When BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing 11 workers, the ensuing environmental crisis could have been a transformative moment for our nation’s energy policy. It wasn’t.
In the midst of widespread public outrage against the oil industry, years of effort by environmental organizations culminated in the Senate’s failure to vote on a bill to combat climate change and spark a transition to renewable energy. Nor did the Senate approve needed reforms to the Oil Pollution Act that would eliminate the liability cap on oil companies.
The lack of results revealed tensions within the movement—differences revealed in climate change legislation that many environmentalists were glad to see die.
The Environmental ‘Enthusiasm Gap’
In 2006, Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund, forged a coalition with business leaders to break the logjam on climate change legislation. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership included Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, as well as BP, General Electric and DuPont. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Nature Conservancy also joined the coalition, but industry’s influence was such that, as Eric Pooley reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, at one point Rogers was “basically negotiating with himself.”
Then in 2008, a newly elected Barack Obama declared that “delay is no longer an option” on climate change, making energy legislation one of his top domestic priorities. With a Democratic-controlled Congress, environmentalists saw a “golden opportunity,” said one funder, and poured resources into Washington to pass a climate change bill.
The resulting legislation reflected this insider approach. The House narrowly approved the Waxman-Markey bill in June 2009, while a Senate version didn’t emerge until May of this year. When it did, it was loaded with giveaways, including subsidies for nuclear power and expanded offshore drilling.
To the ire of many environmentalists, the Senate bill eliminated the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. This was, in effect, says Greenpeace lobbyist Kyle Ash, “giving away existing tools that work in exchange for policies we don’t know work.”
The biggest handout of all, though, came in the form of pollution credits that Obama had proposed auctioning off but that the Senate bill would have provided to industry free of charge.
Krupp had assured Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in October 2009 that environmentalists would be flexible on most other energy issues as long as the Senate legislation maintained the House emission reduction targets, according to Ryan Lizza, writing in The New Yorker. It was a spirit of generosity toward industry reflected by Democrat and one-time Presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, who announced in June, “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.”
However, some in the movement took sharp aim at industry’s heavy hand in crafting the legislation. Moreover, activists charged that neither the House nor Senate bills would prevent climate catastrophe. “It wasn’t in line with what science is telling us we have to do,” said May Boeve of 350.org, a grassroots organization founded by author Bill McKibben. Climate Reality Check, a coalition including Greenpeace, Public Citizen and Friends of the Earth, faulted the legislation for falling “very short” of what is necessary to reduce greenhouse gasses to safe levels.
The legislation was the product of a strategy “to get the bill across the finish line by putting something in that takes care of every part of the opposition,” said Betsy Taylor, co-founder of 1Sky, a climate change advocacy group.
The insider approach, charged some critics, also led advocates to take too much of their lead from the White House, particularly around messaging. At an April 2009 meeting, Carol Browner, Obama’s energy czar, told environmentalists not to publicly discuss climate change but to focus on green jobs and energy independence. An Obama campaign operative, Paul Tewes, was brought in to run Clean Energy Works, a coalition created to coordinate advocacy around the bill, adopting the slogan “More Jobs. Less Pollution. Greater Security.”
The result was an “enthusiasm gap” among environmental activists. “It wasn’t the kind of policy that would motivate the base of the climate change movement to really fight for it,” said Boeve.
On March 31, Obama announced plans to expand offshore drilling, part of a grand bargain to get the bill through the Senate, according to Antonia Juhasz, author of The Tyranny of Oil and director of Global Exchange’s energy program.
Disaster in the Gulf—and the Beltway
Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Environmental organizations quickly mobilized. Greenpeace and NRDC sent staff to the Gulf to conduct independent assessments and provide media commentary. The Sierra Club organized rallies at dozens of BP stations across the country, while more than 180,000 members e-mailed Obama, urging his leadership in reducing the nation’s reliance on oil—their largest-ever response to a call to action.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the disaster made things “a little more complicated,” said Ash.
In the midst of the nation’s largest oil spill, environmentalists had a weak climate change bill that promoted oil drilling. At the same time, polls showed that the public didn’t understand the bill’s “cap-and-trade” system for reducing emissions—a system that was “too complex to explain,” as Brent Blackwelder, former president of Friends of the Earth, put it.
“The public anger was there, the frustration was there” to achieve a sweeping change in energy policy, claims John Hocevar of Greenpeace, but what the environmental movement didn’t do “was adequately give people constructive outlets for their anger and outrage.”
In the wake of the disaster, energy was the top issue among Democracy for America members, political director Charles Chamberlain told The Hill, a Washington newsletter. “But we polled our members about whether we should be fighting for the bill and it wasn’t even close. The answer was no.”
Juhasz notes the bill’s advocates had accepted expanded offshore drilling in exchange for oil industry support.
Consequently, Boeve says, “Environmental groups weren’t ready to vilify the oil companies and the senators who love them.”
“They made a deal with the devil, and the devil walked away from the table,” Juhasz says. Lacking sufficient votes, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced on July 22 that the Senate wouldn’t take up the bill. With Republicans in control of the House after the November 2 election, prospects for passing climate legislation have only worsened.
After five years, fewer Americans now believe that man-made climate change is real,” said Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation and organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. “You have to have a post-mortem after that.”
Some in the movement have concluded that it would be better not to have to rely on the fossil fuel industry to pass a climate change bill. The basic problem is a lack of political power. Blackwelder puts it this way, “We are not posing a threat to oust members of Congress.”
The solution, he believes, is building a movement that can play hardball.
The Sierra Club has been radicalized, some say, under new Executive Director Michael Brune, who took the helm in March with a greater focus on corporate power. The Sierra Club, with 64 local chapters, is the most grassroots-based of the national organizations and responded to the BP disaster by calling on Obama to create a plan to move the nation off oil within 20 years.
McKibben’s 350.org is also mobilizing the grassroots. On October 10, the organization sponsored a “Global Work Party,” with 7,347 events in 188 countries—from film-screenings to letter-writing—calling for political action on climate change.
It is work that may benefit from a shift in focus, away from the Beltway and toward a broader base. “This is not an environmental issue,” says Kelsey Wirth, boardmember of the Winslow Foundation. “It’s a societal challenge. This is about the future of the world.” Ash agrees: “There’s a general consensus that the climate change issue cannot be dominated by environmentalists.”
Article courtesy of featurewell.com
THE REAL VILLAINS
Forget blaming enviros; as ever, wealthy industrialists are to blame
by Lance Holter
In 2003, I traveled, along with my friend and fellow Mauian Scott Heller, on a filmmaking expedition to the Arctic Ocean. We were invited guests of Robert and Jane Thompson, Inupiat Eskimos and residents of the Arctic village of Kacktovik who had earlier stayed at my home in Paia. During my stay I witnessed and heard first-hand from the Natives evidence of global warming: fish never before seen in the rivers, the movement of the tree line into the tundra, the permafrost melting and no longer allowing the use of traditional summer ice boxes to store whale and seal meat, strange climate episodes and storms trapping and killing herds of caribou near the village, gigantic fires burning millions of acres, long portions of shoreline disappearing into the Beaufort and Chuckchic seas, forcing villages to move inland.
The following year, I was part of another Alaskan expedition with wilderness photographer Robert Ketchum who had just come from a scientific expedition in Greenland where climatologists and geologists had discovered the Greenland ice melt was occurring faster than had ever been imagined. (Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about these events in the spring of 2005, in an award-winning three-part story in The New Yorker.)
As a result, I was a climate-change believer before Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, making global warming a household phrase.
Unfortunately, for eight years the United States had oil men in the White House. These same oil men and their economic/cabinet advisers created America’s energy policy, refused to participate in the Kyoto treaty and put in place an administrative bureaucracy with regulatory agencies that led to the Horizon Oil catastrophe in the gulf, among other calamities, including and culminating in the near collapse of the U.S. economy. A popular uprising occurred and President Obama was elected in 2008. No one predicted what would happen next.
It has come to light (in stories like Rolling Stone’s January expose “Why the Global Warming Bill Never Stood a Chance” and the August New Yorker story “Covert Operations”) that billionaires, including the Koch brothers, have hijacked our democracy, financing think tanks like the Cato Institute, Mercatus Center and political front groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the American Heritage Foundation, with the intent of disseminating climate denial and steering public opinion. The main goal: to further de-regulate the chemical, petroleum and coal industries while protecting their profits.
Examples of these efforts include funding the Tea Party movement as the “boots on the ground,” arguing that smog is good for public health as it decreases skin cancer and gifting huge grants to the National and American Cancer Society while at the same time arguing that formaldehyde (Koch Industries and subsidiary Georgia-Pacific produce 2.2 billion pounds a year) does not cause cancer in humans.
The other goal was to discredit President Obama and restore a Republican majority to Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Citizens United, which lifted restrictions on corporate campaign contributions, certainly seemed to be part of the grand plan. (For more on climate change denial and the Koch brothers, visit www.climatesciencewatch.org .)
It is disingenuous to claim that environmental groups were part of this corporate onslaught, or that simply playing hardball is going to solve the problem. As the new Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune said in The Atlantic, “Politicians and clean energy advocates must stop talking about policy and start showing people how clean energy solutions that are available right now will make their lives better.”
Simply put: our environment is our economy. The financial and ecological sectors are inextricably connected, and we must see challenges like climate change as an opportunity to create a better future. Our lives depend on it.
Lance Holter is chair of the Sierra Club, Maui Group