There’s widespread agreement that the communication of climate change issues to the general public has not gone well. In fact, the entire climate movement was declared a failure last summer as the final extant piece of climate legislation flamed out. The problem is the baseline has been shifted on environmentalism in general. It was once a movement characterized by COOPERATION. Today it is based on COMPETITION. I would speak out against Matt Nisbet’s recent “Climate Shift,” report if I thought the conclusions sounded way off the mark. They don’t.

“Let’s not bicker over who over-spent whom.” It’s a movement with poor leadership — whadya expect.


Let me start by telling about what I heard last September at an all-day climate workshop. In a session on listing the problems with the climate movement, one person basically said, “There are at least 20 different groups in D.C. all doing the same thing on climate, duplicating each other’s efforts, but not collaborating, leading to confusion and frustration among the public who are hearing 20 different voices and not knowing which way to turn.” As this was said, many heads in the room were nodding in agreement (and I was probably the most vigorous nodder because it is EXACTLY what I observed a decade ago when I first got involved with ocean conservation — so many groups doing the same thing yet showing so little willingness to collaborate on a large scale).

That’s the long and the short of it — a failed, disorganized movement made up of poorly led organizations (not poorly led in terms of internal dynamics but in terms of supposed national environmental agenda) that all have powerful communications and marketing departments skilled at telling the public that THEY are the BEST group doing heroic work and saving the planet. If you doubt this I will direct you to the websites of some of the biggest groups where you can read their promotional language which is blatantly COMPETITIVE, saying “we’re the best.” It’s not unlike the opening of Davis Guggenheim’s movie last fall, “Waiting for Superman,” where he showed how U.S. school kids are lagging behind in every metric except one — self-esteem — they THINK they are on top of the world because they’ve been slathered with so much praise throughout their lifetimes of mediocre performance.

Same thing for the large environmental groups — failing at what is supposedly the most important issue of our time, yet driven by their communications and marketing departments to tell the world they are WINNING! (duh)

And now consider the idea of looking at Nisbet’s conclusions from that perspective — asking the question of, “How could so many have accomplished so little with so much?”

The question deserves asking.


So last week there was a significant brouhaha in the climate community over the release of a report titled, “Climate Shift: Clear Vision for the Next Decade of Debate,” written by American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet. The report’s biggest conclusion is that the environmental movement “outspent” their opponents (the climate skeptics) yet failed. This message has been met with a barrage of fierce criticism, led by Climate Progress blogger Joe Romm (whom I’m a major fan of, let’s be clear about that, even though I’ve taken my lumps from him), writing about it repeatedly on his own blog as well as on Grist. He was joined by Nisbet’s former, “Framing Science,” colleague Chris Mooney, who used the term, “False Balance,” in the title of his assessment of the report. Lots of other folks weighed in on the accuracy of Nisbet’s calculations, accusing him of poor scholarship.

Who cares.

Who cares about the specific numbers. I won’t take issue with the accusations that Nisbet’s numbers are no good — that’s for the folks down in the trenches. I only know that the basic implications of his report — that the environmental community has done a poor job with a HUGE amount of money — rings true to me. Whether they have “OUTSPENT” (which seems to have become the operative word) their opponents doesn’t matter. Let’s leave the opponents out of the picture. This is a discussion about incompetence.


I’m sorry. I’ve just witnessed too much incompetence in today’s environmental movement to think it’s worth raging against what Nisbet is saying. This is not the environmental movement of the 1960’s. Or of Earth Day, 1970, or of even a decade later. Let me tell you a little story (which I’ve told before and will keep on telling because it is important) …


Once up on a time … in a country called the U.S.A. there was a state way up north that was being ravaged by careless oil and gas prospectors. By the late 1970’s a whole bunch of the biggest and the best environmental groups came together to form something called The Alaska Lands Coalition. This included more than 20 groups, including Sierra Club and Audubon — some of the biggest ones.

They rented crappy offices a few blocks away from Capitol Hill — not in the cushy NW district of D.C. where now reside the sort of blue-carpeted halls that mark the headquarters of the major eco-corporations of today, but in the poorer SE district. Their crappy offices had no logos hanging on the walls. There was no “branding” going on. The spirit was a now-forgotten thing called COLLABORATION.

How do I know all this? Because my girlfriend at the time was part of the effort. I was doing an internship at the Smithsonian (slaving over life-or-death issues associated with bryozoan taxonomy). In the evenings I would meet her at the crappy offices to help lick envelopes and listen to everyone talk passionately about the need to “lock up Alaska” before the devastation went any further.

It was the eve of Reagan’s election. The air of failure from Jimmy Carter was palpable. The environmentalists knew they had to work fast and furious to get the huge package of legislation passed that fall before the Republicans came storming into office. And they did. They totally succeeded. Among many parts of the legislation package was the creation of ANWR — the same massive resource that George W. Bush a generation later desperately tried to open for oil drilling. I remember listening to Stuart Udall one evening warning the hard working army of the Alaska Lands Coalition that their battle would never really end — that as soon as the legislation passed, the opposition would set about trying to get it reversed. I kept thinking about his words as they were lived out under by the Bush folks over the past decade. Amazing characters back then, accomplishing amazing achievements.


And that was it. The last golden hours of a beautiful movement that scored a lot of successes and won the hearts of a nation. But then collapsed.

I’ve pointed this out repeatedly here on The Benshi — that Mark Dowie brilliantly told the story of the sell-out in his 1995 Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Losing Ground:  American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century.” Reagan got elected, the environmental community decided to “fight fire with fire” by becoming more “professional,” which turned out to really be the decision to become more corporate, and presto — today’s situation where the “leaders” of the major groups share the same title of C.E.O. as their corporate counterparts (why doesn’t ANYONE ever comment on the inappropriateness of head enviros having the same titles as corporate heads — is everyone that perception-impaired?) and, just like the big corporations, are driven by their marketing and communications departments. They chose to fight fire with fire; now their flimsy little non-collaborative flickers have flamed out on global warming.

Where is there any evidence of COOPERATION among these environmental CEO’s in public? When in the past two decades have all the CEO’s of the major environmental groups joined together to make a joint statement to the nation? They could. They just wouldn’t. Their marketing and communications departments wouldn’t let them. It would dilute down their brands just as much as the idea of Coke and Pepsi holding a joint press conference. Not gonna happen.

Now think about those 20 groups in D.C. that the person at the workshop said are all doing the same overlapping, discombobulated activities for climate communication. Now think about Nisbet’s conclusion — how’s about “re-framing” it — not as “outspent,” but as, “Never have so many accomplished so little with so much.”


Sorry to not join the Nisbet lynch mob. I’m not saying anything pro or con about the report itself. I only know the basic message of not much bang for a whole lot of bucks rings true.