Grassroots — adjective of, pertaining to, or involving the common people, esp. as contrasted with or separable from an elite.
Astroturf — trademark used for an artificial grass-like ground covering.
In the lead up to next month's climate negotiations in Copenhagen and the possibility of the U.S. Congress voting a climate bill, many groups are claiming to "represent Americans" and their views on energy and climate legislation.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has claimed to speak for 3 million American businesses in their rejection of cap-and-trade. After Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson did some math on that claim, however, the Chamber amended its membership number to 300,000 — a 90% reduction in its mandate to speak for America's businesses. Facing a number of high-profile defections over its opposition to climate legislation, the Chamber sent a letter to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to clarify its position. Less clear is whether its members agree on what that would be.
Repower America, a campaign of the Alliance for Climate Protection — an organization closely linked to former Vice President Al Gore — has created a wall for people to show their support for clean energy, some of which will be used in advertising campaigns. Sprinkled among the teachers, actors, students, workers, veterans and other "ordinary" folks, are a number of celebrities, organizations and corporate logos, including Exelon, eBay, Starbucks and Avon, NAACP, National Wildlife Federation, United Steel Workers and Republicans for Environmental Protections. It is difficult to know from looking at the wall what the participants are supporting other than the broad idea of "clean energy".
There have been other, perhaps more definitive, demonstrations of broad support for addressing the climate crisis. On October 24, for example, 5,200 events in 181 countries were organized for 350.org's International Day of Climate Action. The organization has collected 22,000 photos of both the ordinary and extraordinary ways in which participants were making a common statement: address climate change by doing what is necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 to 350 parts per million.
In their own effort to mobilize for a common purpose the American Petroleum Institute (API), held rallies and mobilized "energy citizens" over the summer to show their opposition to climate legislation. It later was discovered through a leaked memo written by API President Jack Gerard that among those "ordinary" folks were paid employees, retirees, vendors and contractors. Those claiming to be real grassroots activists call this "astroturfing".
I asked Climate Cover Up author James Hoggan to explain the difference between a truly grassroots organization and one practicing astroturf.
"The main difference is in the level of transparency and intention. With a real grass roots organization, it's not very difficult to find out who is funding it and what they're up to," he said. "With astroturf, there are often attempts to hide where the money is coming from and some level of deception involved."
Hoggan cites the example of the recent Bonner and Associates/American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) scandal involving forged letters claiming to be from community groups unhappy with climate legislation and sent to members of Congress:
"I've seen (Bonner and Associates) contracts where they're charging $1,800 a picket, $75 a letter. A grass roots organization doesn't do that; the people holding the pickets want to be there. The reason the $1,800-a-picket strategy works is because of lazy journalism. If journalists don't bother to ask who's paying you or to find out where the trail of money leads, they don't get the full story. And a lot of journalists don't bother.
"Usually, by following the money, you can find out the intention. If we go back to the early work that Phillip Morris was doing with the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, they were actually constructing an arms-length organization; arms length from the tobacco industry and energy industry designed to attack science in order to come up with the right phrases and position to influence the public and further their business interests. Just in their mission is an attempt to disguise what they're up to.
"It's the same with a phone call from Bonner and Associates when they don't tell people they are calling that they're with a D.C. public relations firm. They say they're with a certain seniors group or women's group.
"There's a kind of slight of hand, a kind of shell game, going on with astroturf that doesn't happen with grassroots."
Underneath the rhetoric and spin, is there any American consensus on solving the climate crisis?
A CNN poll, released in October, suggests that 60% of Americans support a cap-and-trade mechanism as part of climate legislation, while 37% opposie it. For the under-50 crowd, the numbers are even higher, with 68% supporting cap and trade. Broken down along partisan lines, the poll finds that 75% of Democrats, 60% of Independents and 40% of Republicans support a cap-and-trade proposal.
Clearly, Americans support cap-and-trade. Or do they?
Around the same time as the CNN poll, a Pew Research Poll indicated that American belief in anthropogenic climate change is slipping, and not by a small amount. The number of Americans who believe that global warming is real, despite the scientific evidence, is now 57% compared to 71% in April 2008, the poll found. Only 36% of those surveyed now believe that human activity is causing the climate to change, compared to 47% in the earlier survey.
How can these two polls be reconciled?
Jim Hoggan believes the Pew poll reflects a more complex set of circumstances:
"The numbers actually didn't go up to 71% because 71% of people became aware of climate change. There were other reasons that drove that number up and other reasons that made it slip back down: Hurricane Katrina, unusual weather, extreme weather events and a high level of media attention on it. That happens much more easily when people are in an uninformed state of mind."
That "uninformed state of mind" — and the organizations looking to fill the vacuum it creates — is the crux of the problem when it comes to consensus.
"If you really want to come to some public judgment on something, people need to understand more about climate change than they have, and that trickles through community leaders and influencers. We look to community leaders for guidance on issues we don't understand ourselves, so what's happening with influencers is critical.
"Much of the debate in the U.S. among influencers has been so partisan that it has little to do with facts. There's a dramatic difference between the number of Republicans and Democrats that believe climate change is happening. This has its roots in the deception campaign that the energy industry has been so good at pushing."
Hoggan believes that if activists and influencers want to combat disinformation on climate change, they need to look back at a campaign that successfully changed social mores and beliefs, despite an organized attempt to deceive.
"You overcome deception when you have very credible repetition of messages. In the case of cancer and tobacco, we had so much medical response to the dangers of smoking, and among people who were very trusted, that there was a high level of credibility, a low level of partisanship and a high level of repetition.
"The Surgeon General, the American Medical Association and doctors were all giving the same message: Smoking is dangerous. The media coverage overwhelmed any attempt to oppose it, and those that opposed were very marginalized.
"With climate change, there hasn't been that sustained repetition from known credible sources. The messaging has been sporadic and heavily partisan. People in the U.S. associate climate change with Al Gore. He's been the blessing and the curse on the issue from the partisan point of view. Plus, it's much easier to understand cancer than it is to understand climate change. We know people who have cancer and who don't breathe very well because of smoking. Climate change is still a distant problem for someone living in North America."
The combination of the public's low understanding of climate change science, the lack of repetition of the truth from credible sources, and the high stakes have left room for widely disparate organizations with opposing agendas to claim to speak on behalf of "ordinary" Americans. And that has led to perceptions of grassroots involvement in the climate discussion that turn out to be special interest-orchestrated fakes — aka astroturf.