'We' Climate Campaign: Glossy, But Will It Work?

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If you possess a television and a pair of eyes, you've seen the We Campaign ads. First there was a series that featured unlikely alliances, such as political enemies Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton, sitting on a couch talking about the need for conservatives and liberals to come together to solve the climate crisis.

Then came a series of ads that mixed video of Americans from around the country coming together to build a wind turbine — the soaring symbol of green power — while a narrator spoke of the need to "repower America" by pushing politicians in Washington for a rapid switch to 100% clean energy in 10 years. Other ads showcased gleaming solar thermal plants, and other new clean technologies breaking the horizon.

Funded by Al Gore's non-profit Alliance for Climate Protection (ACP), the $300 million We Campaign (short for "We Can Solve It") opens a new front in the battle against global warming. Rather than trying to scare viewers with dire predictions of climatic apocalypse or wear them down with climate science — there's nary a polar bear nor a PowerPoint slide to be seen — the We Campaign seeks to mobilize widespread public support for action. If Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was meant to diagnose climate change for a country that at the time was still widely skeptical, the We Campaign is meant to find a cure. "One of the things that was missing was the capacity to motivate people around these issues," says Cathy Zoi, the CEO of ACP. "The TV ads for the first time advocate solving the climate crisis in a big way." (Hear Zoi talk about the We Campaign on this week's Greencast.

The We Campaign is a step in the right direction. Too often greens have relied on shocking the public with the threat of catastrophic climate change. That was necessary until recently — breaking through the barrier of denial built by climate change skeptics required all the subtlety of a hammer. But it's become increasingly rare to find Americans who still don't believe climate change is real, at least to some degree — now the question is what to do about it. And here again the We Campaign has the right message. Global warming won't be solved through small-scale changes in personal behavior — all the compact fluorescent lightbulbs in the world wouldn't slow down warming a single degree. What's needed is political action on a national and international level to speed the adoption of renewable energy and the phasing out of fossil fuels — exactly what the We ads, with their flowing wind turbines, are preaching. "The solutions are out there now," says Zoi. "All of this stuff is ready to take off. What we need is the policy to unleash the potential."

Politicians, of course, follow public opinion, and that's what the We Campaign is trying to influence. But it's fair to question just how successful the ads have been. 2008 was supposed to be the year that climate change finally became a major issue in a Presidential election, yet global warming has been anything but hot on the campaign trail. Both candidates can claim at least a little greenness — though John McCain's environmental record has been tarnished in recent months — but the reality is that candidates aren't talking about climate change because it's not high on the list of voter priorities. Sky-high gas prices are, however, and many voters have responded more positively to McCain's call to expand offshore drilling than Barack Obama's more measured plans for alternative power and energy efficiency. The We Campaign proudly claims that it has enlisted more than 1.5 million people so far. That's an impressive number, but a more pertinent number might be 3: the number of supervisors for Santa Barbara County in California who voted in support of offshore oil drilling — one more than the number who voted against. We's message is getting lost in the noise of recession and high energy prices.

The ads themselves haven't been exempt from criticism either, even from the campaign's green allies. Newt Gingrich was part of the original series of ads, paired with his opposite number, Nancy Pelosi. But the truth is that Gingrich, though he published a greenish book last year called A Contract with the Earth, doesn't really support the We Campaign's goals — a fact that was made clear this summer when he mounted a new crusade in favor of virtually limitless oil drilling. That's not exactly the fault of the We Campaign, but it does point to the real challenge of what Gore and his allies have set out to do. Slowing carbon emissions, let alone reaching Gore's goal of 100% carbon-free electricity in a decade, will require sweeping changes in governmental policy — the kind of changes that can't be achieved with a narrow majority of Democrats. Greens will need to appeal to liberals, conservatives and everyone in between. But the pace of the 2008 election has showed that while Americans may increasingly agree that climate change is a problem, we're far from agreeing just what to do about it. It's a nice start, but we're not quite We yet.