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.