Responding to “Power Shift,” our special edition on local initiatives to combat global warming in the absence of federal leadership, Grist readers waxed pretty warm, themselves. Ross Gelbspan’s piece on the failure of big-name national environmental groups to take the lead on climate change drew praise from local activists — and criticism from some of the big-name groups in question. Those letters and Gelbspan’s response are below — plus thoughts on corporate climate (ir)responsibility, college activism, and the general attitude of Americans toward environmental issues.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

Ross Gelbspan is absolutely right that environmental advocates at the national, state, and local level must urgently redouble efforts to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollution before it gets too late to avert a climate catastrophe. Gelbspan is right to lament the limited progress over the past decade by the environmental movement — including Natural Resources Defense Council — in mobilizing public outrage at the irresponsible inaction of elected officials. And he is right to celebrate the emerging constellation of local activists demanding change.

But there is much more happening at the national level than Gelbspan realizes. Starting almost two years ago, for example, we at NRDC recognized that our approach to the global warming problem was not making progress fast enough to outpace the rising tide of pollution. After a top-to-bottom assessment, we reorganized our efforts into a new NRDC Climate Center, and secured new resources devoted to mobilizing public support for mandatory reductions in U.S. emissions of global warming pollution.

Since then, NRDC has launched two major campaigns targeting America’s two biggest sources of global warming pollution: power plants and vehicles. These efforts contributed substantially to enacting the new clean car law just signed by California Gov. Gray Davis (D), and continuing progress in several states and the U.S. Senate on power plant carbon emissions caps — most notably passage last month by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee of the Clean Power Act, sponsored by Sen. James Jeffords (I).

Both of these victories would have been impossible without the combined efforts of local and national environmental organizations. Success in creating the political will to regulate domestic emissions will make it possible to get the U.S. involved in a stronger international climate protection program.

While there are still miles to go, NRDC is gaining ground on the key campaigns we are pursuing in partnership with many other organizations. We are committed to enhancing these partnerships and building on recent victories to put solutions to global warming in place before it’s too late.

Daniel A. Lashof

Deputy Director

NRDC Climate Center

Washington, D.C.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

Ross Gelbspan is right on the mark. Despite the potential of the climate crisis to ruin not only human welfare but also wildlife habitats worldwide, there is no well-financed, coordinated national campaign to raise public awareness of that greatest of all environmental threats and spark the public into action.

With the job of raising public awareness left to local organizations, the small groups are pretty much reduced to preaching to the converted. They can reach a congregation here and a neighborhood group there, but mostly they hold rallies and meetings attended by those who are already concerned.

Where are the billboards? Where are the magazine ads? Where is the 800 number for newly motivated citizens to call? Where are the TV and radio commercials? Why don’t I see any ads on Internet sites warning me of the danger of greenhouse gases? They are not there, because, as Gelbspan explains, the big national groups have stopped short of real outrage in favor of reasonableness and accommodation.

There is a consistent trend among environmental groups of promoting alternative energy sources before daring to suggest the curtailment of carbon dioxide emissions. But the permafrost is not waiting for alternative energy. It is melting now. The forest-killing insects in Alaska are not waiting for alternative energy. The West Nile virus is not waiting for alternative energy. The world’s coral reefs are not waiting for alternative energy. They are dying from the heat now.

If the biggest and richest national environmental organizations would pool their resources, they could start at least a modest public outreach campaign targeted at those who do not yet believe that concerted action is needed. This could result in enough political heat on the federal government to goad it into real action.

Carter Kennedy

Portland, Ore.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

As a major conservation organization long at the forefront of efforts to persuade governments to get real about global warming, World Wildlife Fund certainly agrees with Ross Gelbspan’s criticism of the Bush administration’s “What, me worry?” attitude towards the most urgent environmental threat of our time. Like him, we also applaud the efforts of grassroots activists to get the message out.

We are greatly surprised, however, by the author’s dismissive attitude towards our own efforts to mobilize public support for carbon emissions cuts. Have we been deeply involved in what Gelbspan dismisses as the “arcane” details of the Kyoto treaty? Yes. We were at every ministerial meeting, working hard to get governments to close loopholes and commit to real CO2 reductions. But if Gelbspan had taken even a cursory look at our other climate change activities, he would have seen that WWF has been working equally hard in areas he believes the large groups have neglected.

Gelbspan appears to be unaware, for instance, of the extent to which the local campaigns he applauds have relied upon studies conducted by WWF. Produced in cooperation with local activists and experts, our Global Warming Solution reports focused on the impact of climate change in such states and areas as Florida, Texas, New England, and our national parks. Other studies we funded sought to debunk the myth that reducing carbon emissions would hurt the U.S. economy. One of them, “Clean Energy: Jobs for America’s Future,” was even jointly released with several of the labor unions Gelbspan accuses us of not cultivating.

As for direct efforts to mobilize public opinion, WWF’s Climate Voice campaign sent more than 11 million messages to heads of state in the lead-up to the Hague negotiations. And we ran very public campaigns in key states across the nation featuring a 14-foot inflatable polar bear, mass transit advertising, and press conferences with local activists.

The list goes on and on. We would have been delighted to tell Gelbspan all about it, but he never asked.

Brooks Yeager

Vice President

World Wildlife Fund, U.S.

Washington, D.C.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

Thank you so much for printing Ross Gelbspan’s article this week regarding the failure of the big environmental groups to educate the American public about global warming. He is right on! I used to work for a foundation and spent the late 1990s trying to convince the national environmental groups to refocus their efforts away from international negotiations and towards the American public. I failed.

More than ever the current political climate calls for the environmental movement to organize at the grassroots level and build a national consensus about what steps the federal government should take to address global warming. While Gelbspan and I may disagree about the emphasis of such an effort, we probably both agree that until this happens, the national environmental groups won’t be effective — no matter what they may say to the contrary.

Charly Moore

Arlington, Va.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

I wonder if auto and oil industry lobbyists share Ross Gelbspan’s opinion about national environmental groups. If the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page is any indication, the fossil fuel industry sees a national green group conspiracy behind every progressive environmental policy. Granted, the paper’s editorial board is usually misguided, but they are correct on one count: We are almost always involved when the issue is global warming.

The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that many of our nation’s environmental struggles won’t matter unless we succeed in cutting carbon dioxide emissions and slowing global warming. In addition to working in Beltway policy arenas, UCS and our environmental allies have spent almost 20 years advocating solutions to climate change with local and state stakeholders, and at international climate negotiations. For example:

  • Two years ago UCS issued a landmark report on climate change in California that moved global warming to the top of the state’s public agenda, creating momentum that led to the state’s historic new law to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes. The entire effort was built upon organizing local scientists to conduct the research and disseminate our findings to policymakers and the news media.
  • UCS has worked tirelessly with state policymakers and local groups to help 12 states pass renewable energy standards, which help reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These policies have set states on a course toward a more diverse, secure, and clean energy supply. One of these states, Texas, brought more wind power online last year than the entire country has developed in any year.
  • Last fall we worked with local scientists to release a report on the impacts of climate change in states along the Gulf of Mexico. The report received a large media response and continues to reverberate around the Gulf region, and our staff is currently working with a broad range of influential local allies from Galveston to Tampa to implement climate change solutions.
  • We are working with union leaders to make it clear that we need both economically sound strategies to reduce CO2 emissions and policies to address the worker and community impacts associated with technological change, in climate policy and more broadly.

The world is paying a steep price for the Bush administration’s irresponsibility on global warming. And while we agree with Gelbspan’s assertion that local groups will play a crucial role in moving the U.S. in the right direction on global warming, he clearly is unaware of the degree of cooperation between these groups and an active and vigilant national environmental coalition.

Howard Ris

President

Union of Concerned Scientists

Cambridge, Mass.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

While Ross Gelbspan properly praises the growing efforts of grassroots climate change activists, his broad-brush attack on “Beltway green groups” as cowardly and ineffectual may be more hyperbole than fact.

We would in particular take exception to his claim that the Pew Center on Global Climate Change “resists calls for emissions-cutting regulations, relying instead on the voluntary efforts of a few climate-conscious corporations.”

Had Gelbspan taken the time to review our material, he would have found that we argue quite forthrightly for mandatory emission reduction requirements; we critique the Bush administration’s climate policy for failing to include such requirements; the companies we work with have taken a unified position in favor of an “equitable, flexible, and binding” international climate agreement; and we consistently make the case for mandatory carbon controls in speeches and articles, including a recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Gelbspan brings much enthusiasm and insight to the fight against global climate change. However, our cause is best served if first we get the facts right.

Eileen Claussen

President

Pew Center on Global

Climate Change

Arlington, Va.

Re: The Big-Name Game

Dear Editor:

Two years ago, I met Ross Gelbspan when he spoke at a global warming conference at Eckard College in St. Petersburg, Florida. He may not remember me, but I thanked him for writing The Heat Is On. His piece in Grist is a much-needed and worthy follow-up to that book.

Florida is one of the states with the most to lose from global warming, rising sea levels, and erratic weather patterns. Nearly half of the state’s 825 miles of beaches are already severely eroded and countless miles of development along canals and lagoons just above sea level are equally vulnerable. The mayor of St. Petersburg remarked at the Eckard conference that his city had 120 miles of low-elevation waterfront development. A two-to three-foot rise in sea levels would likely bankrupt most coastal Florida cities. Yet President Bush (R) and Gov. Jeb Bush (R) seem willing to let Florida’s beach-related tourism industry wash away while coastal property suffers catastrophic damage — as long as it doesn’t happen on their watches.

What do we need? In following the global warming issue for the last 18 years, I have compiled a list of heroes who have made enormous contributions to understanding climate change and what we should do about it. My short list includes Charles Fourier, John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Roger Revelle, Charles David Keeling, Hans Oeschger, Jeremy Leggett, Ross Gelbspan, and Thomas R. Casten, another speaker at the conference.

I think we need women activists who would bring to the global warming issue the passion, dedication, and tenacity of an Alice Stewart, Rachel Carson, Helen Caldicott, Sandra Steingraber, Lois Gibbs, or Julia “Butterfly” Hill — to name a few. Perhaps they are out there even now, but haven’t yet begun to impress Congress and make headlines on this issue.

Although you could add my hometown to your list of communities doing something to retard global warming (by installing photovoltaic systems), I agree that we need much more than good small projects here and there. We must demand, demonstrate in huge numbers, and raise hell — politely, of course. Where are the leaders who can motivate people?

Lee Bidgood, Jr.

New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Ross Gelbspan responds:

My purpose in writing this very difficult article was not to be divisive. (The words “cowardly” and “ineffectual” do not appear in the piece.) To the contrary, my purpose was to prod activists at the national level to revisit their strategies and intensify their efforts in order to mount a unified and effective response to climate change. I stand by my belief that these groups, whatever else their merits, need to work harder to accomplish this urgent goal.

And it is urgent. Carbon levels in the atmosphere have risen from their pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to 370 ppm today. That change has led to a 1-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase over the last century — and that, in turn, has caused glaciers to melt, sea levels to rise, violent weather to increase, and the timing of the seasons to change. Yet many national environmental groups have accepted as a politically realistic goal the stabilization of atmospheric carbon levels at 450 parts per million. Carbon levels that high would mean a several-degree temperature increase, which could spell climatic chaos. In other words, what is politically realistic might not be environmentally realistic. Carbon concentrations of 450 ppm would likely yield a very distorted, possibly unrecognizable world.

I am well aware of much of the recent work of the World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (and I apologize if I misrepresented the Pew Center’s advocacy of government regulation of corporations). Yet if the volume of phone calls and emails I received in support of this article are any indicator, a significant gap exists between the way the national groups see themselves and the way many other environmentalists see them. Outside the Beltway, many activists are haunted by the slow pace of progress compared to the accelerating speed of climate change.

The painstaking accomplishments of NRDC, UCS, and WWF with respect to the Kyoto Protocol have been, as Brooks Yaeger notes, important, whatever the limitations of the treaty itself. And certainly, several national groups played an important crunch-time role in the victory in California, where Gov. Gray Davis (D) signed a law last month to force automakers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles. But it was the smaller groups in the state that possessed the vision to draft the legislation and spearheaded the campaign to pass it.

I well understand that the national groups are burdened by the inertia and resistance of the political environment in which they operate. The resulting situation is brutally frustrating for everyone involved, and leaves little to celebrate at either the local or national level. But nature has no patience for the political process, and as the pace of climate change accelerates, compromise ceases to be a viable strategy.

It is very encouraging that NRDC has begun to shift its priorities, as noted by Daniel Lashof. I am also heartened by the pledge of other national groups to continue to step up their climate campaigns and extend them into the field. I hope that these changes represent the beginning of a powerful, unified, climate campaign that yokes together all the energy and courage of the grassroots with the extraordinary talents and resources of the national groups. It is time for bold and coordinated responses at all levels.

Ross Gelbspan

www.heatisonline.org

Re: In Good Company

Dear Editor:

In your special edition on climate change, the article “In Good Company” claimed that the giant oil companies BP and Royal Dutch/Shell have been aggressively cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.

But this is simply propaganda. BP may have improved the efficiency of burning oil in its own drilling and refining operations, but what about the burning of its product — oil? I’m sure the calculations done by these companies do not include carbon dioxide emissions by the end-users of their products, in motor vehicles and electric generating plants — which are far greater than those from drilling and refining.

Oil companies can only really help prevent climate change by switching from drilling for oil to developing renewable, non-polluting energy sources. And despite claims they may make to that effect, every company continues to search for and drill for more oil.

We cannot expect pro-centered corporations to voluntarily protect the environment. Serious government regulation is needed.

Marc Breslow

Co-Chair

Massachusetts Climate Action Network

Arlington, Mass.

Re: Big Plan on Campus

Dear Editor:

I was pleased to read about the climate movement at colleges across the country, and glad that other people are learning about these campaigns. In the spring of 2001, after a yearlong campaign waged by students with the support of senior administrators and trustees, Connecticut College agreed to purchase 17.5 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. The college is the first in the nation to purchase such a large amount of renewable energy.

As a rising senior at Connecticut College and founder and co-chair of the Renewable Energy Campaign, I can attest that the campaign was run completely by students, from its conception to circulating the petition asking students to pay a fee increase in order to cover the cost differential of the renewable electricity. Because students spearheaded the movement, and are even paying for the electricity, what we hoped for has come true: Students at other schools across the country have heard about our success and are saying to themselves, “Hey, if they can do it, so can we!” Students at Connecticut College set a precedent and provided the blueprint for one way to run a campaign.

Conn College kids worked hard, the administrators took notice of our persistence, devotion, and conviction, and together we accomplished something I am very proud of.

I hope Connecticut College and other schools keep moving toward positive goals.

Sarah Zisa

New London, Conn.

Re: Power Shift

Dear Editor:

Your idea that Americans care about the environment was at least good for a laugh.

Americans care about motor vehicles that are large, powerful, and preferably noisy, no matter what they do to the environment. More and more Americans are buying grossly over-sized, hugely polluting sports utility vehicles. Sales of all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, and jet skis are soaring. Stock-car racing has become the most popular spectator sport in the country. Bush can “get away with” (as you put it) his position on the environment because it is the position of most Americans. Americans are so infantile and selfish about their motorized pleasures that they don’t even care that they are dooming their children to live in a despoiled, unhealthy climate.

W. Dana Holman

New York, N.Y.

Re: Power Shift

Dear Editor:

Thank you so much for today’s articles on climate change. By putting all this information in one place, you have made things easier for all of us who care. Now if only Bush and his cohorts would read and believe.

Saran Kirschbaum

Los Angeles, Calif.

Re: Power Shift

Dear Editor:

I can’t say how pleased I am to see this issue finally getting the attention it deserves. It now needs to capture the attention of the national media.

John Porter

Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Re: Power Shift

Dear Editor:

Bravo on an excellent ad in the Times. The Bush administration’s shameful inaction on global warming and other environmental matters is scandalous. We need to have ads like yours to embarrass conservatives who remain blind and dumb to these serious matters.

Murton Edelstein

New York, N.Y.