In a post I wrote during the Presidential election campaign, I argued that environmental activists were politically naïve to try to force climate change onto the election platform. Instead, they should have been focused on the narrow tactical issue of getting Obama elected, as that would represent the best chance of getting some action to tackle climate change issues. Obama won the election and, sure enough, in spite of the lack of climate change fanfare during the campaign, tackling climate change came up as one of the top policy initiatives set forth this week in the President’s inaugural address.

In a subsequent post, I argued that we need to judge the setbacks we have seen in the environmental political agenda in the context of a long trajectory of success. If the President delivers on his inaugural address promises in his second term, that perspective will have proven reasonable.

Given that background, what should be the environmental movement’s agenda for the Obama second term? I summarize that agenda as:

  • Be helpful, not difficult.
  • Achieve small but meaningful wins.
  • Make gains irreversible.

The first task is to dial down the frenzy and develop an agenda that focuses on the art of the possible. The President has already given notice that, while he intends to achieve progress, it will necessarily be limited due to implacable Congressional opposition. The environmental movement’s task is to encourage and help him achieve whatever progress is possible, rather than to push for the unachievable and continually complain that, given the scale of the issue, whatever is achieved is simply not good enough. We must find ways to achieve momentum, and to celebrate and build on even the smallest of achievements, rather than set the bar so high so as to guarantee failure and sap motivation.

Secondly, we must focus on the local. The idea of a global compact to tackle emissions is as good as dead. In the US political context, international negotiations are counter-productive. They provide fodder for the charge of other nations trying to tell US citizens how to run their lives thereby strengthening the hand of the conservative bloc. Even at the national level, top-down initiatives will be difficult to make stick, as obstructive political manoeuvres and legal challenges will abound. While the idea of solving the world’s problems with one stroke of the Presidential pen is appealing in an Alice in Wonderland kind of way, it’s simply not a viable way forward. The most successful environmental initiatives have always been local in nature. They are the initiatives that can be shown to bring tangible benefits to people and command grass-roots support. And so it will be with climate change. Showing success in local initiatives will build the momentum and the popular support necessary to expand beyond the local—an expansion that will be based on proven results rather than mere activist insistence. Environmental organizations will face a major challenge to tool up to achieve local successes, rather than focusing almost exclusively on Beltway lobbying.

Finally, any gains must be made irreversible. Again, this speaks to a bottom-up approach. Central regulatory initiatives will remain an essential component of the overall approach. However, they can also be swept away by the courts or the next Administration. It is more difficult, if not impossible, to reverse hundreds of local projects that have proven successful, that have local support, and that can be used to bolster the political platforms of local Congressional candidates. In this context, federal initiatives need to be approached as enablers of local action rather than as ways to impose a top-down agenda.

The next four years will also provide a window of opportunity to build a stronger strategic platform for the longer-term. Such opportunities will include helping the future success of selected Congressional candidates, and revising and re-casting the currently chaotic communications platforms around climate science and around the policy initiatives that will benefit people in the context of their environment.