven climate campaigns of the past, whether, as he puts it, the grass-tops can be genuinely helpful to the grassroots. He says he agrees “wholeheartedly” with the critique of conventional top-down campaigns and is actively seeking to avoid them.

It is at least possible that WWZ could work in synergy with the youth movement, spreading the climate message among audiences the left can’t or won’t reach, without stepping on any toes or working at cross purposes. It’s possible that WWZ will figure out how to reach underserved communities and generate greater public engagement to complement the intensity created by Sunrise and its cohort. Regardless, it’s worth trying — it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.

But in the current atmosphere of epistemic and political lawlessness, with climate catastrophe bearing down and US institutions in shambles, I have less faith in micro-targeted messages of urgency than I do in a clear policy vision, recruitment, and mobilization.

What’s needed above all is power. That’s what the climate kids are trying to build. Whatever else other campaigns may do, I just hope they don’t get in the way.