Battling climate fatigue, assessing victories at Aspen Ideas

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Andrew Revkin, an environmental educator and journalist, left, and environmental leader Philippe Cousteau, right, engage 12 attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival Tuesday during a lunch talk about 'Climate Fatigue.’
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Average Americans are suffering from a severe case of “climate fatigue” because of all the dire predictions raining down on them about what rising temperatures will do to the planet.

Nevertheless, the environmental movement has still been able to rally enough support to win key victories on climate issues despite a Congress that’s indifferent at best and hostile at worst, according to activists on the front lines and observers attending the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In separate sessions this week under the program tract “Planet on the Brink,” environmental leaders and journalists outlined what’s going right for the environmental movement, but also why it is failing to engage a greater number of people.

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of the legendary filmmaker and explorer Jacque Cousteau, told a small group gathered for a lunch discussion Tuesday that the environmental movement hasn’t made as much progress battling global warming because it is stuck in negativity. Rank-and-file Americans are getting hit over the head with guilt about how their bad behavior is harming the planet, he said.

“We now have the pope on our side.”Mark TercekThe Nature Conservancy

Ingrain environmentalism in culture

He advocated for a shift in thinking that emphasizes recruiting people to work to help make a positive change rather than making them feel guilty for negative actions.

“I think we need to mature as an industry,” said Cousteau, founder and CEO of EarthEcho International, an environmental education organization.

He said the environmental movement would be wise to look carefully at the marketing efforts successfully undertaken by the tobacco industry for so long, and the equally effective anti-smoking campaign that eventually followed.

Big tobacco managed to make smoking sexy even though its products are poisonous and bad for health, Cousteau said. Anti-smoking forces finally achieved success when they quit targeting adults set in their ways and focused on youth.

The environmental movement needs to take advantage of the younger generations’ natural inclination and desire to protect the planet, Cousteau said.

“How do we do a better job of making this part of culture?” Cousteau asked. So far, environmentalism has consisted of easy pickings — recycling and taking public transit. It needs to expand to include the foods that we eat and the clothes we wear.

“It’s lifestyle choices,” Cousteau said.

Andrew Revkin, an educator and New York Times reporter whose coverage of climate change stretches back to the 1980s, said the environmental movement strains its credibility by labeling climate change as a crisis.

“It’s not a crisis. It’s growing pains,” he said.

Revkin said the environmental movement needs to convey that dealing with climate change will take sustained engagement over a long time rather than a silver bullet solution. Climate change is an issue that needs broad, long-term attention the same as national defense and public health, he said.

Not all doom and gloom

In a separate presentation Wednesday, the heads of two environmental powerhouses made the case that the environmental movement has been more successful than it might appear. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, made their case in, “Our Climate Future is Brighter than it Looks.”

They gave President Obama an “A+” for his environmental agenda during his second term after a first term they labeled disappointing. He is adopting more stringent fuel-efficiency standards in the vast majority of vehicles and steered the Environmental Protection Agency toward greater regulation of emissions from coal-fueled power plants. The EPA’s regulatory power over plants is being challenged in court in a battle that will take years to solve and could be reversed by the next president.

Tercek said environmentalism received a big boost last week. “We now have the Pope on our side,” he quipped, referring to Pope Francis’ statements last week calling for greater efforts to protect the environment and combat climate change.

It’s a perfect example of how environmental organizations should be creating partnerships with businesses, agricultural interests and religious leaders. “Everybody ought to be in favor of nature if we do it the right way,” Tercek said.

He lobbied for an approach that promote fuel efficiency as a way to save money rather than a way to reduce carbon emissions.

“If we want to build bipartisan support for this stuff, we must learn to talk about it a different way,” Tercek said.

Krupp said there is greater support for environmental measures among Republicans than many people realize. “There are a lot of Republicans that realize we can’t keep pumping emissions into the air,” he said.

Nevertheless, Krupp said it’s only realistic to acknowledge Congress is hopelessly deadlocked and incapable of acting on climate change any time soon. If a carbon tax on fossil fuels ever were to earn Congressional approval, it must be equitable, he said. Funds cannot be taken away from states such as Ohio and Indiana and given to Washington and Oregon.

“The further you get away from Washington you can actually see people grappling with climate change,” Krupp said.

The two sessions were a contrast not only in substance but also in style. It gets at the heart of what makes Aspen Ideas Festival intriguing. Krupp and Tercek were interviewed by a moderator in front of roughly 150 people in a major presentation hall.

Cousteau and Revkin sat among 12 conference attendees at a luncheon. The attendees were encouraged to engage the speakers to try to gain better understanding of the topic.