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Green Grows Grassroots | The Nation

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Green Grows Grassroots

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Part of what makes Jerome Ringo interesting is that he personifies this potential to create an environmental movement that is broader and deeper than before--to "reknit the environmental majority," in Carl Pope's phrase. As a former union organizer and community activist, Ringo is clearly sympathetic to the disadvantaged. But his years as a successful business owner enable him to reach out to the private sector, and as chair of the National Wildlife Federation he can also relate to the 20 percent of voters who describe themselves as hunters and anglers. Those people are usually assumed to be conservative. But a recent poll commissioned by the NWF found that 78 percent of them support renewable energy, perhaps because they recognize that fossil fuels are ruining their recreation areas.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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"The glue that connects the dots" is the fight against climate change, says Ringo. In the past, green groups diffused their impact by working on too many different issues, he continues, but now every major green group "has recognized that global warming is the issue." Donning his Apollo Alliance hat, Ringo argues that environmentalists can best pursue this battle, and gain new allies in the process, by championing green energy and jobs.

It's a good time to be making this argument. Not only has global warming finally been widely acknowledged as an urgent problem, it is now undeniable that fighting it can be extraordinarily profitable. The more that conventional energy prices go up, the more profitable it will be to invest in green energy--above all, in energy efficiency. It's not exciting, but energy efficiency--doing more work with less fuel--is and will remain for years to come the most potent and lucrative source of green energy. To paraphrase Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the greenest energy is the energy that is never produced in the first place.

Many corporations are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, energy giant BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its production facilities and offices. It ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs--a stunning thirty-two-fold return on its original investment. But why let the private sector have all the fun? There is no reason state and local governments, schools and other public entities, community groups and individuals cannot cash in as well. At the moment, most of civil society is leaving this energy efficiency windfall on the table. But clever activists could change that. Bring together the key players--public officials, energy planners, efficiency companies, unions, financiers and community leaders--outline the opportunities at hand, and the economics are so compelling that the rest of the job should almost take care of itself.

Illustrating that Republicans need not be blind to this logic, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed some of the greenest energy policies in the nation. "The Governor's Green Building Initiative is designed to reduce the state's energy use in state buildings 20 percent by 2015," says Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger's top environmental aide. "We're doing audits right now on all the state government buildings and finding that if you put in energy-efficient lighting, you can earn your investment back in eighteen months." At Schwarzenegger's direction, the Public Utilities Commission has also approved a Million Solar Roofs program, which will spend $3.2 billion in the next eleven years to subsidize installing solar energy for new buildings. "That $3.2 billion will generate four times that value in jobs, according to the California Energy Commission," adds Tamminen. "And those jobs will be here in California, where much of the research and development for the next generation of solar energy is happening."

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is an unapologetic Democrat in what may be the reddest state in the nation. But he has implemented serious green policies during his five years as mayor--and won not only re-election but plaudits from the local business community. "When I can get up in front of the Salt Lake City Rotary Club, which is by and large conservative businesspeople, and get a standing ovation after talking about the kinds of changes we're making here, that says a lot," Anderson says. His city government committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels (i.e., more than Kyoto requires). By the end of 2005 it had already exceeded that target while boosting city revenues, thanks to dramatic increases in energy efficiency and methane recovery from its wastewater and landfill facilities. The city then shared its lessons with local businesses and citizens via so-called E2 programs--energy and environment. "We show them how they can do the same and generally save money as well," says Anderson, who adds, "It's important to have a positive message. People respond so well to the sense that, yes, we have these [environmental] challenges, but we have a can-do spirit and we can do the right thing and come out ahead."

At Anderson's invitation, Ringo spoke about the Apollo program at the National Conference of Mayors in June and got a standing ovation, too. The Apollo message is ready-made for municipal governments; 235 mayors have committed their cities to meeting or exceeding the greenhouse-gas emissions reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. And many cities are already sold on green development plans, says Keith Schneider, a former New York Times reporter who is deputy director of an environmental group, the Michigan Land Use Institute. "Cities have become the great incubators of sustainable ideas and policy in the United States, and are generally much farther ahead than any state government and certainly farther ahead than the federal government," Schneider notes, adding that local leaders think such efforts are "as vital to their community's well-being as fighting crime and improving public schools."

Environmentalism teaches that everything is connected. Yet when it came to politics, environmentalists ignored this truth for many years--until now. By going local, talking plainly, promoting solutions and working with a broad range of stakeholders, environmentalists could drive the next great wave of economic growth in this country while also addressing the single gravest threat to our collective future. Making such an end run around the federal government will not make George W. Bush irrelevant. But it will leave him behind, as the rest of the world has already done on climate change, and return environmentalism to the American mainstream, where it belongs.

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