At Emergency Speed

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Our attempts to combat climate change have failed. The only way forward now is to mobilize every aspect of society—the state, industry, civil society—into a war-like transformation, and to do so at emergency speed. This is the central thesis of The Climate Mobilization (TCM), an activism and advocacy network launched in 2014. TCM has distinguished itself from other climate groups by embracing a language of urgency and catastrophe and, in turn, advocating for a WWII-style mobilization of federal and local resources. Theirs is a unique and radical proposal for climate action—one that makes TCM’s work compelling, but nevertheless raises a long list of questions.

What sets TCM apart from other groups is not the fact that it has a bold vision, but rather its refusal to advocate for anything less than that vision, despite the formidable constraints of our present political environment. While other climate groups present ideal scenarios for a carbon-free, equitable future, they typically find themselves working for incremental changes. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for example, advocates for a gradually increasing “carbon fee and dividend” policy won through the slow construction of a hypothetically bipartisan coalition. Read the “Welcome Packet” presented to new volunteers at TCM, however, and you’ll be struck by a set of instructions asking volunteers to stay on message: “no gradualism. TCM is a single-message campaign for one big demand.”

TCM’s use of emergency language and its commitment to one big demand are unconventional in the world of climate politics, where even the more radical voices have been cornered into gradualism. The conventional wisdom states that an apocalyptic narrative of climate change makes people feel like there is nothing they can do to fight global warming and (incorrectly) think that the threat is exaggerated, a feeling that deniers try to reinforce. But, as the massive public response to David Wallace-Wells’ doomsaying article in New York Magazine last year has shown, the question of whether this language should be avoided entirely is debatable—especially because political action on climate must truly happen immediately, making it by definition an emergency. Sometimes you have to “tell it like it is,” TCMers argue, in order to get the message across.

In order to thread this needle, TCM has thought very, very carefully about the psychological impact of its messaging. The group’s founder and director, Margaret Klein Salamon, has a PhD in clinical psychology and has studied the psychology of emergency action and social movements. In a document detailing how TCM will lead the public into emergency mode, Salamon acknowledges the worry that emergency language will trigger either panic or helplessness. She argues that this belief has kept the climate movement in a perpetual state of paralysis. If framed correctly, however, the language of emergency can be powerful; it can move the public into “emergency mode”, allowing “individuals and groups to function in an enhanced, optimal way” towards a singular goal.

In this way TCM reframes climate action, moving away from gradualism and toward a full-fledged acceptance of “climate truth.” This truth, Salamon and her colleagues claim, “has the potential to be the most powerful, transformative truth of all.”  

In making use of climate truth-and-emergency mode, TCM hopes to lead the country to zero emissions in under a decade. This would entail a massive “economy-and-society-wide” mobilization, one that TCM’s press releases and organizing materials frequently compare with mobilization efforts on the US homefront during World War II. Back then, they point out, civilians contributed massively to the war effort through various sacrifices and changes in consumption: women entered the workforce; schoolchildren planted victory gardens; products ranging from gasoline to cheese were rationed; some items, such as cars, were not produced at all; Americans saved their income in war bonds; Hollywood churned out wartime propaganda films. This historical precedent defines TCM’s definition of mobilization as “an emergency restructuring of a modern industrial economy, accomplished at rapid speed.” Indeed, it proves that societal overhaul and drastic institutional change in the name of a singular goal are possible, given the right catalyst.

This messaging and strategy seem to resonate with activists, who have helped TCM establish chapters in 13 cities. One volunteer mentioned that TCM’s whole-system solution is what compelled her to give a “climate year” of service. Though volunteers are encouraged to use their skill sets to contribute to a wide array of tasks (including policy research, local organizing, communications, outreach, team leadership, and even tech support), TCM admits that it is “chronically [acting at] overcapacity” as it is not yet equipped to efficiently assign work to all those who desire to be involved. In recognition of this common difficulty, the group describes itself as a “cross between a startup, an NGO, and a sacred mission,” drawing inspiration from Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup. Ries’s book, aimed primarily at businesses, urges entrepreneurs to abandon lengthy, detailed business plans in exchange for iterative design, constant customer feedback, and agile, incremental development of a product. For TCM, this means instructing volunteers to avoid complex plans, test their assumptions continually, and use their capacity wisely.

There is no doubt that TCM is a versatile and highly digital national network—project and team management apps such as Slack and Trello are foundational to the group’s communication—but TCM’s reliance on iterative design also means that its strategy decisions can seem improvised.

Indeed, though TCM’s adoption of The Lean Startup principles could be innovative, it has, ironically, committed one of Ries’s biggest faux pas by pivoting its strategy from national to local action without budging on its overarching grand vision. This disconnect between their vision and strategy is the biggest stumbling block I see in TCM’s work thus far. The most important lesson gleaned from the WWII analogy is that a mobilization of that scale requires action at the federal level: the most impactful changes during WWII, such as price controls and rations, were made possible by specially-created federal agencies and extensive federal deficit spending. Despite the undeniable necessity for action at the federal level, however, TCM has doubled down on its “local first implementation” strategy, pushing local governments to sign emergency climate declarations and create Climate Emergency Mobilization Departments.

This decision is understandable given the current Presidential administration, but it complicates TCM’s commitment to one big demand. The hope is that the implementation of mobilization policies will flow from local governments, to state governments, and ultimately to the federal government. The local effort has seen moderate success: Hoboken, NJ, Berkeley, CA, and Montgomery County, MD have all declared climate emergencies through formal (though non-binding) resolutions, and Los Angeles is considering the creation of a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department. Without intensive federal investment, however, the full-fledged mobilization TCM advocates for seems out of reach. This is primarily because local governments are too fiscally constrained to make the level of investment needed for a transformative mobilization.

For example, take LA’s potential Climate Emergency Mobilization Department—a department that would oversee climate mobilization policy and directly include environmental justice advocates in LA’s future climate policymaking. If established, this department may receive funding from the state government through the California Disaster Assistance Act (CDA), which allows the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to provide financial assistance to local governments in an emergency. That this funding mechanism could be used is plausible, as indicated by its invocation during a state of emergency in LA county declared by the Governor amidst last year’s wildfires. However, even if LA successfully gets funding, it would not be sufficient to fund the level of intervention needed to reach zero emissions in less than ten years. California’s 2018-2019 budget allocated just $1.2 billion to local assistance financing through CDA. Two-thirds of this budget came from federal funds, highlighting the importance of federal financing for local spending. Contrast this with a recent estimate putting the cost of decarbonizing LA’s energy usage alone at $52 billion. Other local governments that have adopted TCM’s mobilization approach, such as Hoboken and Montgomery County, do not have access to state emergency funds, and many of the city policy guides TCM has published lack clear funding mechanisms or even any cost assessment whatsoever.

The revenue issue is manifest in the growing list of local governments that have signed emergency declarations but have not implemented any mobilization policies. Sure, some of these local governments may become mobilization “ambassadors,” helping to spread emergency declarations to nearby cities. Without revenue support and a substantive, legally-specific mobilization policy blueprint, however, these local governments are left waiting, “gearing up” for something bigger that, for a number of reasons, may not be coming.

It is unclear whether a city-by-city approach can spread nationally without federal involvement. Though TCM has seen moderate local success in a few ultrablue cities, the question of whether its message can resonate outside of urban, liberal counties remains unanswered. One enthusiastic TCM volunteer I interviewed even mentioned that the remote nature of the work has allowed her to be engaged in a climate movement that is difficult to find in her local community, a stark indicator of the challenges the organization faces in making political inroads.

But even if the declarations do scale up across purple America and reach the federal level, what will TCM’s national mobilization actually look like? The WWII analogy is instrumental in showing that mobilization is possible, but the analogy has clear limits, and relying on historical precedent as a concrete policy guide is risky, especially when questions of policy content give way to ones of how comparable the two political environments are. Unfortunately, this risk is exactly what TCM has taken in its National Victory Plan, and not always to strategically satisfactory results. At times the Victory Plan—which aims to outline the mobilization steps necessary to restore a safe and stable climate, reverse ecological overshoot, and halt the sixth mass extinction—feels like a mere recitation of WWII homefront policies. For example, the plan calls for the establishment of various federal agencies modeled after those created during WWII. A “Climate Mobilization Board” would “conduct technical assessments, enforce production goals, issue stop-production and scheduled production phase-out orders, institute efficient contracting procedures, cut through red tape, and coordinate all agency-level mobilization activities.” A “Mobilization Labor Board” would manage industrial labor relations, administer a federal job guarantee program, and maximize productivity related to climate mobilization all while ensuring workers’ health and welfare. A WWII-style “Office of Price Administration” (OPA), meanwhile, would establish wage, price, and consumption controls, including greenhouse gas rationing.

These are ambitious proposals, but the report seems to ignore the question of political feasibility altogether. It also leaves most of the rigorous policy planning to a later date, a decision that seems at odds with TCM’s rhetoric of urgency and highlights the group’s lack of strategy at the national level. Presumably TCM is aware that their proposals are radically ambitious—this is integral to their messaging—but the Victory Plan includes no discussion of how our political environment might be changed for these sorts of policies to be implemented. Consider this is a plan that, despite certain checks and balances, gives state institutions unprecedented levels of authority. For it to work, Americans in 2018 may need to possess the same trust in state institutions as they did in the 1940s. Absent or in addition to this, we need a Pearl Harbor equivalent-type event—something to force society into action. But Americans’ trust in the federal government has eroded over the past 60 years, and regional climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy have failed to trigger significant changes to the national political environment. Moreover if, as TCM points out, even the most climate-friendly administrations have led us on a path to dangerous warming, what sort of leader is needed to implement this vision? How would such command-and-control tactics be implemented given the United States’ role in a highly-globalized system of trade? How would a US mobilization impact its allies?

That many climate activists are drawn to and invest in TCM’s radical proposal is not surprising, particularly in a world stultified by gradualist climate politics. TCM’s organizational flexibility and streamlined communications infrastructure make it accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and there seems to be a genuine emphasis on training new volunteers and giving them necessary autonomy. Moreover, the group’s obsession with the very real urgency of climate change is refreshing. Other climate groups could stand to benefit from adopting TCM’s rhetoric of “climate truth” and emergency.The factors that make TCM unique, however, are also at the root of many of its biggest obstacles. Its commitment to making one big, aggressive demand might be far more compelling if that demand was attuned to our current political and institutional reality, relying less on historical precedent and more on contemporary policy research. Similarly, TCM’s pivot to local-first implementation would make more sense if it developed a clear policy plan—not just targets—for cities that have declared the need for mobilization but are waiting for backup funding and policy support from higher levels of government. These plans would need to adhere to the fiscal constraints of local governments and be adaptable to areas far beyond blue cities, both of which might complicate TCM’s “no gradualism” stance. The good news is that TCM has created a broad network not just of volunteers but of prominent policy researchers, scientists, and public figures such as Michael Mann, Paul Gilding, and Naomi Klein. If it leverages this network at emergency speed, TCM might overcome present obstacles and establish itself as a powerful player in the climate movement.

Claudia Fernandez is a senior at the University of Chicago studying public policy and international relations.