“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.