The Red Cape

Environmentalists: Don’t take your eye off the bull

by Scott Miller

January 2018

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he rage--the indignity--permeate the blast of vapor from each nostril. Droplets of pain erupt with every heaving breath.

And out there, the cape—a red cape focusing these feelings into a laser beam of purpose. The hooves paw the ground. The vicious snorts burst more quickly and audibly into the warming air, combusting into a mad charge to rip the tormenting shroud to shreds. And then, defying a buck of the head, comes the application of the most devastating counterattack in the arsenal--and the cape is gone. Pulled away at the last second…only to reappear in another corner of the arena.

In a bullfight, it sucks being the bull.

Yet that’s just the role for which many environmental activists have signed up in the all-important fight to keep the planet from stewing in its own juices. Roll back the ticking clock ten years, to May 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment. This document was the weightiest attempt by the world’s best scientists (more than 600 of them) to document global warming, its causes and its impacts. The wording in this assessment was stark and unprecedented: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” it warned. What’s more, the report pointed fingers: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

In other words, we did it. We fouled our own nest. Case closed.

At least it should have been, until Big Oil broke out the red cape.


e now know that oil companies secretly agreed with the conclusion that the earth was warming. They knew that their customers burning their product was the “very likely” cause. Still, they dug into their deep pockets to fund a junk science campaign to discredit the IPCC assessment.  From the beginning, the strategy was diversion, a flapping crimson beacon flashing, “Charge!”

It is true that polling numbers on the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is real and human-caused did creep upward following the IPCC report. But vindicated environmentalists didn’t get the luxury of time to build and solidify that growing public mandate. Instead, they were drawn into a scientific spitball fight that meant nothing. Big oil (and coal) presented alluring waves of the cape, composed entirely of science that people on both sides knew was compromised crap. Yet environmental foundations poured millions into efforts to debunk this junk science. Several years were lost to the more important imperative to actually do something about global warming.  And that was always the point.  Not to shift public opinion, but to buy time.


ow, ten years later, the federal government is further than ever from meaningful action on climate. For God’s sake, even Syria has a moral leg up on the U.S. as the most recent signatory of the Paris Accord to cut carbon emissions. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is once again deliberately sowing doubts about the science. Concerning the link between the burning of fossil fuels and our warming planet, he said, "We don’t know that yet.  What we need is to continue to debate, continue the review and analysis.”

Pruitt may not even know he’s pulling out the red cape again. He’s enough of a simpleton that he might actually believe there is scientific doubt; even though the oil companies, between whose glutes he nuzzles his nose, have themselves moved past the notion of debate. But the sheer ignorance of Pruitt and his cronies only makes the red cape more alluring, more infuriating, more irresistible to climate activists.

I would argue that for those of us on the West Coast, fighting this new wave of climate zombies is more pointless than ever.

I confess to a degree of hypocrisy in making that argument. After all, I too, wake up every morning with a refreshed degree of angst about the latest sins of a profoundly inept and self-absorbed administration.  I seethe with the certitude of what’s right run up on the rocks of what’s wrong.  I see the fluttering field of red flags, each tempting me to launch into another blistering Facebook post on the Orange Monster and his gang of goons.

Meanwhile, however, I live in a region of the country poised to spit out the bait and take climate change into its own hands.  With Manka Dhingra’s victory in Washington’s 45th legislative district this past Election Day, Democrats control all branches of government in California, Oregon and Washington. California already has the most aggressive set of climate laws in the nation, setting a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030. Oregon lawmakers are poised to try and pass a carbon pricing bill in 2018 that has the support of Governor Kate Brown and most (but not all) members of the Democratic majority in both legislative chambers. Washington is the diciest. In spite of having a real climate champion in Governor Jay Inslee, the Democratic majority is razor thin and the legislative agenda for the next session is packed to the gills.  All three states (plus the Province of British Columbia) are signatories to a sweeping and ambitious climate plan.

This panoply of lofty goals will require public engagement, political pressure and hard conversations to turn wishes into reality. This is the real battle--motivating ourselves and our like-minded peers to demand that our state and local governments respond to climate change, and match their promising rhetoric with action. A recent article by the always insightful David Roberts in Vox spoke to the futility of flinging facts at our intransigent opponents who deliberately muddy the waters: “(for them) assessments of science follow political opinions, they do not precede them.” Roberts goes on to urge climate advocates to quit dreaming of that “kumbaya” moment when conservatives will bow before science and get on the bus. Rather, we need to rally Democrats to make political, not scientific hay. What better place to do it than the West Coast, where we can’t whine about having our hands tied by Joe the Plumber? As Roberts puts it, “it is intensity that wins political battles. The only way Democrats can achieve progress on this is to intensify the fight.” In other words, put away the science books and hit the streets.

Compare that with continual bursts of self-righteous and ineffectual outrage aimed at climate-denying nincompoops. When Congress, and then the President are up for reelection, please, please, PLEASE vote.

But in the meantime, federal dysfunction is not the only game in town. In fact, it is a debilitating time suck wrapped in a nice, flapping red cape--just daring you to snort, stomp and charge.