“Americans actually do care about their health. They don’t want their kids have to be poisoned in order for them to get a job. They value their natural heritage.”
“One should not read what’s going on the House of Representatives as an indication of where America wants to be.”
That’s Peter Lehner talking. Peter, a 52-year-old environmental lawyer, is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of America’s most important environmental groups. The NRDC has a $95 million budget, about 400 employees and about 1.3 million members. They’re big and they represent a lot of people.
And yet the NRDC and its allies are getting nowhere in Washington.
They’re struggling to protect the EPA against unrelenting Republican attacks.
And, as Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote the other day in the Times, climate change–arguably the biggest problem facing mankind–has devolved into a non-issue. The “fading of global warming from the political agenda is a mostly American phenomenon,” she wrote.
That was the question on my mind when I met recently with Peter, who is thoughtful and smart, to talk about the politics of climate. That’s not my specialty, but I came with an idea: The green groups that try to persuade Americans that environmental protection is good for their jobs and pocketbooks–that is, that green is in our self-interest–have missed opportunities to frame the environment and especially climate as moral issues, in ways that would appeal to our higher and better selves. Put another way, the big NGOs that focus on policy are not as comfortable talking about culture and religion.
So I wondered what the NRDC had learned from the failure of cap-and-trade—the scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that was rejected by Congress—and whether its leaders are rethinking their message.
As best as I can tell from Peter, the answer is no or at least not yet, anyway.
He offered several explanations for the defeat of cap-and-trade, most of them familiar and arguably true. Enviros were outspent by polluters, he said, who succeeded in re-branding the Waxman-Markey legislation passed by the house as a “job-killing energy tax.” (According to the Center for the American Progress Action Fund, “Big Oil, Dirty Coal, and other special interests like the American Petroleum Institute combined spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying lawmakers and filling their campaign coffers.”) It’s very difficult to pass major legislation of any kind during an economic downturn, and few complex and sweeping pieces of legislation are enacted on their first go-around. (Although cap-and-trade has been talked about in Congress.) Maybe cap-and-trade was too complicated; maybe a tax on carbon pollution, with the money rebated to people, would be simpler.
“If you look at history,” Peter said, “the fact that we didn’t get this big bill through in the face of enormous amounts of money, during a recession and on the first try should not be a surprise.”
So what now? Build bridges, he says: “To take on strong interests, we need a broad alliance of voices.” Public health groups and parents can be enlisted to talk about the health effects of pollution. National security and military people can talk about imported oil. Business leaders can talk about the clean energy economy.
“The environmentalists can’t carry this ball by ourselves,” he says. Again, this is true enough, but those groups were enlisted as allies during the 2009-2010 debate. The trouble is, none worked very hard.
Time may be the green groups’ best ally. “Eventually, reality will win,” Peter said. “Those who claim the climate isn’t change are eventually going to be seen as ostriches with their head in the sand.” What’s more, as businesses and consumers save money with energy efficiency and adopt clean energy, they will see that “you can actually have a better life through a lot of the solutions we are talking about.” Again, this makes sense, but time is short. And, while some people may get excited by the smart grid or solar rooftops, others don’t want transmission lines or wind farms in their neighborhood.
It’s easy for policy-oriented organizations like the NRDC to forget that we’re driven by emotion as well as logic–and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people get involved with environmental issues because they want to leave their children a better future. Others do so because they love the outdoors and don’t want to see it trashed. Those with a strong sense of fairness are troubled when polluters cause harm, and not held accountable.
Protecting the earth is fundamentally a moral issue, I suggested to Peter, and perhaps environmentalists should do more to enlist religious allies. Of course, he agreed.
“I would hope that the faith voices would make it a more important issue,” he said. “Some are.”
When our conversation ended, I gave Peter a book called Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild. It’s a riveting account of the British movement to end slavery, which was the world’s first grass-roots movement. The parallels to the environmental movement are at best imperfect – abolitionists did not have to contend with Exxon Mobil or Fox News – but the 19th century global economy as dependent on slavery as today’s economy is reliant on fossil fuels. (And, while people will have to pay more for electricity if dirty coal gives way to solar and wind power, our ancestors presumably absorbed rising prices when slaves were replaced by workers who were paid for their labor.) The anti-slavery movement was at its heart a moral and religious crusade. So, of course, was the 1960s civil rights movement.
Environmentalists today desperately need a movement, and while you can find the beginnings of one if you look—see 350.org or Tar Sands Action or maybe even OccupyWallStreet—it’s hard to build a movement without religious voices.