The campaign to avert cataclysmic climate change soldiers on. Despite an aggressive global economic crisis that unequivocally stole some wind from the sails of climate action, the movement lingers, organizing marches and rallies for the coming climate revolution. But action on the climate-energy front will not occur at the grassroots level. Instead, advocates should focus on identifying the appropriate elites, whose influence and inclinations offer a potential pathway to progress on energy and climate change.
The notion of eschewing grassroots organizing is unfamiliar to “causie” political movements, especially progressive ones. Progressive politics looks back with pride and conviction on its accomplishments in union organizing, suffrage and civil rights, and contemporary environmental victories like the creation of the EPA and the passing of the Clean Water and Air Acts. These achievements relied on building a critical mass of devoted and vocal support whose growing magnitude would reliably overwhelm public opinion and entrenched political opposition.
The movement to save the climate is unlikely to win with these tactics. In attempting to change the fact that the public doesn’t care about climate change, the movement routinely forgets one important thing: the public doesn’t care about climate change. Opinion polls indicate subsiding public concern over the future effects of climate change. A recent (and highly controversial) report by Matt Nisbett suggests that collective action and lobbying for the 2010 climate bill outgunned opponents from Big Coal and Big Oil, and the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act didn’t even get a vote in the Senate. Gallup shows that the public concern about the environment ranks last in a field of fifteen different national issues, a metric that the economy unsurprisingly dominates. Even if more and more people were coming around to the opinion that climate change is a real and dangerous phenomenon (which they aren’t), that increasing swath of the population still wouldn’t care too much about it.
And the truth is, the public doesn’t need to care that much about it. Energy and climate policy is primarily institutional, technical, and scientific. It is much less socio-cultural. This makes sense, too: energy is a largely invisible and homogeneous commodity that competes on price alone. The public will use energy in the most cost-effective way possible, so the most logistically simple way to mitigate climate change is to make clean energy cheaper than carbon fuels. This goal will be achieved by policymakers, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
The solution to the climate-energy crisis is akin to the Manhattan and Apollo Projects and the creation of the Internet. None of these made use of mass public support or mobilization–indeed, the Manhattan Project was done in secret. Yet all were technical challenges with a national mission, accomplished by elites and contracted largely by the federal government, and with gargantuan social effects. No grand infrastructure projects are sexy products of some outpouring of public demand, yet the creation of the Interstate Highway System was perhaps one of the most significant achievements in the story of American commerce. These projects were accomplished by elite American patriots. Somewhere out in the masses of my generation, a team of elites is waiting to meet each other and make clean energy cheap and ubiquitous.
The people standing around that team of elites, far greater in number, are not powerless. Effective climate policy will not be an all-out favoring of technocracy over democracy, but grassroots advocates need to understand the difference. Timetables and targets are even weaker technical plans than they are political strategies. A growing and vocal contingent in the developed world, dedicated to fixing the climate problem, means very little when 90% of new energy demand will come developing economies over the next century. Lifestyle choices–like consuming less, cycling to work, and switching out that 100-watt bulb–are infinitesimal compared to the challenge of decarbonizing fourteen terawatts of power. There are policies that can accomplish these ends: boosting research and development, driving technological innovation, subsidizing early-stage deployment, and empowering the next generation of scientists and engineers through education. But the grassroots section in this relay-campaign pretty much ends at advocacy, left to watch as elites carry the baton across the finish line.
The campaign to mitigate carbon emissions and revolutionize our global energy infrastructure will not be accomplished by the masses. It will not be accomplished by marches and emotive global demonstrations, even less so by eco-terrorism and violent disobedience. We will see this challenge defeated instead by a select group of elites: technicians and practitioners, experts and politicians. That’s not a bad thing. As Aaron Sorkin says, elite is not a bad word; it’s an aspirational one. How fortunate we would be if we could identify that team of patriots and elites who could lead us to a clean energy future.