Save the people: The environmental movement needs a new tagline

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It's time for brands and nonprofits to step up and create demand for climate action, writes the managing partner of Oberland.

What does the world need to thrive? It needs sustained demand for environmental action at mass scale. The supply of solutions is plentiful—ideas and techniques to create green energy, mitigate climate change, tax carbon, sustain fisheries, make cities green, and ensure a growing population has clean water and sustainable food. The reason we haven’t made enough progress is that demand hasn’t been sufficiently sustained and scaled to force the powers that be to act boldly. 

Why hasn’t the environmental movement over the years been able to create and scale demand despite the seriousness of the issue and general popular support? There are four basic reasons. 

First, the framing is boring. Saving nature for nature’s sake isn’t compelling to enough people. People don’t connect the abstract environmental consequences of reducing wetlands to things they care about like having clean tap water to brew their morning coffee in. The consequences were a long way off, the impact was abstract, and the scale of the change was too overwhelming to think about. 

The frame must change. Nature has survived mass extinctions, ice ages, floods, and more. Nature will bounce back. Brooklyn won’t. Every article, every schoolbook, every tweet, and every piece of legislation about climate change must connect the dots between humans, and climate change, and drive a message of genuine self-motivated interest in the issue. It will be easier to retire to Miami in 2040 if it isn’t underwater. 

Second, there are people who have a special interest in denying climate change. Sometimes they make fake news or fake science. Sometimes they bury their own science. But most of the time, they obfuscate and complicate the real science to the point where the average citizen can’t tell which is end is up. 

Someone must rise above the noise and become the source of environmental truth—the beacon of clarity in the sea of fake news, #alternativefacts, and obfuscation. And we need the media to stop allowing climate deniers equal time because they are popular. There is no such thing as clean coal. The science isn’t muddy. There is no debate. Denying climate change is like denying gravity, and people who do it need to be given the side-eye and dismissed live on television. 

Third, the scale of addressing climate change makes it near impossible for individuals to feel like they can matter. Even in vibrant democracies, the issue crosses jurisdictional lines, conflicts with powerful special interests, and requires cooperation from literally everyone in the world. The movement itself is also fractured, with different factions fighting for their pet issue (solar power, endangered species, etc.) or criticizing each other for either being too pure or not pure enough. 

The world is waking up to a new, old truth: the people hold the power. The Tea Party, Bernie, Trump and the Pink Protest are all signals that people are more engaged now than ever, and they are driving change at scale. Politicians, nonprofits, and advocacy groups need to inspire a stampede of Climate Voters this November and every November from this day forth. 

Fourth, the opponents of environmental action frame the question of resources by asking how much would it cost Exxon if the world converts to 100 percent electric vehicles and solar power? Billions. How much would they spend to stop it? Hundreds of millions. And, as such, they provided substantial resources for a sustained, coordinated marketing effort to confuse people. 

Most environmental advocacy is done by nonprofits that think about their tiny budgets like this: "85 percent of our budget is on doing work in the field." After operating costs, maybe there is 2 percent for marketing, fundraising and other communications. Most of that 2 percent is focused on fundraising to sustain the operations, which leaves a negligible amount for communications that drive demand for climate action-awareness campaigns, public education, strategic communications, advocacy and community engagement. It’s just not a fair fight. 

Enough is enough. This is solvable. It’s time for brands and nonprofits to step up and create demand for climate action. 

Ask, what is the cost if we lose the argument and action isn’t taken on climate change? Not the environmental costs, but what it will mean for human beings if the environmental movement stalls. Drought was the precondition for the Syrian civil war. Rising seas are forcing entire nations to relocate. It’s not really about the climate changing, as much as it’s about civilization changing. And we, the civilized, need to band together and demand action now. What kind of world do you want to live in, work in, sell your product in? Oh, and don’t think too long, the clock is ticking.

Drew Train is the managing partner of Oberland.