During Obama’s first term environmental groups were complicit in enabling what became years of ‘climate silence,’ by allowing themselves to be co-opted by a White House messaging strategy to talk about ‘clean energy’ but not climate change. It’s time they reclaim a position of politically independent integrity. An exchange with Bill Becker of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

Climate Desk Live archived webcast: Can Obama – and Congress – Fix Climate Change?

At the Climate Desk Live discussion on Capitol Hill December 4 of what to expect from Washington on climate change policy during the next four years (more on that in a follow-up post), we asked a panel of nongovernmental public interest speakers the following:

Rick Piltz, Climate Science Watch:

At the first of these Climate Desk events a couple of months ago there was discussion of a secret meeting early in the Obama administration between the environmental NGOs and the White House people, in which the NGOs were basically co-opted into the administration’s plan to just talk about clean energy instead of climate change. Do you accept that the NGOs were thereby being complicit in enabling the ‘climate silence’ that characterized things for a few years? And do you agree that going into Obama 2.0, rather than being too cozy with the administration and assuming they are doing their best to do the right thing, and selling their souls for inside access, the NGOS should maintain critical distance and start pushing on them from a more progressive direction and holding them accountable — rather than playing this inside game and thereby creating the same failure we saw the first time around?

Bill Becker, Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, which has just released its 2012 Presidential Climate Action Plan, responded:

I don’t think this conversation should be behind closed doors any more by any part of the community working on this. I think it needs to move into the public arena. We need to have that conversation with the entire community. If I were an NGO, an environmental NGO, I would be looking that way at it. Obama throughout his term, back to his inaugural — his first inaugural — has talked about the country ‘making him do the right thing’. I’m paraphrasing here, but making him do the right thing. Well there is an element to that — that’s a following type of leadership. We need to create a parade that the president will jump in front of like a good political leader. But he also needs to educate and cultivate that support — that’s what leadership is. He needs to get out and talk to the country in terms that they understand, Heartland as well as East Coast. And use the education to cultivate public understanding and public momentum for Congress to do the right thing, for him to do the right thing. So there is a balance there he needs to strike and I don’t think he has hit it quite yet. But no, no more behind closed doors.

On October 12 we wrote (Climate change: Winning issue or losing battle?):

Betsy Taylor, President of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions and well-known driving force in numerous public interest organizations, confirmed that climate change has been stifled from public discourse. In the spring of 2009, after the financial crisis had hit, “there was a decision made,” Taylor says, “to not talk about climate change that was adopted by the majority of the environmental groups and the White House. I was at that meeting.” Reluctantly, the environmental organizations agreed, while Bill McKibben argued this decision would come back to “haunt” them. They were right about climate change haunting us, though the public discourse remains dysfunctional.

Chris Mooney, host of the event for Climate Desk and moderator of the discussion, writes:

[Joe] Romm went further. Asked if there was some individual giving politicians bad strategic advice, he commented, “I will absolutely blame someone. Because I have relatively high confidence, based on conversations I’ve had, that David Axelrod is the guy who shut down a lot of this talk. And even went up to the Hill and told the Dems not to message the climate science.”

Soon after the White House gag order was put in place and caved into by green groups, the fossil fuel companies and climate deniers, facing no aggressive opposition, moved in to frame the narrative in their favor and influence public opinion. As a result, Taylor said, “We saw public opinion shifting in a negative direction.”

And in case you missed it earlier, read the full text of Suzanne Goldenberg’s outstanding and important article in the Guardian on November 1: “Revealed: the day Obama chose a strategy of silence on climate change“. Excerpt, with boldface added:

The invitation to the White House in the spring of 2009 struck Barack Obama’s allies in the environmental movement as a big moment: a clear sign that climate change was on his radar and that the president was eager to get to work.

The event was indeed a turning point, but not the one campaigners expected. Instead, it marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word – a decision some campaigners on the guestlist say produced the strange absence of climate change from the 2012 campaign…

[T]he off-the-record event with the White House green team at the old executive office building offered the first chance for the White House to share its plans for getting a climate change law through Congress. Aides handed round a one-page memo of polling data and talking points.

“What was communicated in the presentation was: ‘This is what you talk about, and don’t talk about climate change’,” [said Betsy Taylor, president of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions]….

[M]ost of the environmental groups were inclined to go along. “When the White House invites you to a meeting and says: ‘here is how we are going to talk about these things’, it sends a very clear message,” said Erich Pica, president of the US Friends of the Earth Action, who was also at the meeting.

Now with Obama fighting for re-election, and the climate agenda stalled and under constant attack from Republicans and industry, environmental groups acknowledge the go-softly strategy was a mistake.

“I thought it was a mistake and I told them,” said Bill McKibben, who heads the 350.org group, who was one of the few people at the meeting to voice his misgivings. “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem,” he said.

The stealth approach also gave the opposition an opening. The White House reluctance to even mention climate change allowed some in industry and on the right of the political spectrum to discredit climate science.

“There was a really big emphasis on talking about what I call the sub-narratives – that there were other ways to speak about the opportunity and the challenge of climate change rather than calling it that,” said Maggie Fox, the chief executive of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. “There was a whole suite of sub-narratives: national security, clean energy future, diversification of energy, health, future generations…”

But Fox acknowledges none of those reasons – although compelling – went far enough in justifying the need for sweeping transformation needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. “Over time it became in effect an absence of conversation about climate change as a threat, and I think in the end that proved to be unwise because it is the one reason all these storylines matter.”…

Obama, in debates and in campaign stops, continued to talk up the importance of investing in America’s future through building a clean energy economy. But the connection to the threat of climate change was lost.

“It’s really hard to sell clean energy. Clean energy is really struggling because the story has gotten garbled,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “You can’t have a clear conversation, and the reason there can’t be a clear conversation is because of this elephant in the room which is climate change.”

Bravo once again to Bill McKibben, who held his ground with Obama’s political enforcers and spoke truth to power. We need the rest of the environmental ‘leadership’ to show some comparable independence. Environmental groups with integrity do not take marching orders from the Obama Administration. Their proper role is not to be cozy with elected officials of any stripe – rather it is maintain critical independence, mobilize popular support, and create political pressure to hold government accountable to the public interest. In the coming period of Obama 2.0, we really must move beyond the complicity with climate silence that characterized Obama 1.0.

Earlier posts:

“Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication”

Toward Obama second-term leadership on climate science and policy

White House energy policy talk has ‘all of the above’ except climate change

Boykoff: Obama’s rhetoric of ‘clean energy’ vs. the reality of climate change

On The Yale Forum’s question: ‘Climate Change’ … and ‘Global Warming’: The New Dirty Words? And If So … What Then?