Global Warming Activists vs. Clean Tech Capitalists: Are we really on the same side?

Most environmental business blogs seem to have glossed right over coverage of Greenpeace’s rather untraditional message to President Obama on Mount Rushmore two weeks ago, though a quarter-page photo in the front section of the New York Times certainly did not. Citing discontent with Obama’s acquiescence to compromises on environmental policy, a group of eleven activists draped a massive banner next to Abraham Lincoln’s face bearing the message “America honors leaders, not politicians: Stop Global Warming.” The action came as the President met with world leaders to discuss climate change at the G8 summit, and brings to light divides among the environmental community that are becoming even more apparent thanks to the debate over the Waxman-Markey bill.

In light of the climbers’ controversial message, it seems important to ask: are such actions actually contributing to progress toward sustainable change, or just giving those who do care about our energy future a bad rap? Most Americans are more than skeptical of bearded activists dangling from national monuments, and while Silicon Valley venture capitalists may agree with Greenpeace on the importance of changing the course of our energy and environmental policy, many have quite different opinions on how to go about bringing that change. Even with such a visible statement, what exactly Greenpeace has accomplished in the grand scheme of things is a question up for debate.

“Looking at the broader global warming debate, it’s going to be important to frame it in a way that’s more visceral and understandable to the general population,” contests Simran McKenna, an Activist Program Associate at Greenpeace and one of the eleven climbers arrested earlier this month. “We need policy based on sound science, but to achieve that we also need passionate and informed citizens putting pressure on policy makers. We need to do more than talk about two degrees centigrade and 350 parts per million, we need to demand action from those who have the power to get us there.”

But when “visceral” means a group of twenty five year olds climbing on Lincoln’s nose, is this really leading to a citizenry that is more informed about the issue? Many would claim that such actions have the potential to backfire, churning up resentment among those less than pleased about radical environmentalists encroaching on their profits and their SUVs. Having been in the business of turning people’s heads for decades, Greenpeace is not blind to such criticism. While Simran says he recognizes that there will always be those who are unhappy with Greenpeace’s actions, “this doesn’t excuse us from the responsibility of taking a bold stance in response to the climate crisis.” Bold statements have, after all, played an important part in our nation’s history… think Boston Tea Party, Harper’s Ferry and the March on Washington.

The truth is that activism is a very different part of American life today than it was just a generation ago. As much as people may care, most are not the first to jump in line for a protest about some abstract environmental or social justice issue. Yet this is not to say that the new generation of leaders is failing to tackle the most crucial issues. Take a look at folks like Steve Newcomb, Bill Gates and Van Jones and that much is clear. But there is a difference in the way that these leaders are approaching problems, and it’s characterized more often by the entrepreneur and the community organizer than by the street demonstrator. In 1985 Bob Geldolf started Live Aid; twenty years later Matt and Jessica Flannery found Kiva. In the 1960s, militant protestors sought to bring down capitalism. Today, we’re proposing to use capitalism to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a growing community recognizing the complementary value of market-based approaches and activism.

“There’s still some distrust among the activist community of people that are trying to make a profit out of global warming, but there’s an increasing understanding of the importance of a multifaceted approach. Without people approaching these issues from the policy and business sphere, we won’t be able to tackle it,” expressed Simran.

But now with entrepreneurs creating and big money investing to save our planet, does this mean that we’ve grown out of the old fashioned activist model? With the stars aligned and business, policy and public opinion all leaning toward a greener future, is it not more effective to let the private sector take it from here?

These questions miss the point. If we wish to sustain the progress we are making on climate issues, it is as important as ever to keep those in power honest in their expectations and their promises. If we do some day find a way to live truly sustainably, the breakthrough is likely to be brought about not by protests and banners but by passionate entrepreneurs and saavy investors. However, without a strong policy environment and consumer demand in place, the electric cars will have nowhere to charge and the carbon traders will have nothing to trade.

While few would argue that Obama ignores the importance of climate change, to date legislation has been inadequate to stimulate long-term cleantech solutions and bring greenhouse gas emissions down to a sustainable level. It is clear that right now the President is focused on the very important task of reforming health care and knows he must spend his political capital wisely. We must recognize that political realities are what they are, but we also must not allow politics to become an excuse for poor policies. The pragmatic Mr. Obama often declares that “we don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good,” a message that some would reiterate to the eleven activists on Mount Rushmore. Yet sometimes the choice is not between good and best but between progress and regress. I, for one, am glad that we have individuals here to remind us – and our President – that this is one of those times. But I am not the one that needs convincing.

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