Strategy and Climate Change

Why America needs new strategic leadership on climate.

Image: Ed Hawkens.

Alex Steffen is a planetary futurist and creator of the books Worldchanging and Carbon Zero. Follow Alex on Twitter or to sign up to get his free weekly newsletter.

Not that long ago, David Roberts (one of my favorite writers on energy and climate change) tweeted “Large environmental NGOs developed their habits & tactics at a time when all enviro policy was bipartisan. Not suited to present world.”

I fired off a few tweets in response:

“Realism” re:planet w/in US political debate is an insane departure from the factual problems we face+ reality of solution spaces.
Every outcome that’s “realistic” by Beltway standards= catastrophic in real-world terms. Every possible “win” in that frame is a loss.
To fight a battle you cannot win, on the enemy’s terms, is pretty much the definition of bad strategy. Time to read some Sun Tzu.

What I was trying to get at is what seems to me an inherent tension in our current politics.

On the one hand, we have a reality of planetary problems that are all-encompassing and non-negotiable. There is no part of our lives that will remain un-impacted by the planetary crisis we face (or that can remain unchanged in the face such challenges), and the timelines we face for dealing with the parts of that crisis are determined not by political choice, but by physics, biology and large, slow forces like demographics. If we do not act quickly and boldly enough, we lose, period. No points for trying…

On the other hand, we here in the U.S. have a political system drenched in a carbon-lobby-funded denialism and a conventional wisdom about our national priorities that has remained essentially unchanged for 30 years. Inside the Beltway, “realism” is defined by the limits of ideology and conventional wisdom about the politically possible. Corruption is all but open. Facts are not really part of the debate, much less paradigm-tearing realities.

It seems to me that to continue trying to win progress on sustainability and planetary responsibility within that Beltway debate is a doomed project. Yet, like the generals of World War I, progressive NGO leaders, funders and media keep committing essentially all their resources to frontal assaults that end, time and time again, the same way. Billions of dollars have been spent, tens of thousands of activists burned out, movement morale depleted, years wasted, and we are, if anything, in a worse and less tenable position than we used to be. Every limited victory the climate movement has won —in Paris, on divestment, on pipelines and coal terminals, on clean energy policy — has left us with a still-widening gap between our achievements and the scale and speed of the emissions cuts we actually need. Victory, in our situation, means not just getting the results we need, but getting them fast enough to forestall catastrophe.

If we want to win, we need to rethink our strategy. I believe that means starting with understanding that the D.C. debate is not the battlefield we ought to be fighting on and that our traditional strategic package (the campaign plans, strategic communications, lobbying efforts, etc.) is no longer a functional battle plan. Myriad better, more innovative approaches are possible.

Of course, as an industry, the progressive NGO-funder-media complex suffers from exactly the same kinds of limitations as any other industry, particularly the problem of sunk-cost expertise: when leadership has skill and expertise in one approach, and doesn’t understand (much less have mastery over) newer approaches, it will quite often work harder to avoid change than to prepare for it. Those who are used to thinking of themselves as players in the national debate, people of influence in DC circles, canny insiders, etc. have been fighting fiercely for years against any change in strategy. There’s no reason to expect them to change now. To the old guard, victory is always just one more frontal assault away. Over the top again, boys, and this time we’ll win.

This is the opposite of good strategy.

“If your enemy is secure at all points, anticipate him. If he is superior in strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, sow division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. … The intelligent general imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” — Sun Tzu

If ever there were a time for a revolt of the young guard, a reinvention of strategy, a refusal to fight in already lost battles, a need to out-think the opposition using non-linear approaches, it is now.


Originally published in 2013 at www.alexsteffen.com.

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