No matter how you slice it, the drive to combat climate change has grown so large that the truths of former Vice President Al Gore's decade-old move is now seen as more mainstream than inconvenient.
In Paris last December, 195 nations agreed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). Even Pope Francis has joined the battle cry. Hundreds of thousands of people have come together for climate marches in Paris and New York, and demonstrators recently held fossil-fuel protests on six continents.
"That's what I call momentum," says Daniel R. Tishman, chairman of the board of Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. "This isn't just the wind at our backs; these are the winds of change."1
The movement, however, that started with a straightforward mission - to get more people to appreciate the dangers of climate change - is feeling growing pains. What may seem like a unified front has pronounced fault lines. The environmental movement has always been a collection of many voices, and some disagreement should be expected on such complex and intractable problems as saving the planet. Tensions remain strong.
Consider some of the biggest points of contention:
There are major disagreements over whether nuclear plants should be part of the energy mix to reduce GHG emissions. Disasters like that at the Fukushima plant in Japan have reduced confidence in the technology.
Supporters agree that nuclear operations can produce enormous amounts of power without the carbon dioxide that burning coal and natural gas produce. They also make it clear that the energy sources replacing existing plants tend to come from natural gas causing GHG emissions. The nuclear power debate extends to questions of whether to develop a new generation of plants that supporters say would be less expensive and safer, or whether to extend the lives of existing installations.
Opponents of nuclear energy argue that the move to renewable energy sources would not require a new crop of nuclear plants. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian who has written about the tactics of those who spread doubt about climate change, said proponents of nuclear energy had not proved that the risks of operating the plants, and the waste they produce, could be managed. "We all agree that there is urgency to this matter," she said in an email interview. "So do we really want to bet the planet (literally) on a technology with such a bad track record? And that even when it works takes decades to build."2
Burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide and smog-producing pollutants than burning coal, so environmental groups like the Sierra Club and even the United States' President Barak Obama once praised it as a viable bridge' to renewable fuels: that natural gas operations could replace coal plants until alternate sources like wind and solar power could take over.
More recently, however, the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to extract fossil fuels, and growing worries about the GHG methane, which often leaks when natural gas is produced and transported, have led many scientists and activists to call natural gas a bridge to nowhere.'
Climate activists like Bill McKibben have argued that the potency of methane as a GHG, especially in the short term, might make it worse than coal. He calls this "the terrifying chemistry" of warming, though others have disputed his interpretation of the science.
Two distinct entities have emerged on the best strategy for dealing with fossil-fuel enterprises. One camp wants to attack their very existence, and to hurt their businesses as a way of accelerating the transition to renewable technologies like wind and solar.
Universities and institutional shareholders like pensions and church endowments are being hard-pressed to sell their stock in fossil-fuel companies and to disrupt construction of fossil-fuel facilities. This approach animates the keep it in the ground' campaign led by groups like Mr. McKibben's 350.org, which argues that many of today's fuel reserves are unburnable' if climate change is to be slowed. It must be considered stranded assets' - a notion that oil giants like Exxon Mobil and Chevron reject.3
On the other side is the camp that wants to engage with the companies to push for action on climate change.
Groups like the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment (which covers New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) as well as New York State and City officials, recently presented proposals at Exxon Mobil's annual shareholder meeting that would require the company to assess the business risks of meeting the Paris climate goals and to acknowledge the moral imperative' to keep global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius since the start of the industrial era.
Shareholder action has improved corporate responsibility on many fronts, said Patricia Daly, a Dominican sister of Caldwell New Jersey, who is the executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment. "Companies know the work we have put on their desk is beneficial," she remarked. "I'm confident we have really initiated that over the decades."4
Insiders versus OutsidersA split is growing between the large, traditional environmental groups that try to work with companies and the scrappy campaigners who stand proudly outside. Naomi Klein, an author on environmental and economic issues, has sharply criticized what she called "a very deep denialism in the environmental movement among the big green groups," like the Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked with fossil-fuel companies to research methane leaks and to pursue market-based solutions to the climate crisis, like putting a price on carbon.
Mr. McKibben said the kind of noisy activism that characterizes the work of organizations like 350.0rg helps correct what he sees as the inertia of the established groups. He said a lack of mass-movement activism in America was a key reason behind the failure of legislation like the 2010 effort to develop a system to limit and put a price on GHG emissions. "If we're going to win the climate fight, it will come with a change in the zeitgeist," McKibben states. "And that - not particular pieces of legislation - is the ultimate point of building movements."5
Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, disagreed. Working with industry, he said had helped deepen the understanding of such issues as methane leakage, which could produce remedies. "More and more businesses want to be part of the solution," he said.
Given these cracks on various issues a question arises: Are they hurting the overall environmental movement?
Mr. Gore said that tensions among climate change activists follow the traditions of the civil rights movement, abolition, women's suffrage, and gay and lesbian rights. "In all such movements, there have been schisms and minor splits as well," he added. "It's just a natural feature of the human condition."6
1 John Schwartz. "Climate Change Activists Divided Over the Next Steps" The New York Times International Weekly (July 23, 2016):10