While “suffering perhaps the lowest morale of its 40-year existence,” and with prospects for international efforts to control climate change “rapidly slipping away from them,” American environmentalists are looking to the BP Gulf of Mexico oil crisis as an unfortunate and regrettable opportunity — but nonetheless an opportunity — for overcoming industry and skeptics’ opposition.

That is the essential drift of a lengthy New York magazine feature addressing “the power of a good catastrophe” and activists’ efforts to “wake people up,” as writer/activist Bill McKibben says in the “More Heat, Less Light” feature by Jason Zengerle, published June 20.

“Granted, it takes a couple of steps of logic to get from Deepwater to the warming of the planet,” Zengerle wrote. “But given how unsuccessfully the environmental movement has pressed the rational case for climate-change action, some activists are wondering whether rational, dispassionate thinking is overrated.” Their new approach? “Shift their messaging away from scientific, or even explicitly environmental, arguments and toward more direct, emotional, and, frankly, manipulative appeals.”

He quotes former Greenpeace USA Executive Director John Passacantando quoting Henry David Thoreau about his life-long regrets: “If I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior.” Passacantando thinks that is a message activists might take from the BP Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.

Despite steep hurdles in moving ambitious climate change legislation through Capitol Hill, Zengerle points to a planned Saturday, June 26, national “Hands Across the Sand” protest and demonstration as a potential catalyst for action on energy policy and climate change.

Pointing to what he characterizes as a “relentless string of setbacks” on climate change action, Zengerle quotes 1SKy co-founder Betsy Taylor wondering “Why isn’t this a hot-button issue? Why haven’t we engaged more deeply with the public?”

His answer, at least in part, is an “elemental mistake” environmentalists and, in his view, former Vice President Al Gore have made over the past few years — “assuming that people approach the subject of climate change the way environmentalists do: seriously.” Though recognizing Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” film as “a seminal moment for the climate change movement,” Zengerle points to it also as “a decidedly mixed blessing,” in part because it in effect preached to the choir. He points to persistent lexicon and terminology problems with the issue, for instance confusion and splits on even what to call it — the more scientifically accurate “climate change” or the more popular and gripping “global warming.” He quotes George Mason University researcher Ed Maibach saying, “The fact that the issue has been framed as an environmental issue instead of a human-well-being issue is fundamentally problematic …. It needs to be portrayed as something that’s going to harm us and our loved ones, because that’s the kind of thing we respond to.”

The New York magazine feature also points to signs that the ongoing BP Gulf disaster “appears to have changed [President] Obama’s political calculus,” injecting more thrust for comprehensive climate and energy legislation now pending on Capitol Hill.

“If the environmental movement can’t win the media game this sumer — as more beaches close, more dead turtles wash onto shore, and the currents channel oil up the Eastern Seaboard — they will have missed an opportunity of a generation,” Zengerle wrote.