Advice for Activists from the History of Environmentalism

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This is the fourth in a sequence of posts taken from my recent report: Why Did Environmentalism Become Partisan?

This post has more of my personal opinions than previous posts or the report itself.

Other movements should try to avoid becoming as partisan as the environmental movement. Partisanship did not make environmentalism more popular, it made legislation more difficult to pass, and it resulted in fluctuating executive action. Looking at the history of environmentalism can give insight into what to avoid in order to stay bipartisan.

Partisanship was not inevitable. It occurred as the result of choices and alliances made by individual decision makers. If they had made different choices, environmentalism could have ended up being a bipartisan issue, like it was in the 1980s and is in some countries in Europe and democratic East Asia.

Environmentalists were not the only people making significant decisions here. Fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks also had agency in the debate – and their choices were more blameworthy than the choices of environmentalists. Politicians choose who they do and do not want to ally with. My focus is on the environmental movement itself, because that is similar to what other activist groups are able to control.

I am more familiar with the history of the environmental movement than with most other social movements. The environmental movement is particularly interesting because it involves an important global issue that used to be broadly popular, but has since become very partisan and less effective at enacting policy in the United States. It nevertheless can be risky to over-update on a single case study. Much of the advice given here has support in the broader social movements literature, but the particulars are based on the history of one movement.

With those caveats aside, let’s look at what we can learn.

Here is a list of advice I have gleaned from this history:

  1. Make political alliances with individuals and institutions in both political parties.

    This is the most important advice.

    Allying with the Democratic Party might have seemed like a natural choice at the time. Climate scientists might have already leaned left, and so found allying with Democrats to be more natural – although the evidence for this is weak. Al Gore was committed to their cause, and was rapidly building political influence: from Representative to Senator to Vice President, and almost to President.

    The mistake was not simultaneously pursuing alliances with rising Republicans as well. At the time, it would not have been too difficult to find some who were interested.

    Building relationships with both parties involves recruiting or persuading staffers for both Democratic and Republican congressmen and analysts for both conservative and liberal think tanks. Personal relationships with individuals and institutions often matter more than the implications of a fully consistent ideology.

  2. Don’t give up on one side once partisanship starts to be established.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some environmentalists in the late 1990s or 2000s thought that the issue was already partisan, so it didn’t matter that they were only working with one side. They were wrong. Partisanship could and did continue to get worse. Environmentalism is now one of the, if not the, most partisan issue in the country.

    In 1995, after Newt Gingrich had won control of the House of Representatives opposing the BTU tax, there was still only one conservative think tank that regularly promoted climate skepticism. Environmentalists might have been able to gain influence at other conservative think tanks to weaken the reframing efforts of fossil fuel companies.

    In 2006, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth did not change the opinions of the public overall, but did encourage a new generation of activists. He might have been able to reduce the partisan effect of the documentary by collaborating with a prominent Republican who supported climate policies, like Schwarzenegger or McCain.

    Ongoing decisions by environmentalists and their allies continued to reinforce the partisan divide.

  3. Proposing flawed legislation, and losing the resulting legislative battle, seems quite bad.

    There were two key legislative defeats as environmentalism started to become partisan: the BTU tax in 1993 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

    In both cases, the legislation seems poorly designed. The BTU tax focused on energy, not greenhouse gasses, with exemptions for favored industries. The Kyoto Protocol had already been rejected by the entire Senate.

    Unpopular legislation proposed by environmentalists and their allies made it easier for other politicians to rally against environmentalism.

    Drafting good legislation is important both to get what you actually want enacted and to not offer as many opportunities for others’ attacks.

  4. Be cautious and intentional about mission creep.

    Mission creep is the gradual expansion of an institution’s or a movement’s goals beyond their original intention. For an advocacy group focusing on a complex issue, some mission creep is inevitable: as your understanding of the problems grows, there should be some changes to the goals you are pursuing to address these problems.

    Mission creep can also involve expanding your goals to include goals of your current political allies, even if they are not directly related to the original intention. This seems bad. Environmental organizations today promote liberal positions on many other policy issues and reliably endorse one political party.

    If the organizations in a movement endorse controversial positions aligned with one party, it should not be surprising if many people associate them with that party. Allowing mission creep makes it harder to build bipartisan coalitions. There are more people who agree with you on environmental issues than there are people who agree with you on environmental issues and abortion and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and … .

    Your movement should try to avoid having public opinions on most issues and only focus on the issues central to your original intention.

  5. Focusing on local issues makes it easier to form idiosyncratic partnerships that cut across party lines.

    In its first few decades, the modern environmental movement focused primarily on local concerns: air pollution in Los Angeles, the Cuyahoga River fire, the proposed Bodega Bay nuclear power plant, and proposed dams in the Grand Canyon. In the late 1980s, much of the attention of the environmental movement shifted towards climate change, an inherently global phenomenon. This does not reflect public opinion, which seems to be more concerned with local environmental issues than climate change.

    Local politics in the US is less partisan than national politics.[1] It is often not obvious how the national parties would respond to specific local questions, so there are fewer elite cues to divide people into partisan camps. Different localities compete with each other for population and economic activity, and so respond to where people are choosing to live in addition to how people vote. For these reasons, local issues often involve idiosyncratic partnerships cutting across party lines.

    The environmental movement’s shift from local issues to one international issue made it easier for it to become consistently tied to one political party.

    There is some reason to have caution here. You do not want a particular local partnership to turn into an alliance that defines your movement. This feels like a solvable problem by not becoming too committed to local partnerships and managing mission creep well.

  6. Getting messaging right seems hard.

    Both underselling and overselling your arguments seems like it could have bad results. Either of them seems like they could undermine public trust in your expertise.

    Explicitly stating numerical uncertainty to the public is fine, and does not cause people to trust you less.[2] Telling policy makers both your politically plausible asks and your more ambitious hopes also seems fine.

    Failing to distinguish between empirical and normative claims could be effective in the short term: if people accept the validity of the empirical claims, conflating them with policy proposals can make it easier to get these policies enacted. It seems counterproductive in the longer term: if people do not accept your policy goals, it can also make them more dismissive of your empirical claims.

    I am of the opinion that you should use good epistemics when talking to the public or policy makers, rather than using bad epistemics to try to be more persuasive. Most subject matter experts are not also experts in public messaging, and so typically do not know how to use effective rhetoric and narrative-crafting. Being publicly revealed to have been dishonest to the public seems like it damages trust much more than using good epistemics in a not rhetorically optimal way. I would rather have a reputation as someone who trusts the public and policy makers to understand my key points, rather than as someone who looks down on their ability to understand what I’m worried about.

    It is unclear whether any one actor could have dramatically improved the messaging, or if that would have required an unrealistic amount of discipline within the movement. It was not hard for activists on either side to find climate scientists who were willing to confidently argue their position to the public.

To me, the AI safety movement feels sort of like environmentalism in the 1960s or climate change in the 1980s. The movement is still really young. Most of the public is still uncertain what to think about it.

Despite this uncertainty, a decent amount of the public seems to support the goals of the AI safety movement. Polls indicate that many people are skeptical that AI will have a positive impact on society, and that some amount of government regulation is broadly popular.[3]

This does not inherently imply that the AI safety movement will succeed if, for example, it proposes a ballot measure for the next election. The public is still more uncertain than supportive. The details of the proposal need to be proposed and promoted. Various leaders and groups may respond in unpredictable ways. Public opinion might look very different after a major political push than it did before. But I do think that these polls indicate that there is latent public support that the AI safety community could develop in support of its policy goals.

When trying to build this latent public support, it is important to cast as wide of a net as possible. Many different people might be interested in and willing to support the AI safety movement – including people who are culturally very different from the people who are currently working on AI safety. The movement should try to build relationships with as varied a group of people as possible.

A broad bipartisan movement would be more effective at enacting policy than a movement closely allied to one political party.

  1. ^

    Amalie Jensen, William Marble, Kenneth Scheve, & Matthew J. Slaughter. City limits to partisan polarization in the American public. Political Science Research and Methods 9. (2021) p. 223–241. https://​​​​static/​​5b74a2ebfcf7fda680a56b29/​​t/​​63bdb31d5fbd7153248b5f47/​​1673376544024/​​JensenEtAl_PSRM_2021.pdf.

  2. ^

    Anne Marthe van der Blesa, Sander van der Lindena, Alexandra L. J. Freemana, & David J. Spiegelhalter. The effects of communicating uncertainty on public trust in facts and numbers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.14. (2020) p. 7672-7683. https://​​​​doi/​​pdf/​​10.1073/​​pnas.1913678117.

  3. ^
Crossposted from LessWrong (98 points, 8 comments)