Climate of Extremes: Part One

How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire

This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.

In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1

Minor players in 2010 as the major environmental groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to pass a cap-and-trade bill, McKibben and have in the years since redefined the way groups like the Sierra Club practice politics, generating levels of grassroots activism and civil disobedience not seen since the first Earth Day four decades ago.

McKibben’s movement-building efforts are complemented by a new big money approach to election campaigns, bankrolled by billionaire activist Tom Steyer and other liberal donors. Promising to spend at least $50 million in the 2014 election cycle, Steyer’s Super Pac NextGen Climate has targeted key Republican Senate and Gubernatorial candidates who oppose action on climate change. “Once politicians start to become aware that this issue can either help them or hurt them, you begin to change the conduct and behavior of those who are in elected office,” predicts his chief advisor Chris Lehane.

In the latter years of Barack Obama’s presidency, McKibben and Steyer are the most visible leaders of a fundamental shift in climate advocacy, as many environmental groups and their allies focus on demonizing the fossil fuel industry and ridiculing Republicans as crazy extremists. Following the cap and trade fight, environmental group leaders believed that they had lacked the capacity to generate political pressure in districts and states where key Congressional votes were at stake, and that they were trumped by a conservative base who were angrier and louder than their own. In the years ahead, they are determined to avoid a similar mistake, investing instead in the type of ideological mobilization that conservatives had pioneered.

“The national environmental groups said, ‘We need to do more in-your-face activism,' ” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters told The New York Times. “You can’t just lobby members of Congress with a poll that says people support you.” Karpinski’s group plans to spend $25 million in the 2014 election cycle, a five-fold increase over 2010, with a significant portion of the money supplied by Steyer.2

Yet on the road to meaningfully dealing with climate change, this new mix of moral politics, personalized attacks, and line-in-the-sand political demands are not without major trade-offs and risks. Blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline, divesting from fossil fuel companies, and calling out “deniers” make for potent cultural symbols, but such strategies can deflect attention from far more substantive goals. These include implementing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules limiting emissions from coal fired power plants, protecting communities, cities, and industries from climate risks, and financing the development of cleaner, more reliable energy technologies that can meet the demand for growth in China, India, and Africa.

Proponents of the new activist strategies argue that confrontational protests and aggressive election campaigns create the political space and incentives for the EPA rules to move forward. Yet evidence also suggests that the campaign strategies employed by McKibben, Steyer, and their allies may risk only deepening political polarization, dividing moderates and liberals, alienating labor unions and the private sector, and contributing to public disgust with government and “Washington.”


In 2008, McKibben and student collaborators from Middlebury College launched The name of the organization was derived from climate scientist James Hansen’s declaration that 350 parts per million was the “safe” level for the stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, a goal he believed was required to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The main strategy of was to use Internet-enabled organizing tools to increase the intensity of political activity among those members of the public already alarmed about climate change. In targeting this segment, McKibben was appealing directly to the base of readers and fans he had built up over the past 20 years as a best-selling author. Yet despite an avid interest in climate change and a shared worldview, activism among this segment of the public historically has been relatively low, as was evident in the cap and trade debate.

As May Boeve, Executive Director of said in an interview for a recent study: “Our most consistent audience is the community of people who care about climate change and see it as a problem and are committed to do something about it. The metaphor we like to use is, yes, there’s an issue of preaching to the choir, but imagine if you could have the choir all singing from the same song sheet.”3

Following the demise of the cap and trade bill, like other environmental groups, McKibben and began the search for a new political target to mobilize a movement around. In early 2011, McKibben learned of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. To be approved, the pipeline had to be judged in the “national interest” by the Obama administration. McKibben realized that the pipeline was not only a potent symbol to rally activists against, but was also an action by which Obama could demonstrate his commitment to climate change, bypassing a gridlocked Congress. Turning again to Hansen to muster rhetorical authority, McKibben cited Hansen’s (contested) conclusion that by speeding up the development of the Oil Sands, approval of the pipeline would mean: “Essentially, it’s game over for the planet.”4

In August 2011, and their allies mobilized thousands to protest in front of the White House, with more than 1,200 participants arrested across several days. The staged protests, arrests, and related strategies were the first in a series that have pressured the Obama administration into delaying a decision on the Keystone pipeline until at least 2015. Major environmental groups joining with in opposing the pipeline include Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club.

In delaying a decision, Obama and advisors have feared that rejecting the pipeline might hurt the 2014 electoral chances of Democrats in swing states and districts; giving Republicans a ready-made issue to intensify support and turn out among their own grassroots base. Alternatively, if Obama were to approve the pipeline, the decision would risk provoking a rebellion among a network of major liberal donors and/or depress electoral support among progressive activists and voters.5

At his influential Dot Earth blog at The New York Times, Andrew Revkin has been critical of McKibben’s effort at the Keystone XL pipeline, arguing that the controversy was a “distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”6 The Editorial Board at The Washington Post7 and the editors of the journal Nature have offered similar lines of criticism. As the Nature editors wrote “the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that.” A more comprehensive action, according to the Nature editors, would be the implementation of pending EPA regulations for power plants that would “send a message to the coal industry: clean up or fade away.”8

Not only does the Keystone pipeline divide commentators and analysts, but the issue also re-activates longstanding fault lines between environmentalists and labor groups. During the cap-and-trade battle, environmentalists had forged important alliances with organized labor to lobby for the bill. But in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline debate, several labor groups representing construction workers have broken ranks, criticizing environmentalists for distorting the significance of the pipeline to the livelihoods of their members.9

In terms of broader public opinion, even after three years of campaigning against the pipeline, by 2014 polls showed that though the efforts had predictably triggered opposition among liberal Democrats, majorities of moderate Democrats and Independents favored construction of the project. In other words, instead of building a new coalition, the anti-pipeline campaign had instead served to divide the opinions of liberals and moderates.10 This division is even more strongly reflected in Congress, where moderate Democrats from fossil fuel producing states have been outspoken in their support for the pipeline and harshly critical of environmentalists.11


In 2012, McKibben and also turned their focus to pressuring universities and other institutions to divest their financial holdings from fossil fuel companies, a campaign that draws direct parallels to the 1980s anti-apartheid movement. In this case again, McKibben used his influence as a writer and storyteller to catalyze a new campaign aimed directly at recruiting college students, contributing a 6,000-word article to the August 2012 issue of Rolling Stone magazine that warned of “Global Warming’s Terrible New Math.”12

The divestment movement’s controversial goal – as McKibben outlined in his article – is to morally stigmatize the fossil fuel industry; much like the anti-apartheid movement helped frame in stark moral terms the policies of the white supremacist South African government. The fossil fuel industry has “become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth,” wrote McKibben at Rolling Stone. “It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”13

The call is for universities and other institutions to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies, and divest from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within 5 years.” The pressuring of university board of trustees – many of whom are affiliated with major corporations and investment banks – is also intended to force these individuals to “to choose which side of the issue they are on.”14

As of 2014, according to, students at more than 200 campuses across the country had pressured their institutions to divest from fossil fuel industries, with the most intense efforts occurring at smaller Northeastern colleges. In response, 10 small liberal arts colleges had taken action to divest all or part of their endowments. Most notably, Stanford University announced it would divest its holdings from approximately 100 coal companies and Yale University has directed its money managers to examine how its investments affect climate change. Several cities and college towns with a strong base of liberal voters had also taken divestment actions including Seattle, San Francisco, Cambridge, Berkeley, Ithaca, Ann Arbor, and Boulder.15

The divestment movement has provided students and their allies a personally relevant focus on their local institutions, and the hope that their actions can make at least a limited political difference. On some campuses, the campaign has also created important opportunities for students to learn about coalition building, negotiation and compromise, with campus forums and events sparking critical self-reflection on what climate change means for society and institutions and how everyday citizens, especially young people, can become involved.

Yet critics of the divestment movement argue correctly that there are only a few socially responsible mutual funds fully divested from fossil fuel companies. Moreover, these fossil fuel free funds offer lower returns on investments than traditional investment options. Such funds might become more competitive if governments started to take action to regulate emissions from fossil fuel sources, but until then, universities and municipalities would have to accept greater risks and lower returns.

Critics also argue that the focus on campus divestment might have little impact on the behavior of oil companies – much less oil producing countries – since most of the stock in companies are controlled by pension and hedge funds and large net worth individuals. Previous research evaluating the impact of the anti-apartheid movement, for example, concludes that divestment strategies had no discernible financial affect on the South African economy, or its companies, currency, or major industries. 16,17

Unlike apartheid, fossil fuel divestment from a moral standpoint is far more difficult to choose which side you stand on, given what is for all of us a heavy dependence on fossil fuels. Reliable energy alternatives like hydropower or nuclear energy each also have their own moral tradeoffs and risks. A more effective strategy might be for universities to buy up, rather than divest, their shares in energy companies, thereby gaining more influence on industry practices. A similar strategy would be to maximize university finances to leverage research and deployment of cleaner energy technologies.18

This is the first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here. The articles are adapted from the following forthcoming paper:

Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Environmental Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing New Strategies for Political Change. In N. Vig & M. Kraft (Eds), Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th Edition. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

1. Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist. (New York: Times Books, 2013).

2. Juliet Eilperin, “Environmentalists Spending on Midterms to See Huge Jump this Year,” The Washington Post, 2014 September 5.

3. Luis Hestres, “Preaching to the Choir: Internet-mediated Advocacy, Issue Public Mobilization, and Climate change,” New Media & Society, 16(2), 323-339, 2014.

4. Hestres, “Preaching to the Choir: Internet-mediated Advocacy, Issue Public Mobilization, and Climate Change,” New Media & Society.

5. Andrew Restuccia and Darren Goode, “Keystone Decision Delayed Yet Again,” Politico, 2014, April 14.

6. Andrew Revkin, “Can Obama Escape the Alberta Tar Pit?” The New York, 2011, September 5.

7. Anon, “Keystone XL is Coming Back,”The Washington Post, 2013 January 23.

8. Anon, “Change for Good: The US Must Boost Its Spending on Clean Energy to Make its Mark on the Climate Debate,” Nature, 2013 January 29.

9. Darren Goode, “Keystone Pipeline Sparks Labor Civil War,” Politico, 2012 January 20.

10. Bruce Drake, “Democrats Find Themselves Divided on the Keystone Pipeline,” (Washington, DC: The Pew Research Center 2014 May 6).

11. Andrew Restuccia and Darren Goode, “Keystone Decision Delayed Yet Again,” Politico, 2014, April 14.

12. Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, 2012, July 19.

13. McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone.

14. Anon., “FAQ: Fossil Free Campaign,”

15. Anon., “Divestment Commitments,”

16. Cary Krosinsky, “Why the Do the Math Tour Doesn’t Add Up,", 2012 November 27.

17. Ivo Welch, “Why Divestment Fails,” The New York Times, 2014 May 9.

18. Welch, “Why Divestment Fails,” The New York Times.