Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Theories of Change

by Duncan Gromko

James Hansen; Source: SchuminWeb
Ever since the failure of the climate cap and trade bill, there has been a lot of introspection within the environmental community. What did we do wrong? Why hasn't a clear message with scientific backing been heard by the mainstream political and media communities? How can we improve our message and our strategy to influence policy? The answers to these questions come down to your theory of change: how does change happen?

James Hansen, the preeminent climate scientist in the United States recently retired from NASA. Dr. Hansen was one of the first scientists to ring the alarm bell about climate change. He was an "insider," advocating for action on climate change, using his credibility and prestige to point out the dangers of climate change. For anyone that accepted the science and the associated warnings, it was a no-brainer: the world, led by the United States, had to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But the climate change issue has been marginalized as a hoax, something not under our control, or just too expensive to deal with. The economic downturn has further pushed the issue aside, as governments prioritized growth over environmental issues.

An excellent piece on Dr. Hansen's career explains that he has given up on working within the system. Dr. Hansen has spoken out at political rallies and gotten arrested for civil disobedience. Retiring from NASA is the final step in this evolution from a scientist with an intellectual method to an activist using other means to spread that message. Dr. Hansen made a clear statement about his motivation for retiring: "As a government employee, you can’t testify against the government."

Another respected "insider," Gus Speth, also recently retired from an establishment position. Dr. Speth founded the World Resources Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, worked for the Carter Administration, and was Dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environment. As a lawyer, he tried to influence change more directly through policy. As Chairman on President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality, Dr. Speth was the administration's principal environmental advisor. Yet, he too retired from the insider role, writing in his book that he preferred to create change in a different way: "Civil disobedience was my way of saying that America's economic and political system had failed us all...We have to step outside of America's broken system of political economy and begin the difficult job of transforming it."

Everyone who is trying to influence the world around them has a theory of change. With an end goal in mind, an advocate has specific mechanisms to bring about that change.

In my work in international development, we have goals that are a little more narrow than the sort of sweeping change that climate hawks are advocating in the US. Simply put, we try to measure how our interventions lead to change on the ground. Output indicators measure our own actions: how many trainings we've done, infrastructure we helped finance, policy advice we've given, etc. Then, we measure the impact of these actions with outcome indicators: change in income, health, education, ecosystem health, etc.

Using this vocabulary, Dr. Hansen and Dr. Speth's actions suggest that their individual outputs were not having the desired outcomes. They're joining forces with social movements like the one Bill McKibben has started at to push for change via different outputs. McKibben and others have focused on creating social movements to create pressure on our political and economic institutions. They believe that using intellectual, rational persuasion like Dr. Hansen and Dr. Speth have done is not as effective as people in the street, op-eds in your newspaper, or calls to Congress.

McKibben wrote a great article for the Huffington Post where he debated this question in the context of the gay rights movement, drawing parallels between the gay rights movement in 1969 and the climate movement today. While the gay rights movement has been largely successful in changing public opinion and laws in the US, it took 40+years. McKibben says, "Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks."

Deciding on the right strategy is part of the reason for divisions in the environmental movement. Although we have similar end goals, we disagree about the most effective way to get there. I've already written about this some in my Activists and Analysts post. It's a little too simplified to think of things as just two groups with different versions (there is plenty of disagreement with the Analysts camp, for instance), but this sort of insider vs. outsider question is the decision most environmentalists are faced with.

There was a great post on this issue by Jonathan Foley, where he encourages people to test their theories of change to see what has worked and what hasn't. He makes a really depressing point: "When was the last time a social or political movement caused a major environmental policy change in Washington? Wasn’t it the early 1970s when we saw landmark federal legislation to protect clean air, clean water and endangered species?" Yet environmentalists persist with attempting to create change through a social movement.

But that doesn't prove that the activist approach is "wrong." The world is a lot more dynamic than just: does X output lead to Y outcome. I'd say that the other things matter: the quantity of the output, the quality of the output, and whole bunch of stuff outside of this model that is difficult or impossible to measure. For instance, the divestment movement against South African Apartheid "worked" in the sense that Apartheid ended. But how big a role did divestment in play in ending Apartheid? There was a lot of other sources of pressure, both internal and external, that led to change.

What does that mean for's divestment campaign against fossil fuel companies or more broadly for the environmental movement? Sorry to end this without a clear solution, but as much as analysts and activists disagree with each other, they might both be right. There is a great quote on FDR that is relevant to this schism: "FDR once met with a group of activists who sought his support for bold legislation. He listened to their arguments for some time and then said, 'You've convinced me. Now go out and make me do it.'" The movement has to win the argument AND create pressure on politicians. More and more Congressmen and Congresswomen have voiced their support for gay rights in recent weeks. While you can imagine that someone like Hillary Clinton has long supported gay rights on a personal level, she (and so many other politicians) only had the courage to do so publicly once the polls showed it was a winning political decision. The same will be true for action on climate change.

No comments:

Post a Comment