One would think that the environmental community would be united behind what is being hailed by some as the most significant and important piece of climate legislation to ever be introduced in the United States Senate.
Yet the bill, introduced on May 12 by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, has been anything but a unifier among those in the climate change movement. If anything, the proposal of the so-called American Power Act has drawn a line in the sand – a line that some environmentalists are simply not willing to cross.
"It’s not accurate to call this a climate bill," said Tyson Slocum who serves as Energy Director for Public Citizen, a Washington DC based consumer advocacy organization. "This is nuclear energy- promoting, oil drilling-championing, coal mining-boosting legislation with a weak carbon pricing mechanism thrown in."
Slocum’s Public Citizen is one of only a handful of progressive organizations that believes the American Power Act isn’t worth the paper it’s printed upon. On the day the bill was introduced in the Senate, large, established environmental groups or "Big Greens" (dubbed Gang Green by grassroots environmentalists), including the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Sierra Club among others, signed on to a letter declaring their support for the bill.
"Today’s action by Senators [Kerry and Lieberman] jump-starts the Senate debate over America’s energy future," the letter read. "Their unwavering leadership has been critical to the progress made thus far. It is time for America’s leaders to get serious about a comprehensive clean energy and climate policy that will reduce our oil dependence, enhance our security, revitalize our economy and protect our environment."
It’s a tale too often repeated on the progressive battlefront, where well-heeled Beltway insiders bump heads with the more grassroots and independently-minded activists who don’t spend the majority of their time roaming the halls of power in Washington.
Certainly it’s about access, and with this access compromise is sure to follow. There have been so many concessions in the climate bill that a fervor is brewing among the legions of unpaid environmentalists who believe the "Big Greens" are dealing away the government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Even some Sierra Club members aren’t happy with the their organization’s decision to sign off on such a compromised bill.
"National environmental groups in Washington, DC, led by Environmental Defense Fund, are sending the message that they’ll accept nearly any compromise to get a bill through," David Orr, who serves as Chair of the Ozark Headwaters Group, Sierra Club’s Arkansas Chapter, recently told Truthout. "With the British Petroleum oil disaster devastating the Gulf of Mexico, EDF and other big-name green groups applaud the Kerry-Lieberman bill that allows for greatly expanded offshore drilling, and other give-aways to polluting industries that do nothing to advance the cause for climate protection."
The new Sierra Club executive director, Michael Brune, is starting to feel the heat from Club members, and has stated that his organization could withdraw its support depending on the bill’s final language. That’s a good sign, says David Orr, but Brune, who used to serve as director of the more radical, direct-action-oriented Rainforest Action Network, has yet to withdraw the Sierra Club’s support for the legislation.
"This is a welcome statement [from Brune], but it misses the point that the bill is as bad as feared," added Orr, who is also the founding member of the Arkansas based Protect Ozark Wildlife and Rivers, a grassroots environmental organization. "Sierra Club leaders at the grassroots level want the Club to join with the truth-tellers to oppose the climate bill, and demand real protection instead."
While the Sierra Club still backs the bill, despite alleged reservations, other groups are taking the lead in demanding that Congress start the process over again.
On May 17, a new alliance of 15 social justice, environmental and community organizations joined together to stop the climate bill from passing. The coalition, called Climate Reality Check, believes Congress needs to head back to the drawing board and start over.
"In his recent Earth Day proclamation, President Barack Obama specifically celebrated the gains of the Clean Air Act; nonetheless, this proposal appeases polluters by gutting the Act, which has protected the air we breathe for 40 years, reaping economic benefits more than 40 times its cost," wrote the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental group and a member of Climate Reality Check. "The Clean Air Act already provides a mechanism to establish science-based pollution caps for greenhouse pollutants, yet the Kerry-Lieberman proposal would ban proven successful Clean Air Act programs from cutting greenhouse emissions."
Back in Washington, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) refuses to join Climate Reality Check, and while unhappy with some of the bill’s provisions, is nonetheless excited about the proposition of its passage.
"The bill provides a good starting point," wrote the NRDC shortly after the bill’s introduction in the Senate. "[We] look forward to working with Senator Majority Leader Reid and President Obama to build on this foundation without delay to deliver legislation that puts Americans back to work, reduces our dependence on oil, and creates a healthier future for our children."
Despite a few reservations, the NRDC is still behind the climate bill and hopes it will improve. How is legislation going to get any better if you are not willing to hold out support if it fails to improve? That’s a question some environmentalists want answered.
"[The bill] guts the EPA’s current authority to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act," adds Tyson Slocum of Public Citizen, which is also a member of Climate Reality Check. "We need a bill that does not incentivize failed and dangerous technologies like nuclear power and does not enrich utilities at the expense of consumers."
The bill in its current form would bolster the nuclear power industry and would provide handouts to the coal and oil industries. It would also promotes carbon offsets and cap-and-trade policies, a free-market approach to solving the climate crisis that many believe is not an alternative for stricter regulations.
"If we are to turn the corner on climate change we must hear definitive, uncompromising statements from the nation’s environmental leaders – all of them – pushing back hard for a strong climate protection bill," David Orr of Sierra Club’s Ozark Headwaters Group told Truthout. "Luckily, a new coalition is working against politics-as-usual. Groups like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity, are refusing to accept the polluter-friendly agenda that other ‘Big Greens’ have embraced. This is the message that Congress needs to hear."