Mapping environmentalism’s road ahead

Source: Jason Plautz and Elana Schor, E&E reporters • Posted: Monday, December 9, 2013

Conventional wisdom says environmentalism suffered a near-death experience in 2010, when a sweeping climate change bill ran aground in the Democratic-run Senate. But aspiring eulogists for the green movement have gotten ample material in the years before and since that failure.

Federal climate legislation is now an all-but-impossible goal. President Obama’s attempt to curb carbon through executive branch power is challenged at every turn by industry opponents and combative Republicans.

The healthy decline in U.S. emissions that many greens welcome is in large part due to a natural gas boom, driven by hydraulic fracturing, that fractures the conservation community. Even winning votes for a simple bipartisan energy efficiency bill, for environmentalists, is a slog up Capitol Hill.

E&E looks at the U.S. environmental movement as it hits middle age, with an in-depth examination of five groups that are driving the agenda in Congress and throughout the nation.

But looking only from 10,000 feet fails to judge the movement by its own heterogeneous, still-rebellious terms, a task provocatively attempted by Breakthrough Institute strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their nearly decade-old essay “The Death of Environmentalism.” That treatise excoriated green leaders as complacent and lacking vision.

Over the next week, E&E Daily will take its own look at the movement in its midlife — profiling five environmental groups and their paths out of the cap-and-trade bill’s wreckage.

Can the Environmental Defense Fund’s commitment to market-based solutions coexist with the Sierra Club’s newfound sense of activism? How does the Natural Resources Defense Council’s bookish defense of federal laws mesh with the political machinations of the League of Conservation Voters and the envelope-pushing ethos of newcomer

In their 2005 paper, Nordhaus and Shellenberger said early successes in the 1960s and ’70s had created “a strong confidence — and in some cases bald arrogance — that the environmental protection frame was enough to succeed at a policy level.” Landmark laws in the pre-Reagan era were significant but ultimately easy victories that left green groups unprepared for bigger future battles, they wrote.

Yet that critique of greens’ defense-minded posture ignores the degree to which political polarization has slowed progress for most liberal interest groups in recent years, with the notable exception of the Obama agenda of expanding access to affordable health care. But not all causes are beset with one of the greens’ major flaws: a failure to coalesce around a single goal

House Democratic leaders celebrate the passage of a sweeping climate bill in 2009 — which later stalled in the Senate. The climate bill became a rallying point for many environmental groups, which continue to aggressively work the issue — but in different ways. The bill’s sponsors were Rep. Henry Waxman (far left) and then-Rep. Ed Markey (second from right). Photo courtesy of CQ Roll Call.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who along with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote the failed climate bill that launched a thousand self-analyses, said he already sees the movement as victorious. His defunct cap-and-trade plan envisioned a 17 percent reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, Markey noted, “and here, at the end of 2013, we’ve already reached an 8 percent reduction since 2005. A lot of that is achieved by the federal government.”

Beyond carbon pollution data, Markey contended that green groups are hitting their stride communicating the impenetrable, technocratic nature of the multigenerational challenge that is climate change. “The public education aspect of what the environmental movement does is at a historic high,” he said.

Former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope offered a cultural measure of the movement’s success, “the speed by which we replace 20th-century industrialism with something better.” He added: “By that measuring stick, we’re not moving fast enough.”

Bill McKibben, founder of, described diffuse agendas and approaches as the natural future of an advocacy world that should look “the way we want our energy system to look — not a few power plants, but millions of solar panels on millions of rooftops tied together.”

Of course, even solar panels feed into a shared grid. And greens such as former Nature Conservancy President Steve McCormick warn that the current lack of “cohesion” bears little resemblance to the movement’s early years.

“There is no environmental movement or no environmental coalition,” McCormick said. “These groups are larger and more potent, but there are so many different directions.”

Friends of the Earth board Chairman Arlie Schardt, also a former EDF executive director, advised his fellow activists to do a better job of hanging together.

“I sincerely feel that if groups are this serious about climate change, they’ve got to narrow their focus and formulate a message together,” Schardt said.

Light bulbs or laws?

Despite that counsel, greens have employed a parade of messages in the decade since the first major congressional climate bill won just 43 votes in the Senate. Strategies that initially appear potent enough to break through, to command singular attention, often draw quick criticism from opposing intellectual corners of the movement.

Just ask former Vice President Al Gore. The emphasis on behavioral changes by everyday Americans that ended his hit film “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 launched a battle over replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), but it also inspired a new generation of climate activists to abandon Gore’s small-ball approach in favor of shaking the foundations of fossil fuel power in Washington, D.C.

Within two years, the Nobel Prize winner was downplaying his own message, telling the World Economic Forum in 2008 to “change the laws” before “changing the light bulbs.”

Yet as Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle observed, the entreaty to use less on an individual basis remains a core ingredient of the conservationist pitch.

“They say, ‘click here to give us a contribution,’ then turn off your shower or buy CFLs,” he said, billing climate change as a “problem of all humanity, so we’re all equally responsible.” But that small-ball strategy, Brulle added, risks stealing focus from the societal trends that have linked emissions and growth since the Industrial Revolution.

Groups such as McKibben’s sprang up in part as vehicles to give greens a louder voice in challenging those long-established norms. Those newer activists tend to pursue confrontation with industry — epitomized by 350’s campaign for financial divestment from fossil fuel companies — while old-line greens adopt poll-tested, election-ready approaches designed to remind mothers of the value of clean air and minorities of environmental justice concerns

Inside the Beltway, where unity is often prized above all, it’s tempting to view those multiple messages as a sign of weakness. But Leon Billings, who helped write the Clean Air and Water acts as a Senate staffer before co-founding the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, questioned the wisdom of measuring both sides with the same yardstick.

“Business interests are like the Republican Party — they’re able to find a message, stay on message and get everyone to talk on the same page,” he said. “Environmental groups are like the Democratic Party — 50 different states with 50 different messages, and no member who wants to say the same thing more than once.”

Billings added that he is “not even sure [greens] are capable of” unifying their communications strategies.

Still, environmentalism’s near-decade of focus on climate change might be described as its greatest modern moment of unity, given its origin as a series of agendas grouped under the larger heading of “saving the planet.”

The inability to sound one message as a movement bothered neither McKibben nor his opposite number of sorts, Environmental Defense Fund Senior Vice President for Strategy Eric Pooley.

“You don’t want to have 11 right tackles on your offense,” Pooley said. “You want a variety of players and styles. How we play off each other is really important.”

If one common thread can be traced through every environmentalist’s message in this climate-minded age, it is the supremacy of science. From the wildlife work of the Center for Biological Diversity to the anti-coal crusade at Earthjustice, conservation groups ground their strategies in empirical evidence that the brutal toll of a changing climate is propelled by human activity.

No preponderance of data, however, is guaranteed to spur legislators and voters to act. Pro-environment Democrats ran into trouble with the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year for pushing the boundaries of causation between global warming and individual extreme weather events — the same message Markey praised greens for amplifying (E&E Daily, May 24).

The degree of “hope” placed in the natural-disaster message is “just not in touch” with places like Oklahoma, where “they’re swept by these terrible tornadoes” but “haven’t even gotten around to digging basements in schools,” Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol said.

“This is a movement of people who believe that science and moral certainty about the cause are enough,” she added. “That works well with educated people and even some businesspeople, but it doesn’t cut it with most people for reasons that are understandable.”

Perhaps the messenger, then, is more important than any one message. University of Michigan sustainable enterprise professor Andrew Hoffman pointed to the radical flank effect that envisions “rock throwers” like McKibben as vital counterweights to “collaborators” such as EDF.

The classic historical example, Hoffman said in an interview, was the more combative civil rights agenda pursued by Malcolm X during the 1960s that cast Martin Luther King Jr. in the moderate’s role, allowing him to build a larger coalition.

McKibben countered that “the closest we ever came” to having a “Martin Luther King of the environmental movement” was Gore, and even that carried a downside. “In a highly polarized society, it also showed the weakness of that model because the bad guys spent millions of dollars trying to blacken his name.”

Broadening the base

The cap-and-trade campaign gave greens a high-water mark in front-page headlines as well as internal cohesion, thanks to the dozens of groups working on Waxman and Markey’s bill. Maggie Fox, the CEO of Gore’s Climate Reality Project and a longtime Sierra Club official, described that period as one of “extraordinary” coordination that has ebbed since 2010.

“There isn’t a specific single campaign” at the moment, Fox said, “so you don’t see that level or that kind of collaboration.”

Skocpol, who earlier this year published a 141-page analysis of cap and trade’s demise (E&E Daily, June 5), said the movement will have to go back to that type of Washington coalition-building if it wants to succeed. The medical, labor, civil rights and progressive groups operating as the Health Care for America Now (HCAN) network pushed the reform bill now known as Obamacare during the same stretch as the climate fight, she noted, but had a years-long head start on greens.

Effectively cast in the HCAN role for the cap-and-trade bill, in Skocpol’s telling, was the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP. Led by EDF, it mixed environmentalists such as NRDC and the World Resources Institute with industry heavyweights like Chrysler, DuPont and Shell. That “elite strange bedfellows strategy,” as she put it, all but dissolved after just three years in 2010 when five major companies departed. But it gave groups a taste for the sway that can accompany a partnership with deep-pocketed and well-connected business groups.

In a paper set to be published in a CQ Press book next spring on climate politics, Drexel’s Brulle finds that the golden age of environmental partnerships between 2006 and 2009 brought 467 unique organizations into a green coalition or into discussions with one. But of that number, according to Brulle, only 15 conservation groups are truly “influential organizations” with significant influence in Congress.

Skocpol urged the movement to work harder to “rope in people who already agree” through partnerships with bigger progressive groups like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the League of Women Voters (LWV) and some religious denominations. ( has worked with the United Church of Christ on its divestment campaign.)

In fact, that work already is occurring. LWV, long thought of as a nonpartisan booster of the electoral process, famously waded into environmentalism during the last election cycle via ads that drew personal push-back from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and then-Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) (E&E Daily, May 5, 2011).

The Sierra Club has aligned with labor unions through the BlueGreen Alliance and specifically embraced immigration reform alongside SEIU in April (see related story). Along with 10 other environmental groups, the club even reached out to the immigration reformers at with suggestions of a natural green-tech alliance, after Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg’s group ran ads invoking the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (E&E Daily, June 6).

The University of Michigan’s Hoffman warned against the downside of aggressive coalition-building that could imperil any green group’s “brand and its credibility.” Even as the Sierra Club began “trying to get back its radical teeth,” he noted, the club was still lending its name to Clorox to promote “green” detergents. “That’s an example of the dangers of trying to be Catholic and Protestant at the same time.”

It’s (sometimes) all about the Benjamins

One obvious impetus behind corporate partnerships that have drawn cries of “green-washing” is cold, hard cash. The Clorox deal netted the Sierra Club a reported $1.3 million. The Walton Family Foundation, locus of the Wal-Mart founders’ fortune, steered $13.2 million to EDF in 2012 and smaller but still notable sums to more left-leaning green groups, such as $2.7 million to the National Wildlife Federation and $227,000 to the Environmental Working Group.

Some environmentalists see the competition for financial support, whether from blocks of new members or from deep-pocketed foundations, as too often causing internecine rivalries or distraction from their core mission.

Marion Edey, who founded the League of Conservation Voters and praised the work of her successors, lamented what she described as “not enough diversity of thinking” in the modern environmental movement, placing blame on big donors, who she said often give directions along with their donations

“What I’ve seen over time is a movement which started out with a lot of idealistic pioneers go through a revolution,” Edey said. “People become a little more detached from the passion of the cause, and eventually these organizations begin evolving to the point where they become like large businesses. They become very dependent on the whims of funders.”

Daniel Katz, chairman of the Rainforest Alliance board and environmental giving director at the $130 million Overbrook Foundation, estimated at this fall’s South by Southwest Eco conference in Austin, Texas, that 2 percent of green groups are receiving more than half the total available grant money, “leaving the vast majority to fight over the leftovers.”

This scramble for cash among “groups that have defined success in terms of media hits and membership numbers,” Katz said, puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to their core mission: “Nonprofits are built to serve, to save, to make better.”

The “half a billion dollars spent” on the cap-and-trade bill, he wryly noted in his Texas speech, could not push it to Obama’s desk.

Environmentalists’ political foes, from conservative lawmakers to industry-linked operatives, tend to dismiss their talk of limited financial resources as convenient branding by a movement that benefits from playing David to Big Oil’s Goliath.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), a leader of the push to unravel Obama’s climate strategy, described major environmental nonprofits as “formidable players” who have instilled fear of delay and mounting bills in the companies planning fossil fuel infrastructure projects such as KXL. Their formula for effectiveness, as Whitfield put it, is “a lot of money” and “good lawyers.”

Indeed, looking at the bottom line of little-known green givers suggests that dollars may be more plentiful than they seem. The San Francisco-based Energy Foundation (EF), backed by anti-KXL billionaire Tom Steyer and home of the former climate adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), reported a nearly nine-figure haul in fiscal 2011, with $76.4 million of that total going to groups working on a “sustainable energy future.”

EF gave $2.95 million to NRDC and $1.25 million to the Sierra Club that year, according to its Internal Revenue Service filings, while the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy got $1.2 million. More surprising grants went to the Christian Coalition, beneficiary of $561,000, and the American Clean Skies Foundation, linked to natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy.

EF’s affiliated 501(c)(4) group, the Green Tech Action Fund, gave more than half its grants in fiscal 2011, or more than $2 million, to the behind-the-curtain alliance of environmental groups known as the Partnership Project (E&E Daily, June 24). The action fund became better known this year for launching an ill-starred public relations push on behalf of Ron Binz, Obama’s nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, who withdrew under pressure from industry groups and Republicans.

The major groups also not only weathered the recession without folding or consolidating — a plight that affected most of the nonprofit world — but also rebounded with strong fundraising in the years since. Of course, that was aided by having not only an opposition president in George W. Bush, but accelerated action on cap and trade starting in 2009.

But when it comes to lobbying bills that are publicly reported, the David-and-Goliath comparison remains apt. The $3.7 million in influence spending last year by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the refining industry’s trade group, on its own rivals the total spending by EDF, NRDC, the Sierra Club and LCV combined.

What’s next

McCormick, who led the Nature Conservancy from 2001 until 2007, said most of his work there involved acquiring property and ensuring that land would be protected. He saw it as a productive use of resources — until the day when he marked every acre he had saved on a wall-sized map of California.

“I stood back 10 or 15 feet, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see very much of what we had done,” he said. “I’ve never thought that protected areas aren’t worth doing, but that alone will no longer work. You have to start thinking about the human dimension.”

Now as president of the $5.8 billion Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, McCormick said those same questions ought to be asked of the entire movement.

This chart by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle is designed to show the interconnected web of environmental partnerships, with networks that include businesses, trade associations, labor unions and nonprofit groups. Click on the image for a larger version. Photo courtesy of Robert Brulle.

“In the same way, this is a time for the groups to do some serious self-reflection,” he added. “Organizations sometimes seem impervious to change, but this is the time to reinvent themselves.”

Whether that reinvention can take place in the frozen ground of a divided Washington remains to be seen. Most federal money and energy among environmentalists are spent batting down GOP attempts to handcuff U.S. EPA, and groups are increasingly looking to the state or local levels to make demonstrable progress in the climate fight.

The League of Conservation Voters, for example, has been amping up its own efforts to change the landscape in the 2014 and 2016 elections to the tune of a record $36 million spent on campaign activities just in 2012.

If any force can shake up the status quo and give the movement more traction, it might be wealthy enigmas such as outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former hedge fund kingpin Steyer. Bloomberg recently said he would direct some capital from his billion-dollar charity to ensuring that climate-friendly candidates get elected in the 2014 midterms.

Bloomberg said he would do “everything I can to help those people who want to protect the health of our planet get re-elected,” adding that “we cannot take our foot off the gas.”

Activists may perennially disagree on whether that progress should come from the policy minds of NRDC, the pragmatists of EDF or the campaign strategists of LCV. But Betsy Taylor, a longtime green advocate, credited the movement with “a tremendous amount of good work happening” to little public fanfare in the face of the massive domestic oil and gas boom that few saw coming at the time of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s environmentalist autopsy.

“It’s very easy to stay in a position of resistance when what you’re up against is getting bigger every day,” said Taylor, who now leads climate consulting firm Breakthrough Strategies. “What I find quite remarkable is that people [in the movement] recognize humans aren’t just motivated by darkness and nightmares — they’re motivated by hope and desire for something better.”