Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats deserve big thanks for bringing so much attention to climate change over the last couple years through their push for the Green New Deal.
That’s a good thing, because time is running short, at least if you believe increasingly apocalyptic government reports. The latest one is the 10th Emissions Gap Report put out in November by the United Nations Environment Program. The report predicts that, despite promises from nearly 200 nations to cut greenhouse pollution, emissions worldwide will keep rising enough to shatter the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that scientists have identified as especially dangerous.
We’ve heard it before. But heaven knows, we certainly need to hear it again. And again.
A big part of the problem is that the US under Trump isn’t doing its part to cut carbon. And since America is the biggest cumulative greenhouse polluter, it means the rest of the world has to work harder to take up the slack. But climate freeloading by the world’s biggest economy and only remaining superpower creates a bad example that justifies other countries backing away from their climate programs too.
So, with its ambitious program to cut greenhouse pollution and get the United States back into the climate game, the Green New Deal could be just what the climatologist ordered.
Through massive government investments on the scale of FDR’s original New Deal of the 1930s, the GND would move the economy to 100% clean energy through such activities as making both buildings and farms more energy efficient and switching transportation to electricity powered by solar and wind.
Promoting long-standing liberal social priorities under the umbrella of fighting climate change, the GND would guarantee “every American” a job “with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security” along with “high-quality healthcare.”
Making social and economic fairness into ways to fight climate chaos is a compelling pitch for many on the far left and even some more moderate Democrats. It’s helped raise climate from a fringe concern for environmentalists to a top-tier issue for Democratic Party activists. That’s the GND’s strength — but also a huge weakness.
Your Red Umbrella is Too Small
So far, the Green New Deal has whipped up progressives by excluding anybody to the right of Bernie Sanders. If you like free community college and Medicare for All, then you’ll love the GND’s idea to channel federal spending towards an all-out effort to change the whole economy into one that’s greener and fairer.
But if you’re worried that all these ideas sound kind of expensive and you’re not even sure that a top-down approach to switching to clean energy is going to be more effective than just guiding the marketplace through such measures as a carbon tax, then you’ve got little reason to squeeze in with AOC and Bernie under the Green New Deal umbrella.
And if you’re a Republican or Libertarian and you think that big government programs sound like socialism, even if you care about climate change as many in the center-right increasingly do these days, then you’ll want to run as fast as you can away from the GND umbrella.
So, that’s a problem, why, exactly?
When you exclude all the Americans who identify as moderate or right-leaning, your Green New Deal umbrella starts to look pretty small. Too small, probably, to ever get through Congress or get signed by any Democratic candidate likely to get elected president in November of 2020.
To win in the first place and then to stay in force for decades afterwards — time needed for the US and world economies to complete the transition from dirty to clean energy — any government program to fight climate chaos must do more than just intensify support among the far left. A real climate program must reach voters in the the center and the center-right as well.
That’s why the climate movement would do well to learn from the most successful environmental campaign ever to reach people on the right.
And that would be the “Don’t Mess with Texas” ad campaign.
A Green Campaign that Kicks Ass and Takes Names
Maybe you already knew that “Don’t Mess with Texas” is not just a swaggering slogan for obnoxious Texans to express their oversized pride in their oversized state.
In reality, the phrase headlines an anti-littering campaign run by the Texas Department of Transportation for more than thirty years.
And its audience is the same kind of people that the climate movement needs to reach, but isn’t reaching so far.
No surprise: the biggest litterers along Texas highways are young men between the ages of 16 and 24. They throw beer and soda cans, fast food wrappers and cigarette butts from their pickup trucks.
Aside from a visual blight, highway litter was a big problem for Texas taxpayers, as Smithsonian magazine explains:
In the late 1980s, the Texas Department of Transportation had a mess on its hands. It was spending $20 million annually on trash pick-up, and that number was increasing by about 17 percent year over year. Trash littered the highways and it only seemed to be getting worse – everything is bigger in Texas, after all. So the department put out a request for a marketing campaign to address the rubbish.
The marketing company chosen offered the state a new slogan for an anti-littering campaign meant to reach young men, but only on the condition that TxDOT use the slogan as-is. They couldn’t add the word “please,” and they certainly couldn’t use the word “litter,” which sounded like something for chickens.
“Don’t Mess with Texas” brought enough machismo to justify early ads like this one from 1986 starring Dallas Cowboys stars Ed “Too Tall” Jones (left) and Randy White:
Obviously, this spot wasn’t filmed to appeal to followers of Bernie and AOC. But the climate movement has got those people on board already. What we need now is new people, largely male, who admire football players more than NASA climate scientists and, yes, who probably voted for Trump.
So much is brilliant about this ad, not just to cut littering in Texas, but as a model for the climate movement to reach a larger audience of Americans:
- Of course it doesn’t say “please don’t litter.” It also doesn’t say “protect Texas’ environment.” What it does say is “Don’t Mess with Texas.” It identifies the whole state with its natural environment. It makes protecting the environment a matter of state pride.
- That would be like if a climate ad said “Don’t Mess with America,” which would equate fighting climate change with patriotism (Note: Just don’t try starting any new slogan with “Don’t Mess with…” because the Texas Department of Transportation may send lawyers after you for trademark infringement. But different wording can follow the same approach.)
- These dudes are tough and aren’t afraid to crush a can in your face. Moderate and right-leaning Americans, again, especially men, admire strength. If the climate movement so far has seemed too soft and wimpy to this audience, a TV ad with Arnold Schwarzenegger crushing a piece of metal in the viewer’s face might be just the ticket.
- You think that pumping oil and flaring gas are for tough guys? Think again, sissy boy. The real men are putting on hard hats and harnesses to climb up on rooftops and install solar panels.
Sure, but did this approach work to cut down on litter? Four years after the campaign launched, TxDOT determined that trash on Texas highways in 1990 was down 72% from 1986.
Since then, the Texas campaign has expanded its audience over time, expanding outreach to Latinx residents and people of all ages. Their “Trashball” ad from 2007 is well suited to today’s multicultural mood:
Not Global but Local
In addition to reaching out to new audiences, the Texas folks have gone on to actually use the word “litter.” But the campaign’s basic pitch remains the same: appeal to the oversized state pride of Texans.
It’s a kind of altruism that’s certainly parochial, limited to just one (admittedly Texas-sized) state. But it’s an altruism that works.
This is smart. People on the far left may be predisposed to one-world cosmopolitanism, claiming to love people from Boston to Bangladesh equally as brothers and sisters. It’s a beautiful ideal. But history has shown that its audience is limited. If the climate movement can follow the example of Texas and start appealing to state pride or American patriotism, we’ll reach many more Americans.
I hope that AOC and Bernie will keep energizing a rainbow coalition of Millennials and Gen Z young people to get even more attention for climate solutions. At the same time, let’s not let pumping up the base prevent us from reaching out to people in the middle and the center-right.
We need that much bigger constituency to make climate solutions more than just another partisan talking point and to help America take the serious action we need to transform our economy.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot