Green Groups Embrace Climate Pragmatism

March 22, 2012 | Jesse Jenkins,


Leading green groups, including the National Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club, are embracing a pragmatic approach to advance climate mitigation efforts by refocusing public outreach efforts around the near-term health benefits associated with reducing reliance on coal-fired power plants and increasing vehicle fuel efficiency.

"We're going to talk a lot about the health implications of dirty air," Heather Taylor, director of NRDC's political arm told Politico.

That's a smart move, says climate change communication expert and American University professor Matthew Nisbet.

While efforts to tackle climate change will avoid potentially significant long-term damages, to secure broad public support, those efforts must be linked to more salient and immediate public concerns while delivering near-term benefits. As Nisbet explains:

"In a polarized America, if you are going to build support for candidates in the Midwest and other battleground states that will back legislation on climate change during the next Congress, you have to switch focus to emphasize public health and economic resilience, goals realized through incremental actions like eliminating coal plants and boosting fuel efficiency."



Nisbet's observations echo the recommendations outlined in Climate Pragmatism, a July 2011 report authored by an international group of 14 scholars and analysts representing a diverse range of political and ideological positions -- from the conservative American Enterprise Institute to moderate Democratic think tank Third Way and the liberal Breakthrough Institute.

In the wake of both stagnant international climate negotiations and failed domestic efforts to enact a cap-and-trade program to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the authors argued that climate mitigation "will succeed to the degree to which it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical, and environmental benefits to political economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resilience to climate impacts."

"Motivated by a clear desire to protect public health," the authors noted, "the United States has long been a global leader in the development and deployment of pollution abatement technologies, from the creation of smokestack scrubbers to the invention of alternatives to ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). A redoubling of such efforts can yield simultaneous progress to reduce climate forcings."

According to the authors, accelerating energy innovation efforts, building resilience to extreme weather events, and tackling pollution all offer the potential for substantial near-term climate progress by linking climate mitigation and adaptation efforts to salient near-term benefits.

Now it seems national environmental leaders are embracing this central tenet of the Climate Pragmatism approach.

"Critics for a long time have argued that environmentalists and our issues don't connect with people," Sierra Club National Political Director Tony Cani told Politico. "The idea is this: When it comes to any issue, whether it's Keystone, EPA regulations or any other issue ... how does that impact individuals? How does it impact families? I think that it's fair to say that that's not always been a strength of environmentalists."

And head to the Age of Engagement blog to read Matt Nisbet's detailed analysis of changing climate communications strategies.