Permeating the public's consciousness on climate change

SALLY POLLAK, Free Press Staff Writer 4:37 p.m. EST November 6, 2014BUR20141031isham2.jpg

Jon Isham's Middlebury College J term class was the birth place of what would become 350.org. (Photo: ALDEN PELLETT/for the FREE PRESS )

 

Social movements have fluid boundaries, said Robert Bartlett, chairman of the political science department at the University of Vermont. Bartlett teaches environmental policy at UVM.

Because movements have fluid boundaries, people can argue about what is part of a social movement and what is not, he said. Movements also combine with other movements, or can split apart to become two.

The environmental movement began in the 1960s, when the phrase came into use. "If no one called it that before, maybe it doesn't exist," Bartlett said.

Or maybe it does.

Perhaps the environmental movement of the 1960s was the second or third "flowering" of such a movement, Bartlett said.

RELATED: 350.org's rise from Middlebury College

In the 1850s, local governments started to pass air-pollution ordinances, Bartlett said. These laws turned cities including New York, Philadelphia and London "from places of petulance to places that were pretty healthy," he said.

At the turn of the 20th century, under the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, an interest in wilderness and land conservation led the expansion of a National Park System.

These ideas were unified by the environmental movement of the 1960s. Two terms — the environment and the ecology — were used to coalesce ideas including resource conservation, access to open space and outdoor recreation, improving health and quality of life, and preventing diseases caused by pollution, Bartlett said.

The climate movement emerged as an aspect of environmentalism perhaps because activists recognized that to be most effective, distinct focus on the climate was required, Bartlett said.

He recognizes two primary tools of the climate movement: Direct action to raise awareness and change people's minds, and new media to make things happen.

"Lots of older political activists were slower to catch on to the power of social media," Bartlett said. "350.org was seeing a potential there that others hadn't exploited yet."

A focus on the Keystone XL Pipeline has a number of "very redeeming features" from 350's point of view, he said.

AP855643635592.jpg

People fill the street during the People's Climate March on Sept. 21 in New York. Tens of thousands of activists walked through Manhattan on Sunday, warning that climate change is destroying the Earth — in stride with demonstrators around the world who urged policymakers to take quick action. (Photo: AP )

• The project can't go forward without the approval of the president. One person has to say yes or no.

• It's an issue that's easy to understand. The pipeline gets built or not.

"Climate change is very difficult for people to understand; it's very complex," he said. "This boils it down to something very simple."

A measure of success is whether the climate movement can turn its focus effectively to other issues after a decision is made about the pipeline, Bartlett said.

"Can they channel that energy on to something else," he asked, "or do they fade away?"

The symbolic gestures and events of social movements can have meaningful and lasting impact — or not, Bartlett said.

He gave as an example of the former the March on Washington in 1963; by contrast, Occupy Wall Street had almost no impact, Bartlett said.

Of the People's Climate March in September, which generated substantial publicity for 350.org, Bartlett asked: "What are they able to do as an encore?" Can they come back with even more people?"

It's not easy to "permeate the public's consciousness," Bartlett said. "For an issue to become salient (it has) to permeate from several different directions."

350.org might not be able to accomplish that, but due to its efforts, related concerns of other organizations — from the Pentagon to corporations — are amplified, he said.

A certain historical perspective will be necessary to gauge the effectiveness of 350.org's advocacy. "Unabashed" signs of success would include:

• The Keystone Pipeline doesn't receive approval.

• Significant numbers of public officials are elected on a platform of climate change.

• Republicans in Congress say "we got religion and we believe in climate change."

• A "tick upward" in public opinion, with greater numbers of people inspired to organize.

"If we have a summer where old people start dying like flies and it hits 100 degrees in Vermont for a couple of weeks in a row," Bartlett said, "that would be dramatic enough to really change public opinion."

Contact Sally Pollak at spollak@burlingtonfreepress.com or 660-1859; www.twitter.com/vtpollak