$2 trillion billCourtesy Climate SOSGlobal warming activists endorsed by the preeminent climatologist James Hansen are working to defeat the climate and energy bill in Congress, and they’re using some provocative stunts to spread their message.

Briefly:

  • Activists handed out fake $2 trillion bills at a rally for climate legislation in New York last week, criticizing the size of the global-warming emissions market they oppose. ($2 trillion is their estimate for the size of the emissions market they oppose.) The bills depict Al Gore holding a wrench and a compact-fluorescent light bulb and the words “Corporate Giveaways! Carbon Ponzi Schemes! FALSE SOLUTIONS!”
  • Others hung a 14-foot banner of the same bill from the Manhattan headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
  • “Cap’n Trade,” an actor in a pirate costume, unfurled a similar banner at a presentation by Connie Hedegaard, chairperson of the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Summit and Denmark’s minister for climate and energy.
  • Still others blocked a motorcade of UN delegates to drop a banner with the message “Cap + Trade is a Dead End.”

At least three groups worked together on last week’s events—Climate SOS, Rising Tide North America, and “Greenwash Guerrillas,” which pied Thomas Friedman last year. They all hold a “no compromise” philosophy on climate-change action, opposing carbon markets that allow polluters to buy and sell pollution credits and arguing that larger environmental groups such as NRDC have compromised too much in working with businesses and Democratic lawmakers.

“It’s an awkward position to be environmentalists working on climate change but opposing a climate bill,” said Climate SOS organizer Rachel Smolker, a Vermont ecologist and author. “Especially with a new administration that we want to support. But we felt we need to take a really strong position because this [bill] is so inadequate.”

The campaign is awkward for “establishment” green groups too. They’ve been preparing to battle fossil-fuel interests over the energy bill introduced in the Senate this week. Now they must figure out if and how to respond to this attack from the far left.

“It’s troubling,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director for climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. “No one believes that the clean energy bill that will come out of Congress will address the threat of global warming in a single step. But we have to start.”

“The real enemies are Big Oil and Big Coal and the right wing attack machine,” he said. “For them to mock [Gore] in the way they did shows that they don’t understand you need to attack your enemies and not your allies.”

Hansen’s involvement is especially troublesome. The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies wasn’t involved in the New York stunts, but he endorsed Climate SOS’s recent tour against a climate bill. The $2 trillion bill includes his statement that a cap-and-trade program “would be worse for the environment than doing nothing.”

The opposition by Hansen and Climate SOS is unlikely to influence Washington policymakers, in Weiss’s opinion, but it’s got the potential to make everyday Americans think the situation is hopeless.

“If they hear from such a respected scientist as James Hansen that what Congress is doing won’t matter, then why would they bother to call their senators to say ‘Act on this’?” he said.

What does that even mean?

Banner at NRDCClimate SOS activists at NRDC’s headquartersCourtesy tanukiAside from the stunts last week, other moves by the “no-compromise” camp are downright perplexing. Last week Greenwash Guerrillas launched a website in response to Cleanenergyworks.us, a three-month-old diverse coalition supporting a comprehensive energy bill. The similar-sounding Cleanenergyworks.biz was a replica of the real Clean Energy Works site, with two notable changes: The phone number and email address for spokesperson Josh Dorner had been changed. His name was left the same. The site changed to a more innocuous version over the weekend and is currently down. (Have a screen grab? Send it in and we’ll post.)

Dorner had no interest in speaking about the site that took his name. “I don’t send too much of my day worrying about a website,” he said Thursday. “There are considerably more important tasks before us to get this bill across the Senate floor.”

NRDC spokesperson Michael Oko shared Dorner’s reluctance to give attention to the stunts. “There are a lot of different groups out there,” he said in regard to the banner hung at NRDC’s office. “Everybody has the right to express themselves.”

About the replica website Oko said, “Frankly, I was a little confused about what their intention was.”

Smolker of Climate SOS said the idea was “to provide a spoof, to reveal the emptiness of the claims Clean Energy Works provides. For them, it’s green jobs and clean energy and everything’s a smiley-face, you know? Our goal is to tell people to look deeper and take the smiley faces off.”

At EDFAt Environmental Defense Fund.Courtesy tanukiShe said she contributed ideas for the mock site, but individuals from Greenwash Guerrillas, who did not want to be identified, created the idea.

The 51-year-old Smolker has seen firsthand how environmental groups can evolve, professionalize, and grow in wealth and influence. Her father was one of the founders of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), another group targeted by Climate SOS last week. EDF met in her childhood home when it was still a “ragtag group,” as Climate SOS is now, she said. (Smolker, who works for Biofuel Watch, declined to give funding information for Climate SOS but said all members were volunteers.)

“We’ve played that compromise game for a long time,” she said. “There’s too much at stake right now.”

The old saw

The compromise question—whether to sacrifice what is ecologically necessary for what seems politically possible–has been around as long as the green movement itself. The naturalist-and-mystic John Muir and the politician-and-forester Gifford Pinchot clashed over the same tensions in the early 20th century.

As for Hansen’s “worse than nothing” remark, there has been plenty written about the failings of the House climate and energy bill—it gives away too much to dirty-energy backers, it even protects coal-plant pollution from further regulation. But there is historical precedent of legislation that is deeply flawed at first evolving into something effective and durable. The original Clean Air Act did not address the acid rain crisis, an omission not corrected until 1990. The original Social Security Act did not include domestic or agricultural workers, effectively excluding many Hispanic, black, and immigrant workers, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala notes.

“If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist,” writes Begala. “Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start.”

Most progressives, including many major green groups, would gladly embrace an imperfect climate bill as a start.

“Those who see the House clean energy bill as somehow tainted by deals, and therefore want a carbon tax, have to understand that no tax proposal would ever emerge from Congress as we know it without similar or worse deals being made,” said Weiss. “Unfortunately the moral high ground of ‘we must act for our children’ is necessary but not sufficient for our political process.”

Smolker said Climate SOS would continue on a different tack, insisting on an acceptable bill from the get-go. She expected the group would pause to take stock of the bill released in the Senate this week, then regroup.

 

Here’s Cap’n Trade delivering his message to Danish climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard: