Climate legislation is running into a chilly reception
The Washington Post presents the debate between environmental organizations on whether or not to use climate alarmist tactics. One side is endeavoring to engage people who can be swayed by climate legislation's economic or employment benefits and the other is concerned about seemingly reducing the need for a strong piece of legislation.
Posted Nov. 5, 2009
By David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post
A curious debate has broken out among American environmental groups, as
the U.S. Senate finally, balkily starts to focus on the threat of
Is this really the time to talk about the threat of climate change?
Now, some groups have actually muted their alarms about wildfires,
shrinking glaciers, and rising seas. Not because they've stopped caring
about them — but because they're trying to win over people who might
care more about a climate bill's non-environmental side benefits, like
"green" jobs and reduced oil imports.
Smaller environmental groups, however, say this is the wrong moment
to ease up on the scare, since that might send the signal that a weaker
bill is acceptable.
At the heart of this intra-green disagreement is a behemoth of an
unanswered question. Even after years of apocalyptic warnings about
climate change, how much will Americans really sacrifice to fight it?
"It's a lack of faith in the American public," said Kieran Suckling
of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona nonprofit
organization, talking about the light-on-climate ads used by bigger
groups. "If the scientists, the environmentalists in our country do
their jobs, and explain the test of climate change, the public will
"Instead of doing that job," Suckling said, "we're running away from it."
The debate about how best to sell climate legislation is flaring now
because this could be the culminating moment of a years-long effort to
cap U.S. greenhouse gases. And playing down the threat from a warming
climate might come with a cost for environmental groups, if it appears
to give senators license to weaken measures aimed at helping the
environment, like caps on greenhouse gases. Already, the push for
energy "made in America" has given the industry an opening to press for
things some green groups don't want: more offshore drilling in U.S.
waters, and more support for the U.S. coal business.
Lou Hayden of the American Petroleum Institute said that his group
does not debate environmentalists about climate science. But he said it
will fight environmentalists on the jobs question, saying that the
climate bill will kill more than it creates.
"Is it easier to respond to the jobs [argument] and to the kind of operational economic questions? Yes," Hayden said.
This summer, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would cap
emissions by 2020, using a complex scheme called "cap and trade" that
would allow companies to buy and sell allowances to pollute.
But this week has shown that the Senate will be a much harder sell.
On Thursday, Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee
passed a bill modeled on the House climate measure, but the 11 to 1
vote, with Sen. Max Baucus
(D-Mont.) voting against, included no Republicans: GOP members were
boycotting the meeting, saying they wanted more analysis of the bill's
impact on energy prices.
And a day earlier, a trio of powerful senators — including John F. Kerry
(D-Mass.), a co-author of the Senate bill — signaled that the measure
might be somewhat irrelevant anyway. Kerry, Sen. Lindsay O. Graham
(R-S.C.) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman
(I-Conn.) said they would look at the bill, but also would negotiate
with the White House and business groups as they craft their own
"We're just at the beginning stages here," Kerry said.
Washington Post-ABC polls this year have shown that a steady but
thin majority of Americans, 52 percent, favor a "cap and trade" bill.
But a different poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press showed that, even after years of alarms about global warming,
American opinions on the topic still seem to be shifting.
That poll found that a majority, 57 percent, of Americans think
there is solid evidence of warming — but that's down from the 71
percent who thought so in April 2008.
Now, given the slow progress in the Senate, some green groups say
they want to broaden their appeal beyond committed environmentalists,
to the skeptical, the agnostic and the distracted. That means
downplaying doomsday predictions, and focusing on positives: A climate
bill will create jobs in the renewable-energy industry and keep money
away from oil-state villains.
In 2006, for example, a well-known TV spot from the Environmental
Defense Fund and the Ad Council showed a global warming as a speeding
locomotive bearing down on a little girl.
This year, however, the train is gone. So is the word "warming."
Instead, one spot from the Environmental Defense Fund shows solar
panels and windmills, while an announcer talks about jobs and a reduced
dependence on foreign oil.
"We need more renewable energy that's made in America and works for
America, creating 1.7 million jobs," the narrator says. It doesn't
mention the word "climate," but instead talks about cutting "carbon
pollution," using a phrase common in recent ads by several groups.
"It's two words that are pretty easily understandable," said Daniel
Lashof, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I mean, scientists
like to talk about 'greenhouse gases.' Nobody knows what that means."
On Tuesday night, climate activist Nancy Jackson was speaking to one
of the most climate-skeptical audiences in the country: Kansans. She
was speaking to college students here in Manhattan — a town where one
religious leader was able to draw congregants to screenings of "An
Inconvenient Truth" only by passing out Nerf balls, so they could hurl
them at the image of Al Gore.
"Take climate change off the table, okay?" Jackson said, after
reciting evidence that the climate really is changing. "You don't have
to buy it for everything I'm about to say, because everything we do [to
combat climate change] is a good idea for at least three other
She told the students that Kansas has an abundance of wind, sun and
crops like corn and prairie grasses — all potential sources of
renewable power. The message worked, at least on 21 year-old student
Matthew Brandt. He said he doesn't believe in climate change, but —
after hearing Jackson's talk — he was interested in windmills.
"I plan to have a wind turbine on my property" after graduation, Brandt said. "I figure it's a good investment."
One of the groups critical of the good-news approach to climate
advocacy, the World Wildlife Fund, is running its own ads underlining
fears about what climate change will bring. In Montana, the ads talk
about increased wildfires. In Indiana, it's floods. In Maine, stronger
"The reality is, we need to save ourselves," said Carter Roberts,
that group's president. "The connection between an intact planet and
people's well-being . . . is the part of the equation that's missing."