New Landscape, New Strategy

If we get lucky on November 3, climate advocates will be confronted with a dramatically different political landscape in 2021. For the first time in at least a decade — and arguably for the first time ever — public will and politics in the United States will align behind climate protection. The U.S. will be a country led by a Congress and President open to enacting major climate legislation and buoyed by strong public support. Public will for action on climate change will no longer be latent. It will be empowered.

In such a landscape the main task for climate advocates will be fundamentally different from the work in which many have engaged for the past 10 years. Securing our future will require organizing broad and strong public support for positive federal climate legislation. This work will flow in two phases, an immediate and short-term push to increase the ambition in the opening bids, and then a longer phase to come together and push these proposals across the finish line. These new tasks will call upon the movement to fundamentally re-orient our work and expand the overarching story we share.

Right out of the gate there will be a necessity to declare the election a clear mandate for action on climate change, to provide political oxygen for the critically important struggle to green the coming economic stimulus package that will be the first and top priority of the new Congress.

The work of the last 10 years has essentially been movement building, developing public will and building power. But, post election, we may have a historic opportunity to consolidate and capture public will by enshrining it in public policy. The center of our work would shift from building power to consolidating power, by pushing the enactment of new major policies to further clean energy and protect the climate.

Capitalizing on this opportunity would directly and primarily entail organizing public support for the major climate/energy proposals in the U.S. Congress. This undoubtedly would be the direction of many. And this pivot must be fast and hard. In addition to the struggle over the stimulus package, we will need to push Biden to ensure he makes the right cabinet picks, the officials who will set the ceiling for ambition in his Administration.

However, the policies on offer in 2021 will be challenging, as they will undoubtedly be insufficient to resolve the climate crisis. Overcoming the systems that are driving this crisis is a long-term effort, and even the most ambitious plans do not foresee the end of fossil fuel pollution for 25 years.

Given that the proposals on offer won’t solve the crisis, we will need criteria to sort which proposals should be supported. Is the proposal good enough to get us going in the right direction and at a speed that allows some reasonable hope? Combined with other policies, is this a step in the right direction? Are the policies a sufficient first step? Can these proposals change the game enough such that we can progress further from there, going fast enough to arrive on time? As we learned in the lead-up to the Paris Agreement, welcoming momentum can breed more momentum.

There will also be important work to be done to simply defend the ambition of the opening legislative bids as their introductions may well be the high-water mark for ambition. Even the most optimistic election scenarios deliver a Senate in which there is only small margin for passage of climate friendly legislation, and regressive corporate interests will remain extremely influential in the Senate (and House). We will need to fend off efforts to water-down the proposals. And there will be moments in which friendly criticism from the Left can help centrist policy makers hold firm against the undertow from the Right.

This new landscape will not solidify immediately. There will be a short and important window to encourage more ambition in the opening bids, e.g. through the promotion of the Fair Shares framework recently established by the U.S. Climate Action Network and in pushing for a Green stimulus. But the political landscape may harden as soon as the summer and quite possibly much earlier.

And in that landscape we may be faced with tough choices. There may be moments in which the criteria simply becomes: is this the best we can do right now? And in those moments the question may be: should we promote this path even though we can’t see the way forward, in hope that the way will emerge later? Or should we oppose this path as a dead end, a trap? In history, this is often the choice, and thus one of the key roles for hope and faith.

The movement will need to develop an approach for sorting and answering these questions — a process that undoubtedly needs to be informed by many, particularly those without traditional access to these kinds of conversations.

Of course, the work to build power never really stops. rather it’s an question of emphasis. Movement building will continue in 2021. And, after we consolidate our gains in 2021/22 (knock on wood), the cycle of action will inevitably turn. The movement will return to an emphasis on power building. It’s a long way to 2030, and even longer to 2050.

Under this approach, 2021 would be a year in which we help with the assembly of wide-ranging constituencies — going beyond the movement’s base — into the coalitions necessary to enact game-changing policy. Much like an election campaign, such a legislative campaign is not primarily a power building moment, rather it is amoment in which we flex the power that we have built over the past 10 years. After there will be a period where we regather strength and rebuild political capital for the next fight.

We will, of course, still need to sustain public will. Public appetite for action on climate change didn’t grow by accident, and investment will be required to ensure that the political oxygen needed in the coming legislative fights is there when it’s needed. The core messages in our current narrative must continue.

While political oxygen is necessary, it’s not sufficient. Strategic effort will be required to organize and mobilize majority support for the policy proposals that will enter upon the main stage in the next Congress.

A new narrative must be driven that develops public support for these policies (assuming of course these are policies worth supporting). Here is one potential formulation of such a 2021 narrative, that builds upon (not replaces) our current story telling:

  • We have solutions. These proposals are sufficient to tackle the challenge of climate change. They will get us headed in the right direction, giving us a fighting chance to stop climate change while there is still much left to save.
  • These investments will help put the country onto the path to prosperity and rebuild an economy brought to a halt by a pandemic; and
  • These changes will help uplift and empower all Americans, particularly those who have been held down or left behind.

Legislative tactics will also shape our approach and our narrative, particular in how climate change is packaged and addressed with other pressing issues — such as economic stimulus.

In the lead-up to the Waxman-Markey fight in ‘09/’10, an organizing infrastructure of networking and point institutions was built that was explicitly tasked to organize the “movement.” These institutions were largely top-down, funder driven initiatives — which in part reflected the lack of grassroots movement and organization at the time.

The climate movement has deepened and diversified considerably since then. There is now a real grassroots movement. We must each find our lane and work in this new landscape. And, if we are part of a traditionally well-resourced or center group, we should make space for those who have been marginalized for too long.

If we get lucky on Tuesday, the next two years will be a moment to drive historic investments and commitments towards ending fossil fuel pollution and lifting up those left behind and held down. We will have an opportunity to consolidate the power that many have helped to build. And there will be an opening to enact public policies that will provide a platform for the movement to build yet more power. May we seize the moment.

A writer working, sailing, and raising a family in San Francisco @huntercutting