Has EDF spun out of environmentalism?
Tony Kreindler reiterates EDF’s position that the short-term targets in Lieberman/Warner are strong, that its essential framework is sound, and that we have 40 years to strengthen its weak areas … but don’t expect to do so anytime soon. In his recent Grist series, Kreindler wrote, "the political landscape in 2009 will be much like today’s as far as climate change legislation goes."
This is an astonishing admission about the state of U.S. environmentalism. The hard work of decades, over a billion in assets dedicated to climate action, the certain election of a pro-cap-and-trade policy president, a Northwest Passage ice free for the first time in human history, and methane bubbling so furiously in Siberian bogs that melt water does not freeze … will have no significant impact on political conditions, in EDF’s view.
It’s much worse than that, of course. Kreindler’s appraisal was made months before gasoline broke $4.00 a gallon and our supposed majority support vanished as quickly as spilled gasoline hitting hot pavement.
Instead of capitalizing on our momentum, pressing candidates to take even stronger climate positions and laying the groundwork for action by the next President and Congress, we are fending off a drive to lift the off-shore oil drilling ban and losing no-brainers like extending tax breaks for renewables.1
Although we have clear, graphic evidence that something has been miscalculated in our work to date, our reflexive response is to gear up for more of the same. Like generals in WWI, we think we can gain the enemy trenches if we pour on more cannon fire and mass extra troops in the next assault.
But it won’t work. We can’t win by attrition, our supposed friends are not, and we will have no chance if we continue to operate as organizations, funders, and individuals, ignoring ideology, institution, and ideals.
| Change in EDF Climate Policy
1996 — 2008
|<1990 U.S. emissions||<2000 U.S. emissions|
|* Clinton administration Climate Program, 1997
** Climate Stewardship Act of 2003,
*** Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act of 2007
Source: EDF press releases and white paper (reference texts below)
Adjusting as the goal posts move.
The evidence that the incrementalist strategy co-authored by EDF has failed is overwhelming, and EDF’s own experience proves the point. A decade ago, EDF lead the way in focusing attention on climate.2 Since then, the organization has trimmed its policy to fit within accepted political bounds, as the changing targets in the above chart demonstrate. 3
The most graphic illustration of EDF’s swift adjustment to political realities is the change in policy between October 10 and 22, 1997. In an EDF press release on the 10th, Fred Krupp sternly lectured the Clinton administration:
A treaty that only freezes greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2010 or later, or that includes a cap-busting escape clause would be opposed by EDF. 4
Twelve days later, EDF enthused:
"The President’s plan declares ‘open season’ on greenhouse gases and puts America’s business creativity to work for the environment …" said EDF executive director Fred Krupp … "The administrations plan calls for emissions of greenhouse gases by industrial countries to return to a cap matching 1990 levels during the period 2008-2012."5
Implementation defined in spans, as we know from expansive and bitter experience, always comes to mean the last specified date, at best, and cannot be read as an average. 2008-2012 is not the same as 2010, yet with Clinton’s decision final, EDF balked at walking away from the table as they had promised.
By such small steps EDF’s climate agenda, in its broad strokes, is now indistinguishable from major fossil fuel corporations.6
Who speaks for environmentalism?
Hansen, the U.S. government scientist, presents the environmentalist perspective on climate, applying the precautionary principle to determine what is necessary to avert catastrophic climate change (swift return below 350 ppm or lower), proposes a means of accomplishing this (end coal emissions by 2030 replaced by renewables, adopt innovative forestry and agricultural approaches), and calls for politics to be adapted to fit that reality.
EDF advocates politics-as-usual, calculating the best outcome achievable by pressing the envelope. No measure produced by such calculus can address the true scale of the problem, because content must be negotiated with elements of the opposition. EDF ignores this unfortunate reality, skipping nimbly from a broad discussion of global risk to dealing directly with U.S. emissions, never able to articulate a clear line of reasoning to link problem, solution, goals, and strategy.
Hansen and environmentalists know what has to be done in order to save the world, and Al Gore now joins the group. EDF focuses only on what might pass in Congress.
If there is even a prospect that the window for humanity to take significant climate action has closed to one year, as Hansen now cautions, then the decisions we make this fall looking toward the next administration and Congress are final.
When EDF maintains that we still have 40 years to fix a bad domestic bill, when EDF President Fred Krupp endorses expanded oil drilling,7 when EDF and every other major organization sidestep a position on 350 ppm, these are, quite literally, earth-shatteringly bad decisions.
Reason vs. hope.
Climate change reality puts to us a tough choice between acting on reason — in the form of the precautionary principle — and hoping for reasonable action, which is the belief that humankind will, in the end, act in our collective best interest — the basis of incremental policy. It is not possible to straddle the fence on this, the approaches are fundamentally irreconcilable.
If we act on reason, then we accept reality, endorse a 350 ppm or lower precautionary bright line8 and demand political action to achieve the mammoth reductions necessary.9 Such a course of action cannot be pursued within politics as usual, neither in the U.S. nor internationally. To have any chance, we must aim for abrupt, non-linear change of the sort Gus Speth, borrowing neo-Darwinian language, terms "punctuated equilibrium."
If we hope for reasonable action, as EDF does, then we engage with powers that could change the course of events by unilateral action and political muscle. The approach values access over content, accepting inadequate short-term outcomes as a necessary evil in order to keep a seat at the table.
Environmental principle dictates that ecological reality is not merely accepted; it is the foundation on which our system of values is built and the justification for all our actions, and environmental ideals were never conceived as a palliative to smooth off the rough edges of consumer culture-capitalism, but as a complete alternative to all economic growth-predicated ideology and culture.
EDF’s climate platform ignores the precautionary principle and advances a pro-growth, pro-oil, pro-coal, and pro-nuclear future, with a veneer of renewables and energy efficiency. What are we offered in return? Three things:
- corporate support;
- power to negotiate; and,
- freedom from anxiety and fear.
So, how’s that working?
There is no room here to explore the psycho-cultural dimensions of accommodation (a topic to return to), but we have more than a decade of experience with private sector engagement and climate negotiations to consider.
Cap-and-trade, EDF’s, raison d’être, is proof enough that our seat at the table gains us little and that corporate support is a mirage.
The whole point of cap-and-trade is not the for-public-consumption pitch we have become accustomed to hearing (and presenting) — that is, by marshaling market forces we can solve a problem which is beyond the scope of inefficient governmental regulation.
Cap & trade was a deal by which certain corporations — primarily Enron — could gain an enormous new profit center, while others were provided political cover to support climate action under the guise of a "free market" solution. By splitting the monolithic bloc of private sector opposition, EDF and others hoped to cobble together a power base strong enough to overcome the oil/auto axis.
When the Bush administration reversed on its campaign pledge to support Kyoto in 2001, EDF lost the bet. In the small world of Texas politics, Exxon-Mobil trumped Enron.
Since then, EDF and others have continued to pursue the corporate strategy, but have been unable to turn up any partners willing to exert real political muscle. All the companies showcased in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership are just that — for show.
Does anyone seriously believe that Lieberman/Warner would not pass the U.S. Senate if Alcoa, BP, Caterpillar, Dow, DuPont, Ford, GE, GM, J&J, Pepsi, PG&E and Xerox — the largest of EDF and NRDC’s "climate action" partners — really weighed in?
Collapse of the environmentalist commons.
In every attempt at hands-across-the-corporate divide — from cap-and-trade, to deregulation of state utilities (another Enron debacle, this one chalked up to NRDC), to the auctioning off of Earth Day — environmentalists have come up with the short end of the stick. Our record since the heyday of the early 80’s, as accommodation came to be seen as an alternative to rather than co-pathway with visionary opposition and politically effective protest, has been a tale of dwindling power and political failure.
But the worst injury, by far, has been the collapse of the U.S. environmentalist commons.
EDF and other organizations that have dallied too long in the boardrooms and corridors of power, are now bound more tightly to corporate and governmental decision-makers than to U.S. environmentalism, so that when strategy fails, they are unable to look to friends, and march in ever closer lockstep with our opponents and enemies.
Other centripetal forces have tugged at our institution, to be sure. The concerted drive by the left to reduce environmentalism, as Lowell Nelson nicely puts it, from "a post-industrial counterculture that wants to get out of the modern world through the back door and get on with the next human project," to one more item on the complaint list of the permanently disenfranchised — a project which has reached a new height with the selection of Cynthia McKinney as the Green Party candidate for President — has been equally destructive.
How should we face the end of the world?
We are a community of activists, organizers, campaigners, and advocates with the tools, experience, resources and values necessary to mount the only sort of effort that might, at this late date, transform the course of the nation, and through America the world. Yet we do not seem willing to face the very reality we have long warned was imminent, nor capable of taking the most elementary and obvious steps most any group with common ideals would long ago have taken.
Hansen, Gore, and others have defined the timeline and appropriate scale solutions, but must turn vague when it comes to specifics of political strategy. This is understandable because the balkanization of U.S. environmentalists eliminates the sole institutional power base on which a coherent strategy can be premised.
Why do we not pull together, rethink what must be done in light of the latest climate science timeline, concentrate our resources, and launch a last, coherent, coordinated drive? Because the things that divide us are more important than the values and ideals we believe are held in common.
I’m not sure exactly when EDF crossed over — probably with its dalliance with nuclear power, certainly with its endorsement of carbon sequestration, and beyond any shadow of doubt when it came down in favor of more oil drilling — but there seems little disputing that the organization is morphing from a flagship environmental advocacy group into some other entity.
EDF may no longer be an environmental organization, but there is no doubt that most of its members, supporters and staff remain environmentalists. This is a most perplexing paradox, and an unsustainable state of affairs. EDF must either reassert its foundational environmentalism or complete its transition, shedding staff and supporters who will not or cannot let go of their environmental values.
This organizational challenge is a microcosm of the larger tension within climate strategy. Everything that is immediate, tactical, fundable, pragmatic, familiar, and easy nudges EDF to move in its present direction. To do otherwise is troublesome, risky, and painful.
If EDF does not alter its trajectory, however, I think we are likely to fail. The narrative challenge is already so great that it will be extraordinarily difficult to shoulder the additional burden of challenging a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing mainstream environmental organization. Even so, a brisk public split would be far better than continuing as we are, politely complying with unspoken rules of goody good-sportsmanship, and like divorced parents never arguing before the kids (or in public).
The fate of U.S. environmentalism — and with it, the fate of the world — hangs on whether we are able to shatter the bounds of convention, organizational routine, professional position, and institutional inertia that have so far prevented us from even recognizing that EDF is spinning out of orbit.
|As the Goal Posts Move …
Shifts in Environmental Defense Fund Climate Policy, 1996-2008
|EDF Offers Cautious Praise for U.S. Climate Change Plan
July 17, 1996, Press release
|"… stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at the equivalent of 450 parts per million or less of CO2 would guard against disruptive climate change…" according to Dr. Oppenheimer… But EDF cautioned that the U.S. was failing to meet its earlier obligation to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000, made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.|
|Environmental Groups Call on President to Keep His Climate Promise: Administration May Break Its Pledge to Cap Dangerous Greenhouse Gases at Safe Levels
October 10, 1997, Press release
|"The U.S. must support a treaty that ensures substantial industrialized country emissions reductions below 1990 levels starting no later than the year 2005, in order to make meaningful progress towards addressing the global warming problem…" said Krupp. "A treaty that only freezes greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2010 or later, or that includes a cap-busting escape clause would be opposed by EDF."|
|Environmental Defense Fund Encouraged By Clinton Climate Plan:
Additional Proposals Still Needed to Slow U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases
October 22, 1997, Press Release
|"The President’s plan declares ‘open season’ on greenhouse gases and puts America’s business creativity to work for the environment…" said EDF executive director Fred Krupp… The administrations plan calls for emissions of greenhouse gases by industrial countries to return to a cap matching 1990 levels during the period 2008-2012, with further cuts below the capped level in the succeeding five years.|
|Adequacy of Commitments — Avoiding "Dangerous" Climate Change: A Narrow Time Window For Reductions, And A Steep Price For Delay
|"It is possible to stabilize concentrations at 450 ppm if industrialized nations meet the Kyoto targets, global absolute emissions peak between 2010 and 2020, and global absolute emissions decline 1-3% each year from 2020 to 2040… But if industrialized nations’ absolute emissions reductions are delayed until 2020, global absolute emissions would need to decline 2-8% yearly to stabilize concentrations at 450 ppm … [and] would likely be prohibitively expensive. "|
|Environmental Defense Praises New McCain-Lieberman Climate Bill:
Serious Bi-Partisan Climate Legislation Marks an End to Stalling & the Start of the Search For Serious Solutions
January 8, 2003, Press release
|"’This bill creates a long overdue comprehensive, national policy for cutting the U.S. greenhouse gas pollution that threatens to dangerously disrupt the Earth’s climate,’ said Environmental Defense senior attorney Joe Goffman. ‘In bringing greenhouse gas pollution below current levels by the middle of the next decade, the bill will protect American citizens and the Earth’s environment from the impacts of climate change’."|
|The Heat Is On
2004, white paper
|"The Climate Stewardship Act [McCain/Lieberman, 2003] would harness American ingenuity to create a nationwide market for the cheapest and most innovative ways slow
global warming. By promoting energy efficiency, it also would help reduce
U.S. dependence on oil. Under this bipartisan legislation, energy producers and industrial sources would need to limit their emissions to year 2000 levels by 2010.""…postponing action has already cost us precious time; further delay will only make the problem worse and the solution more costly. Experts say we have a 5- to 10-year window during which we can act before we reach a dangerous tipping point."
|Environmental Defense Welcomes Strengthened Lieberman-McCain
Global Warming Bill:
Emissions to be Cut 60% Below 1990 Levels by 2050
January 11, 2007, Press release
|"Krupp… called on Congress to act quickly on climate change. ‘The science of climate change says we can’t afford to wait — this Congress should pass meaningful legislation to cap carbon pollution’."|
|Majority of Senate Voices Support for Progress on Comprehensive Climate Change Bill
June 6, 2008, press release
|"A majority of the U.S. Senate today voiced support for moving forward with the Climate Security Act, marking an historic turning point in the debate over national climate policy…"The din of Washington politics can’t drown out the drumbeat of progress," said Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund."|
1 It is a mistake not to raise renewal of tax breaks for renewables to the level of major campaign. Though the tax breaks in questions are of little direct consequence, there is high political cost in losing ground and we forgo an opportunity to forge stronger ties with the renewable sector. Perhaps most importantly, we forgo a powerful narrative opportunity; people get the idiocy of continuing huge tax breaks for oil companies flush with cash while sticking it to the renewables little guys.
2 EDF’s Michael Oppenheimer was among the first climate scientists to question UN IPCC targets and make the case for a 450 ppm bright line, and EDF was the first major U.S. environmental organization to elevate climate risk above other issues and reallocate resources accordingly.
3 Data drawn from EDF press releases and white paper, relevant quotes appended in attached chart.
4 Environmental Groups Call on President to Keep His Climate Promise: Administration May Break Its Pledge to Cap Dangerous Greenhouse Gases at Safe Levels, EDF press release, October 10, 1997
5 Environmental Defense Fund Encouraged By Clinton Climate Plan: Additional Proposals Still Needed to Slow U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases, October 22, 1997, Press Release
6 With Fred Krupp’s endorsement of expanded oil drilling, EDF’s climate agenda is indistinguishable from BP, or even Exxon-Mobil. Both EDF and the majors assume four or more decades for a transition to a post-carbon energy supply, with a target at or new current concentrations of atmospheric carbon. Both look to carbon sequestration and nuclear power to bridge the gap and both assume implementation of carbon markets by a limited number of national governments will guarantee emissions reductions on the scale and timeline necessary to avert cataclysm.
7 Dig it Krupp: On Charlie Rose, EDF leader Fred Krupp endorses domestic drilling for new oil, Grist.org, June 20, 2008, "After quite a bit of dodging and weaving, Krupp, rather startlingly, said we should assess domestic drilling on a case-by-case basis. Rose kept pushing, saying, "Do we need to be drilling for new oil in the short term?" Says Krupp: "yes, absolutely."
8 The global bright line standard should be set "at least at today’s level or lower," according to EDF President Fred Krupp, in a Gristmill interview, a far cry from an appropriate, environmentalist precautionary position (which probably ought to be set at 275 – 300 ppm), but it is the first statement by a major U.S. environmental organization that 450 ppm, first proposed by EDF’s Michael Oppenheimer in 2002, must be abandoned.
9 i.e. phase out of coal burning globally by 2030 replaced by renewables, and adopt new forestry and agriculture practices, as Hansen proposes, and end coal burning in the U.S. within 10 years, as Al Gore recently called for.
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