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Will old-school green groups sleep through the Earth Summit?

As you may have heard, President Obama is being cagey about whether he'll attend the Earth Summit in Rio next month. You know, it's just the FUTURE OF THE PLANET that’s up for discussion. Nothing big. Maybe he’ll go. Maybe not.

As it happens, we were in the same situation 20 years ago, as the 1992 Earth Summit approached and George Bush Sr. was giving it the old, "Well, maaaaaybe ..."

Back then, a group of the major, mainstream environmental groups in the U.S. rallied for the cause. To convince Bush he should attend, they enlisted none other than Darth Vader. Well, his voice, at least -- the actor James Earl Jones. They made the spooky film clip below, replete with -- is that the Pony Express or the Horsemen of the Apocalypse? -- and then ran it in movie theaters around the country. Jones did the voiceover. Need I even tell you that Bush Sr. decided to attend?

In my research into the 2012 Earth Summit, I’ve noticed very little action from the major U.S. greens. A handful of them, including EarthJustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Nature Conservancy, and the Pew Environment Group, have been involved, along with groups focused on clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and other issues, but where’s the old guard that sponsored the Darth Vader ad two decades ago? I decided to do a little poking around.

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Don’t call me an environmentalist

I believe in climate change. I ride my bike everywhere, I work at a solar company, I buy organic and local when I can. I am young, liberal, and idealistic. But I'm not an environmentalist. And I'm not alone.

Over the past decade, the number of Americans who support the environmental movement has declined, with supporters increasingly split along partisan lines. On the other hand, most Americans strongly support developing clean energy, believe that global warming is an important issue, and regularly engage in behaviors that are good for the environment. At least that’s what we’ve told the researchers.

Gallup recently found that 83 percent of Americans want more government support for clean energy. Yale and George Mason University researchers found [PDF] that 72 percent of Americans believe that global warming should be a government priority. And another Gallup poll found that three out of four Americans regularly engage in environmentally friendly behaviors.

Apparently, many Americans are aligned with the environmental movement’s goals. We just don’t align ourselves with the movement itself.

So what’s wrong with the environmental movement? According to its more morose critics (who include a few of its former leaders), it’s dead. In my mind, it just hasn't changed to fit the times.

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Earth Summit 101: A Jedi’s primer to the meeting in Rio

Photo by Gandroid.

News flash: World leaders will gather in two short months at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the future of the planet. You may have caught the news stories last week about President Obama’s failure to RSVP. You’re forgiven if you missed them. You’re not the only one who just said, “Earth Summit, what?”

But this is for real. And there are a few things that you, good Jedi knights, ought to know about it.

1. It’s kind of a big deal.

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Clean energy: Still a wedge issue that favors Democrats

wedge heel shoesOh, wait, not this kind of wedge?

In his much remarked-upon interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said some (in my view fairly tepid and passive) things about climate change. What interested me more is the very first bit:

Let's talk about the campaign. Given all we've heard about and learned during the GOP primaries, what's your take on the state of the Republican Party, and what do you think they stand for?

First of all, I think it's important to distinguish between Republican politicians and people around the country who consider themselves Republicans. I don't think there's been a huge change in the country. ...

But what's happened, I think, in the Republican caucus in Congress, and what clearly happened with respect to Republican candidates, was a shift to an agenda that is far out of the mainstream – and, in fact, is contrary to a lot of Republican precepts. I said recently that Ronald Reagan couldn't get through a Republican primary today, and I genuinely think that's true. ... You've got a Republican Congress whose centerpiece, when it comes to economic development, is getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Doesn't all of that kind of talk and behavior during the primaries define the party and what they stand for?

I think it's fair to say that this has become the way that the Republican political class and activists define themselves.

Obama's contention is that the GOP political class and activist base have worked themselves into a blind ideological fury, but most people who identify as Republican do not share their rigidity. They are more likely to lean in the direction of Independents and moderates.

If this is true, it identifies a political vulnerability. Democrats ought to be able to exploit the differences between the masses and the ideologues, to set them at odds with one another.

I'm not sure how many genuine "wedge issues" there are, actually, but one that shows up in the polls over and over again is clean energy. As I wrote back in January, clean energy is a wedge issue that favors Democrats.

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A live chat with green-jobs guru Van Jones

Van Jones. (Photo by Zach Gross.)

Editor’s note: The chat’s now over, but you can replay it in full.

Green economy pioneer Van Jones is chatting live with David Roberts.

Jones worked as the green jobs advisor to the Obama White House in 2009. In his newest book, Rebuild the Dream, the environmental justice advocate reflects on his journey from grassroots outsider to White House insider, shares intimate details of his time in government, and provides a blueprint for reinventing the American Dream. Hint: It’s not “Drill, baby! Drill!”

Jonesin’ to chat with Van? Click here to join the conversation.

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Fossil-fuel subsidies are the real job killers

How many lobbyists does it take to defend billions in subsidies for one of the most profitable industries in the world? 786. That's the size of the army that oil and gas companies maintain in Washington to strong-arm Congress into bankrolling an industry that is cutting jobs and literally fueling the climate crisis. This army is bigger than Congress itself, which has only 535 members.

Last year, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee decided to investigate Big Oil’s jobs claims -- and it turns out the industry has gone on a firing spree in recent years. They discovered that despite generating $546 billion in profits between 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP reduced their U.S. workforce by 11,200 employees over that period. In 2010 alone, the top five oil companies slashed their global workforce by 4,400 employees -- the same year executives paid themselves nearly $220 million. But at least those working in the industry as a whole get paid high wages, right? Turns out that 40 percent of U.S oil-industry jobs consist of minimum-wage work at gas stations.

With job numbers like these, it is no wonder the fossil-fuel industry needs to spend millions ensuring they are not branded as “job killers.”

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People power: Crowdfunding fires up local solar projects

Nikki Henderson, executive director of People's Grocery, with the community solar project that is expected to save her organization more than $30,000 over the 20-year lease.

Here’s a not-terribly-novel idea: Get a bunch of people together, pool your money, and invest it in a project or a business that will make enough money to pay you back -- hopefully with interest. Banks do it, right? And it seems like a decent way to fund promising green technology like solar power.

Or you’d think so, anyway.

Banks will fund huge commercial solar projects, but when it comes to community-level solar installation, they won’t touch it, says Billy Parish, president of Solar Mosaic, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that seeds local solar projects. “When we were first getting started, we went looking for funding from banks,” he says. “Wells Fargo told us, ‘Come back to us when you have a book of $50 to $100 million worth of projects.’”

That just wasn’t gonna happen. And that’s why Solar Mosaic’s seemingly mundane business model is so interesting.

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If everyone used as much energy as Americans, we’d run out of oil in 9 years

Unlike gluttonous American industry, Europe's most profitable companies plan to make even more money by getting ahead of this whole peak oil trend, reports Der Spiegel. And it’s a damn good thing, because if everybody guzzled oil like Americans, we’d be even more screwed than we are now.

Case in point:

If every person on Earth used as much energy as the average person in the United States, today's known oil reserves would be exhausted within nine years.

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Everything that is good for the environment is a job

Van Jones. (Photo by Zach Gross.)

In his newest book, Rebuild the Dream, green economy pioneer Van Jones reflects on his journey from grassroots outsider to White House insider, shares intimate details of his time in government, and provides a blueprint for reinventing the American Dream. Along the way, he contrasts the structure and rhetoric of the 2008 Obama campaign, the Tea Party movement, and Occupy Wall Street. The following excerpt from the book focuses on a new green economy.

Many politicians want us to lower our expectations about the economy. I say it is time to raise them. We should go beyond the shriveled thinking imposed upon us by today’s mania for austerity. The time has come to propose solutions at the scale of the problems we face. We can and we must revive the economy -- in a way that respects people and the planet.

For too long, we have acted as if we had to choose between strong economic performance and strong environmental performance. We have been torn between our children’s need for a robust economy today and our grandchildren’s need for a healthy planet tomorrow. We have been trapped in the “jobs versus the environment” dilemma.

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A bright green future for Kansas City [VIDEO]

Cross-posted from Green For All.

More than 3.1 million Americans have a green job, according to a new report released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At Green For All, we’ve spoken to thousands of Americans who lost their jobs five and six years ago and have found jobs in the clean energy field, making their communities safer for their children while earning a decent paycheck. As part of our ongoing Green Jobs for America video series, we took a closer look at one of the cities where green jobs are helping improve the community.

Kansas City, like many American towns, is burdened by pollution from coal-fired power plants, unemployment, and poverty. Faced with bitterly cold winters and scorching summers, the city’s residents struggle to keep up with steep energy bills. Our new video shows how Green For All’s local partners are helping forge a path to a cleaner, more prosperous future in Kansas City -- putting people to work, cleaning up the city’s air and water, and cutting energy costs.

Read more: Green Jobs