Bob Englehart in the Hartford Courant

A little tenderness
Cartoon: Bob Englehart; Hartford Courant.

I’m excited that Environmental Defense is now saying publicly, in response to criticism from Matt Stoller and me, that it “has not endorsed” the Lieberman-Warner bill and that it “will work to strengthen the bill, particularly to achieve the deeper long-term emissions reductions scientists tell us we need to avoid a climate catastrophe.”

That’s great, but I must note it’s a sentiment that was distinctly lacking from the statement ED put out in response to the bill, which mainly offered a passionate defense, or the fund-raising letter it sent out to activists (thanks Roger Smith for posting this). True, it did include one line that said, “This bill is a good start in that direction [of 80 percent emissions deductions], and we will continue to work in that direction.” But the clear implication was that they would push for those commitments through some future legislative mechanism.

In contrast, almost every other major environmental group gave the bill qualified praise, but also clearly stated that the bill should be improved to get the maximum possible greenhouse-gas reductions (I do wish Environmental Defense had acknowledged this difference a little more explicitly in its post rather than just doing selective quoting — let’s try to be fair here!). That’s the right strategy, and I’m psyched that Environmental Defense is now on board.

I don’t believe it’s right to dismiss Environmental Defense’s work, even though it continues to divide the environmental movement’s united front. ED has been helpful in getting Republican support behind taking action to solve the climate crisis and, along with the National Wildlife Federation, deserves enormous credit for convincing conservative Republican Elizabeth Dole to co-sponsor the Lieberman-Warner bill.

Dole has, in the past, opposed climate legislation. Partly because of ED and NWF’s behind the scenes work, she’s signing onto legislation that’s a giant first step towards tackling the climate crisis — and she’s likely to continue supporting it even if the bill gets stronger. Notably, ED and NWF were the two groups that excluded any suggestion that Lieberman-Warner should be improved. But that exclusion was not essential to getting Dole’s support. All ED had to do was include a paragraph acknowledging that the bill had to be improved and all would have been hunky dory and strategically savvy.

OK, hunky dory is pushing it: the rest of the environmental movement is currently furious at Environmental Defense, to the point where they almost booted ED out of environmental movement coordinating bodies. The reason: ED has continued to bad-mouth the Democratic energy bill as a distraction from climate legislation; they even issued a report headlined “New Analysis Shows Energy Bills Would Let Global Warming Emissions Rise for Decades.” Environmental Defense is right — as every other environmental group says, too — that the energy bill alone is far from sufficient to solve the climate crisis. But everyone else also recognizes that it includes vital increases in funding for clean energy and could mean the long-awaited passage of increased fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and a national requirement for increased clean energy use — things that would dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from where they’ve been. Leading with the message (not just publicly, but on Capitol Hill, too) that the energy bill won’t actually do that much to tackle the climate crisis just feeds into Republican talking points that say, “if it won’t do that much, why should we impose the extra costs on corporations included in the energy bill?” We’ve got to do both, and we’ve got a hard enough fight getting the energy bill through without having Environmental Defense criticize it.

So, ED, come home — the truth is that the obstacles to passing both positive climate crisis and energy bills are huge; the environmental movement needs your expertise, policy savvy, and connections with top Republicans and corporate leaders to overcome them, but can’t afford the division you’ve lately been sowing. We’re waiting with open arms.

Environmental Defense spokesman Tony Kreindler declined to comment on the record for this article.