Environmental Groups Whistling Past the Graveyard?

By Heather Rogers 

and Samantha Cook

Environmental groups have long warned that America’s ravenous consumption of fossil fuels is not sustainable as a matter of public health or econmic health — either on a national or planetary level. But on the heels of a boom in domestic natural gas production — most of it the result of the adoption of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — their opponents are in the ascendency. The conservation and convert-to-clean-fuels messages of the environmentalists are increasingly derided as out of touch, unrealistic, and harmful to the economy.

Former Governor Mitt Romney wants ever more drilling for fossil fuels in ever more places; at the same time, President Obama embraces an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which includes fossil fuels, and celebrates the United States as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

Are environmental groups facing up to the new challenges? Developing messages and strategies that resonate with more voters and more public officials? Building broader and deeper coalitions? Demanding that politicians who nominally agree with them go on the offensive?

Remapping Debate spoke with several environmental organizations and discovered that many were not.

In Denial, or Merely Providing a Positive Spin?

Despite the anti-environmentalist shift in the political and media rhetoric concerning fossil fuels, three well-established environmental organizations painted a rosy picture about the prospects for green energy in the U.S., insisting that renewables continue to make great strides.

Cathy Duvall, national political and public advocacy director for the Sierra Club, said the shift in rhetoric does not signal that renewables are in trouble, but that fossil fuels are on the defensive. “We have made huge progress over the last four years, and what’s really clear to me is the industry is fighting back tooth and nail,” she said.

Further, she said that the recent flood of pro-fossil fuel messages demonstrates that there’s a “good, vibrant conversation about clean energy in the election.”

Remapping Debate asked Duvall whether the surge of positive rhetoric on fossil fuels actually constituted a discussion about renewable energy and the environment. “Absolutely,” she replied. “More than half the political ads being run on television [during the current presidential campaign] — that would be hundreds of millions of dollars — are talking about energy.” When Remapping Debate pointed out that the vast majority of these ads were in favor of fossil fuels, Duvall was undeterred. “Outside of health care, this is the most talked about issue in this election,” she said.

Similarly, Phillip Radford, executive director of Greenpeace U.S.A., thought that the shift in rhetoric had positive implications. “In some cases it’s like a last gasp of these really ancient industries, especially coal. [They’re] working to change their image when really the market and the future are not on their side,” he said.

Remapping Debate pointed out that in recent years domestic production of fossil fuels, including oil and natural gas, has increased (at a faster rate, in fact, than renewables). Radford said that while this is true, the fossil fuels industry is nevertheless in decline. “It’s just a matter of time before battery technology and electric cars or plug-in hybrids really start to replace the need for oil,” he stated.

David Goldston, a senior advisor at the NRDC Action Fund, of which the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a parent organization, acknowledged that “the ‘all-of-the-above’ language has developed more” in President Obama’s statements. “But if you look at the actual positions, I think that hasn’t been a big shift for the administration, and they haven’t backed away at all from their commitment to clean energy.”

Remapping Debate asked Goldston what he made of the fact that drilling for oil and gas has increased during the Obama Administration, and that the President has supported Shell’s opening up of new offshore platforms in the Arctic. “While [the President’s] policies are not in lockstep with what we would want,” Goldston said, “there’s a real commitment to cleaner energy.” Goldston referred to President Obama’s recent increase in fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025. “Look no further than the standards to see the proof of it,” he said.

When asked whether higher fuel efficiency represented only a very small part of the steps NRDC believes are necessary, Goldston agreed that these standards alone wouldn’t solve climate change.

Most of the groups Remapping Debate talked to praised the increase in renewable energy (from a meager starting point) in recent years. Radford, too, asserted this as evidence of real change, arguing that there has been massive growth of solar and wind. “If you look at the trends of where dollars are flowing and what’s being installed,” he said, “I think fundamentally green energy’s winning.” Duvall concurred. “We’ve made huge strides in generation of clean energy,” she said. “We are so not where we were four years ago in this.”

Cai Steger, an energy policy analyst at NRDC, agreed, insisting that the rate of growth in renewables represents a historic transformation of the energy sector. But, in 2007, renewable energy made up 7 percent of all energy consumed; four years later it constituted just 9 percent. Remapping Debate asked Steger whether this marked significant growth. “Good Lord, yes,” he said.

Yet the burning of fossil fuels continues apace, a pattern that only worsens climate change. In light of that, Remapping Debate asked Steger if current renewable energy growth is actually sufficient. He insisted that it was, explaining that patience is needed. “The energy sector moves very slowly,” he said.

How to Read the Polls

The Sierra Club and NRDC both contended that because the public so strongly supports renewable energy, lawmakers aren’t able to ignore it. In initial comments, another national environmental group, Friends of the Earth U.S.(FOE), agreed. But unpacking the poll numbers reveals a more complex picture.

A 2010 poll conducted by two independent polling firms for the American Wind Energy Association, for example, found that 89 percent of American voters “believe increasing the amount of energy the nation gets from wind is a good idea.” The Solar Energy Industries Association found in its 2012 poll, conducted by Hart Research, that 92 percent of American voters feel it is “very important” or “somewhat important” for the U.S.“to develop and use solar power.”

But a crucial element of the now-current political and media narrative is to treat environmentally friendly measures as the enemy of job creation and cost savings. A 2012 survey by McLaughlin & Associates, for example, took exactly this line, asking American voters who they agreed with more: “Those who say we need more regulations to reduce the use of fossil fuels to protect the environment from climate change,” or, “Those who would reduce federal regulations to increase American energy production in order to create jobs and lower the cost of fuel and electricity.” When presented with the issues in this way, respondents favored fewer regulations by a margin of more than two-to-one (61 percent to 28 percent).

The Sierra Club’s Duvall acknowledged the existence of public concerns with the supposed costs of environmental protection, but maintained her position. “Yes [people] have concerns about how things get implemented and they’re concerned about creating jobs and they don’t want to pay more on their energy bill,” she said. “But at the end of the day they actually do believe in clean energy.”

In a follow-up email to Duvall, we asked her to respond to the proposition that, even if one relied on polls that showed overwhelming support for the basic idea of increasing the use of renewables (polls that didn’t force the public to treat renewable energy production as contrary to economic development and their own pocketbook interests), that support, consistent over the last decade, hasn’t translated into meaningful, lasting renewable energy policy. Duvall did not respond.

Seeing a More Sobering Outlook

Remapping Debate queried Ben Schreiber, a tax analyst at FOE, about the wisdom of accepting what is perhaps superficial support for renewable energy as a sign of real progress. While broad support for more solar and wind has helped bring change, “It hasn’t translated into transformative change where we’re talking about a real shift away from fossil fuels,” he said. “Those [poll] numbers suggest that the public believes in renewable energy, and that’s an important first step and that’s important progress. [But] that is a far cry from the American public having a full grasp of the fact that we actually can deal with climate change in a reasonable way and it’s going to take massive investment and a huge government commitment.”

Schreiber also acknowledged that, “the terms of the debate have shifted in a way that shows we’ve lost ground. I think the ‘all-of-the-above’ energy scenario is the perfect example of that,” he said. “The debate used to be about moving away from fossil fuels — and fossil fuels are just assumed to part of the mix now.” He then added, “Climate change isn’t even part of the debate any more.” Others are worried as well.

Rob Sargent, Energy Program director at Environment America (EA), a national network of local ecology groups, said, “I think overall the public is still mostly with us, and I do think that over time, I have to believe, things will be okay.” EA’s work has been relatively successful, Sargent said, citing that solar panels, plug-in hybrid cars, and green buildings are “no longer niche.” However, he admitted that short-term prospects for renewables have become more challenging. “It’s troubling how polarized the energy debate has gotten,” he said.

350.org, an environmental organization devoted to reducing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a safe level, sees the current situation as dire. “We’re facing an absolute climate catastrophe,” said Daniel Kessler, the group’s media campaigner. “And the president doesn’t talk about that.” In 350.org’s analysis, the American political system is in crisis. “Part of the reason why it’s badly broken is the just absolutely outsized influence the fossil fuel industry has over the political system,” Kessler said.

Unlike many other people Remapping Debate talked to, Kessler readily admitted that the methods his group has used thus far haven’t succeeded. “I’m not going to tell you that our strategies are working, because obviously they’re not,” he said. “But we’re trying as hard as we can.”

Is it Best to Try to Hold the Line?

Some groups that have a sober take on the current situation think that circumstances demand a defensive posture. FOE’s Schrieber believes the focus needs to be on preventing the expiration of tax credits for renewable energy, preserving the EPA’s current authority, and preventing rollbacks of Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act provisions.

What about trying to retake the offensive with a comprehensive renewable energy policy? Schreiber pointed to the failure of national cap-and-trade legislation, known as the Waxman-Markey bill, in 2010. While he agreed that a far-reaching policy would be good, he asserted that incremental change is what’s politically feasible.

The time for bolder action, Schreiber said, is when there’s a shift in the makeup of Congress. “The question is does somebody have a renewable energy plan that gets us where we need to go that can get 60 votes in the Senate and the majority in the House as well as the President’s signature? And if not, then would we not be better off taking [renewable energy] on piece by piece and getting as much as we can done?” Schreiber said, “We could come up with the most beautiful plan that [theoretically] gets us exactly where we need to go but that doesn’t move the discussion.”

Remapping Debate asked why putting forward a vivid, concrete vision wouldn’t constitute a meaningful discussion of alternatives. “A plan is not a talk,” Schreiber said. “If I get into the nerdy details [of how such a system could work],” he said, “that’s not a useful debate.”

Instead of proposing an alternative course, Schreiber said the country’s discussion of the issue should remain broad, as it has for years. He said it should stay focused on the basic question of “whether or not climate change is a problem we’re actually serious about resolving.”

Remapping Debate asked why it didn’t make sense to at least try a radical change in strategy and messaging. “I’m not sure what a dramatic change in strategy would be,” Schreiber said.

How to Gain Greater Influence

Other groups have decided it is time to change their ground game. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is one of them. Marchant Wentworth, deputy legislative director for the group’s Climate and Energy Program, said that after Waxman-Markey failed and UCS’s subsequent inability to make progress on the federal level, the group decided to focus on smaller, more targeted fights it thought it could win. UCS will continue trying to influence federal lawmakers, but, Wentworth said, it has turned the bulk of its efforts from the national to the state level.

UCS is working in states where legislation relating to controlling climate change exists and can be strengthened, has been introduced, or is on the horizon. These include Iowa and Illinois, both of which have considerable wind-generating capacity. UCS is also currently active in Michigan, where UCS hopes to help increase the state’s existing renewable energy standard (RES), the mandate that utilities produce a certain percentage of electricity from renewable sources.

UCS has put considerable resources into passing proposal 3, a proposed constitutional amendment, in Michigan next week. The measure would increase the state’s RES from its current target of 10 percent by 2015, up to 25 percent by 2025, a material increase. Wentworth thinks that an added benefit of the measure coming in the form of a constitutional amendment is protection against a shifting legislative environment in the future. UCS is also supporting this effort because it’s the type of advance that can be replicated in other states.

“We’re being outspent in the media market in Michigan probably 1,000 to one, easy,” Wentworth said of the current RES campaign. “We can’t compete with that. We can compete door to door — and that’s where we’ll beat them.”

“Do the Math”

350.org — which describes itself on its website as “using online tools to facilitate strategic offline action” — is also working on activating its base in new ways. It is embarking on a new strategy in the form of its “Do the Math” tour. Previously, the group had encouraged its supporters to demand climate protections from their policymakers. But with the failure of federal climate legislation, as well as any binding international agreement, the group has now trained its sights directly on energy companies.

“We’re really transitioning to going straight at the fossil fuel industry,” Kessler explained. With its spokesperson, the journalist and activist Bill McKibben, the group’s tour will visit 20 major cities to rally students and the public to pressure university endowments, pension funds, and churches to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Kessler explained that the Do the Math tour will highlight how much of worldwide carbon reserves is controlled by each of the large energy companies. “Exxon Mobil controls about 7 percent of all the burnable carbon we have left in the world,” Kessler said, adding that the public should hold the corporation accountable for what happens with that carbon. Through this campaign, 350.org wants to, as Kessler put it, take away the “moral license” of these companies to operate in our society irresponsibly.

The organization isn’t sure the tour will create major change, but Kessler said it’s worth trying something new. “We think that this could potentially be a winning strategy if we could get campuses to really stand up,” he said. There could be positive byproducts from the tour as well, he said. “One, we’ll [recruit] a whole new generation of climate activists which would be great. Two, we’ll be working with endowments to actually take money out of fossil fuel companies, out of their pockets,” Kessler explained. “And three, university boards are made up of very influential people and if we can talk to them and try to talk some sense into them about the path that we’re going down, that could hopefully be beneficial.”

A Broader Coalition Effort

Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) formed a partnership with the Civil Society Institute (CSI) to put together a wider-reaching grassroots coalition. They held a conference in Cambridge, Mass., where a network of 36 grassroots organizations active in 22 states decided to work in concert.

Pam Solo, head of CSI, argued that this is the best way to take on the all-of-the-above approach. “I think what’s different about this effort” — the new coalition — “is bringing together people from every part of the energy fuel cycle of each of the dirty and dangerous energy sources so that they can’t be played off against one another.”

One problem of locally based organizations acting in isolation from each other is that groups opposing the environmental and health impacts of one form of extraction — mountaintop coal removal, for example — might not be tuned into problems that may arise when energy companies shift to other problematic means of extraction, like fracking.

The EWG-CSI coalition is critical both of federal lawmakers and of the large established environmental groups. Solo said organizations such as the Sierra Club and NRDC should be far more demanding. “The national environmental groups end up playing more of a Washington game,” she said. It’s one that “underutilizes what the American public is ready for in terms of real policy change.”

The coalition’s approach, Solo said, comes from rejecting political limits many other groups accept. “We need people to step away from the beltway mentality and the beltway politics and say ‘This is what’s needed to solve the problem. This is what’s possible technologically.’ And not say, ‘Well, we can’t go there because politics won’t accept it,’” she said. “The problem is that everybody starts with, ‘Well, what would be acceptable in Washington?’ and that kind of incrementalist thinking has kept us tinkering at the margins of the problem.”

Instead, Solo thinks that there should be “a national congress of the entire environmental movement [where we] hammer out our platform and say, ‘This is what we stand for and we’ll fight for it and we’ll play hardball,’” she said.   Φ

Heather Rogers is a senior staff reporter at Remapping Debate. Her most recent book is Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. Samantha Cook is a reporter at Remapping Debate. She graduated from New York University in 2012 with a B.A. with a major in journalism and sociology and a minor in Spanish.

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