Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Compromise and Climate Activism
distributed 7/1/16 - ©2016

A political squabble this week illustrates a difficult problem for those of us seeking strong and rapid action to address climate change.

On one hand, we need to be uncompromising on policies that will make a real difference. But in doing so, we need to depend upon -- and even work to build up -- a political system that depends on compromise. To achieve a radical agenda, we need to work in a moderate political structure. That's a very difficult balancing act.

As we in the United States move into the 4th of July weekend, part of what we celebrate is a constitutional system of balanced powers: legislative, administrative and judicial. It seems a fitting weekend to reflect on how to function effectively in this political context when we are faced with a climate crisis calling for dramatic action.

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The squabble went public on Monday, when Bill McKibben published an article on Politico lamenting the Clinton campaign's positions as the Democratic platform takes shape.

McKibben serves as one of the members of the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee. He's one of five people named by the Sanders campaign. The Clinton campaign named six of the committee members, and the Democratic National Committee appointed a few others.

McKibben is well known as one of the world's most prominent climate activists. Through, he has been a passionate spokesperson in the campaign to leave most fossil fuels in the ground (a stance strongly supported by Eco-Justice Ministries). Bill is not known for his willingness to compromise on tough issues.

In his Monday article about the platform committee, he wrote: "on many key issues so far the Hillary Clinton campaign has been unwilling to commit to delivering specifics about fundamental change in America". He gets specific about the climate section of the platform.

We all agreed that America should be operating on 100 percent clean energy by 2050, but then I proposed, in one amendment after another, a series of ways we might actually get there. A carbon tax? Voted down 7-6 (one of the DNC delegates voted with each side).

Four other amendments proposed by McKibben -- a ban on fracking; an effort to keep fossils in the ground, at least on federal land; a measure to mandate that federal agencies weigh the climate impact of their decisions; and a plan to keep fossil fuel companies from taking private land by eminent domain -- were all voted down 7-6. Bill was not pleased.

Two days later, Politico published a response by Carol Browner, one of the Clinton appointees to the committee. She is proud of the committee's work on "a platform that will make history." She lists a string of platform planks on climate and energy, "harnessing a wide range of tools to achieve these goals".

As she describes the process, "The Sanders campaign's representatives put forward nine amendments on climate and energy ... the committee found common ground on four, adopted a substitute on one, and voted down four." Then she states, "That's not obstructionism. That's Democrats being democratic." She celebrates the compromise that McKibben decries as unacceptable.

The platform isn't done yet. A much larger group will be involved in an upcoming set of negotiations, and then the full Democratic convention will weigh in. The two Politico articles are best seen as part of the public positioning to build support for differing strategies and platform details as the negotiations continue.

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Infighting about a political party's platform is hardly surprising. The contrast, though, between Browner's affirmation of compromise and McKibben's push for absolutes, can be seen a larger context. Important elements of that context are spelled out in a recent Atlantic article by Jonathan Rauch, "What's Ailing American Politics?"

Rauch examines long trends, of 40 years and more, that have changed the way US politics work, especially at the national level. At the core of his analysis is the loss of the political structures and tools that encourage compromise and cooperation, which he sees as essential to our constitutional system of governance.

There's a lot of thought-provoking ideas in the article, and some of them have direct bearing on my concern about being an activist for dramatic change in a system that needs compromise. Rauch writes:

Walled safely inside their gerrymandered districts, incumbents are insulated from general-election challenges that might pull them toward the political center, but they are perpetually vulnerable to primary challenges from extremists who pull them toward the fringes. ... Because they thrive on purism, protest, and parochialism, the outside groups are driving politics toward polarization, extremism, and short-term gain.

He sees the problem in both parties, but it is most visible in the Republicans and the Tea Party faction. In a 2010 poll, 70% of Tea Partiers "rejected compromise ... They thought nothing of mounting primary challenges against Republican incumbents, and they made a special point of targeting Republicans who compromised with Democrats or even with Republican leaders."

The result, says Rauch, is "an individualistic, atomized model of politics" in which Congress which can't function. He points to "minority factions and veto groups" becoming more dominant than the established political leadership. And he describes a feedback loop where political dysfunction breeds anger that creates even more polarization.

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I've often named Bill McKibben as a climate hero, and I'm a staunch advocate for the "keep it in the ground" strategies that he has championed. But I also know that those strategies are politically very difficult. A carbon tax, an end to fracking, the demise of federal leases for coal, oil and gas -- those don't have broad popular support (yet!), and they would have heavy costs for some powerful constituencies.

Does the climate movement join in the sort of no-holds-barred politics of demands that has paralyzed Congress -- the NRA on guns, for example? (The Hoover Institution, in 2012, ran an article, "In Praise of Polarization" that is an interesting contrast to Rauch's analysis.) Do we refuse to compromise on our calls for necessary action, and in the process damage the institutions of government that must see us through times of hard transition?

Yes, we need to be focused and forceful in ending the era of fossil fuels, because the social and ecological health of our planet is at stake. But we also need to have governments that can pass budgets, confirm judges, and implement legislation.

This dilemma is one that troubles me deeply. We need dramatic change, and we also need inclusive politics. Often, these seem like conflicting agendas.

In coming weeks, I expect to return to this topic with some specific ideas and some helpful stories from the climate justice movement. There are, I hope, ways of dancing in and through the tensions.

I'd really like to hear from the thoughtful and diverse community of Eco-Justice Notes subscribers. What insights and suggestions do you have? During this weekend when we celebrate our national identity and our constitutional heritage, what are your reflections on how to navigate the conflicting goals of change and stability? I look forward to your emails!

And during this holiday weekend, may we all find occasions for fun and relaxation, too.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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