In the wake of the midterm elections, environmental groups are rethinking their strategy for addressing climate change. The defeat of the green agenda is measured not only in Republican control of the House but also in the huge amounts of money, time, energy and good will green groups invested in the pursuit of failed comprehensive climate legislation.
The fight for that legislation also brought out the divisions between environmentalists. While the Beltway-oriented "Big Green" groups tended to see flawed legislative language as a glass half full, the more left-leaning "Little Green" groups—the climate hawks—saw the bills as dangerously inadequate. In particular, Little Green opposed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed in 2009 (earlier known as Waxman-Markey), because it set greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets—17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020—that were nowhere near what scientists say is necessary to avoid hitting climate tipping points. The bill was larded with giveaways to nuclear power and offshore oil drillers. And perhaps worst of all, it took a dangerous step backward by stripping the EPA of its new ability to regulate emissions through a process known as "stationary source review."
Then, in the Senate, came complementary "tripartisan" legislation—the eponymous Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill—that contained most of the same sops to industry yet still died a long, slow death by a thousand cuts. The struggle for cap-and-trade legislation, now dead, is undergoing an autopsy. Green groups great and small are taking stock.
"Some Big Green groups thought with Obama as president they were really in charge, and they got lost in the minutiae of the legislation," says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "The bills were watered down and watered down, and took up huge amounts of time. Meanwhile, the White House and the supporters of cap and trade left out the problem statement. In their efforts to be positive and focus on the economic benefits of clean technology, they forgot to mention the problem. No one was explaining how serious climate change is."
Following the defeat, and faced with an immediate deadline for averting global catastrophe, greens big and small are going more local and becoming more confrontational. But there is wide variation in what that means.
Greenpeace, which had lobbied to improve the proposed bills but did not support them, is refocusing on local actions and alliance building, particularly against coal mining and burning. The fight against coal is one recent bright spot in the environmental struggle. For several years the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, numerous local outfits and, more recently, Greenpeace have waged a grassroots campaign using mass protest and direct action like mountaintop occupations, as well as financial and political pressure, and so far have prevented the construction of 130 proposed new coal plants [see "Cracking Big Coal," Robert S. Eshelman, May 3]. Direct action against coal directly cuts emissions, and in so doing it supports the various regional cap-and-trade structures like RGGI in the Northeast and the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), Davies points out. "Those mechanisms only work if there are some real emissions reductions," he explains.
The Sierra Club, under the leadership of its new director, Michael Brune (who had headed the more radical Rainforest Action Network), is also redoubling its efforts against coal. The Club, which had supported Waxman-Markey and its EPA gutting before Brune took over, now considers protecting the EPA one of the "bright lines" that must not be crossed. Brune says, "Our top priority is our Beyond Coal campaign, to clean up and close down coal plants and replace them with clean energy." Other priorities include building a movement by connecting with local activists, linking these antipollution and antimining fights to global climate issues, and working with the nascent clean-energy industry to help it become more organized and vocal.
This is important because when it comes to politics the clean-energy industry is bizarrely passive. While coal and oil buy influence, manipulate the public discourse (routinely lying in the process) and demand massive government subsidies, the wind and solar companies sit by politely. There are several reasons for this, one of which is simple naïveté. The clean-tech firms, populated by veterans of the West Coast tech industry, suffer from "startup think"—a nerdy mentality that assumes the best widget always wins. But the energy sector is not like the Internet economy, where new technologies often came online unopposed by old ones. When baby Google was first stumbling around learning how to make a billion dollars, there was no dirty old dinosaur ExxonMobil search engine there to crush it mercilessly.
"The coal and oil industry are in a fight to the death," says Brune. "They are not about to move over for clean energy. They’re going to fight, nasty and bare-knuckled, for as long as it takes. They are going to try to kill clean energy." Still, there’s some good news on that front: clean-energy firms did get involved to help defeat Prop 23, which sought to remove California from the WCI, a victory the movement hopes to build on.
Another area of focus is defending the EPA against right-wing attacks and pressuring it to act more robustly. "One good thing about the defeat of cap and trade is that all the Big Green groups are now defending the EPA," says Brendan Cummings, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Going beyond defense, Cummings and the crew at the CBD have petitioned the EPA to be more aggressive on emissions. The EPA has said it will regulate new sources of emissions that pump out 75,000 tons or more. The center has petitioned for a much lower threshold, and if that petition is rejected it will likely sue the agency.
For more than twenty years, this tactic of monkey-wrenching by legal brief has been the center’s method, and it has been remarkably effective. The center’s lawsuits have shut down massive cattle-grazing and large-scale industrial logging and mining operations on public lands, and checked suburban sprawl, and they are pushing back hard against GHG emitters. Amazingly, the center can boast a 93 percent success rate in court.
But industry is also going to court against the EPA. The agency faces a blitzkrieg of probusiness lawsuits, all opposing regulation of GHG emissions. Among those who have filed suit or amicus briefs are: the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Iron and Steel Institute, and the American Chemistry Council; the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council; as well as Republican and Democratic governors from numerous states. Texas alone has filed seven such lawsuits. And with Joe "apologies to BP" Barton poised to get the gavel on the House Energy Committee, we can expect show trial–style hearings on the EPA’s scientists, administrators, budgets, etc.
Many of the Little Green groups, though gravely disappointed by the past two years, are adjusting easily enough. Stephanie Powell, executive director of the youth-oriented Southern Energy Network, says her group had devoted some resources to lobbying for improvements in the climate bills. But now—like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the CBD—it is refocusing on the local direct-targeting approach. Along with fighting coal, it is organizing on university campuses. "We’re working on getting Southern universities—many of which are the size of small cities—to adopt green purchasing and invest in energy efficiency, because that causes direct emission cuts," Powell says. Students at Florida state universities have compelled campus officials to buy clean power and invest in energy efficiency, but the decision still has to be approved by the university system’s conservative board of governors and campus trustees.
Big Green’s response to the failures of its strategies in Washington is, for the most part, disoriented silence. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did not respond to requests for comment. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), offered some thoughts in a widely read piece for The Huffington Post, in which he wrote, "While being more aggressive and vigorously fighting to achieve critical emissions reductions, we—the environmental community—must be more open." In an interview for this article Krupp said, "We need to do more to make existing laws function well. That means defending the EPA, working with states and public utility commissions. But we are also going to shift emphasis toward suing polluters even as we will continue to cooperate with corporations that are trying to reduce emissions."
There are structural factors, though, that will make it difficult for Big Green groups like the NRDC to join the Sierra Club and Greenpeace in a more confrontational and local approach. Big Green groups are heavily invested in fundraising (including from the fossil fuel industry) and DC lobbying. To get serious about organizing would require their leaders to first fire all their lobbyists (who are often their friends) and then probably fire themselves. As one leader, speaking off the record, put it, "It would mean they’d have to totally restructure themselves away from getting Senator Scott Brown to say this and not that. Their priorities would have to be something other than rubbing elbows with lawmakers." Greens need a presence in Washington, but it will produce nothing if the movement is not willing and able to threaten industry and mainstream politicians with serious disruption—meaning slow, expensive court cases, loss of profits, public humiliation and electoral defeat.
Editor’s Note: This piece initially gave the impression that the Environmental Defense Fund gets funding from the fossil fuel industry. It does not. The wording has been changed to reflect that.