As Democrats in D.C. and their allies struggle to cobble together a meaningful climate bill, many are lining up to bash green groups. Some recent pieces have been excellent: Johann Hari’s ‘The Wrong Kind of Green‘ in The Nation. Others have been predictable: the folks at the Breakthrough Institute have stayed on message. 

Now here comes good old Walter Russel Mead with a doozie in “The Big Green Lie Exposed” in The American Interest Online. I’m no huge fan of the USCAP/Green Group approach — I’ve weighed in more than once in endorsing the CLEAR act — but I’d say Walter’s a bit over the top on this one. Exhibit A:

Not since the incident at Chappaquiddick derailed the Ted Kennedy for President boomlet of 1969 has a political movement imploded so fast and so messily as the green crusade to stop global warming.

Leave you speechless?! Check out the rest of his remarkable piece.

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What’s wrong with all this green-group bashing? Well first, if you study Mead’s piece, you’ll see that he actually doesn’t detail which ‘greens’ he is actually talking about! Yes, he mentions Gore and Kerry in passing — snooze — but he gives not one example to back up his generalizations (not to mention to illustrate why Fred Krupp resembles Ted Kennedy, circa 1970).

While Mead knocks down strawmen with a facile message that may appeal to some, those fighting global warming are, in the main, a sophisticated, savvy, analytical lot. Indeed, if he had bothered to study the rich array of current climate leaders, he’d have run into Mindy Lubber and CERES; Alex Steffen; Paul Hawken. These are hardly folks in retreat.

So if Mead had written this screed for one of my classes, I’d have told him to cool down, discover what it means to be empirical, and start listening.

There’s an even deeper problem with many of these ‘beat up the green groups’ pieces. They fail to acknowledge that making progress on climate policy is hard because it’s an insanely unprecedented challenge. As The Economist noted last December, it’s the mother of all public goods problems. And as Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom teaches us, even the simplest of public goods problems can’t be solved with a single ‘solution’ — they get better if we can build institutions that are founded on and sensitive to the contingencies of the particular time and place in which they arose.

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To illustrate the limitations of Mead’s approach, take the good news posted over the weekend by Nick Englefried at Watthead: Oregon has the potential to be coal-free. What does that fact tell us about the effectiveness of green groups? Are they good (they’d like to think so) or bad (beyond incompetence, according to Mead)? 

Well let’s see. Is Oregon in this position because of the hard work by Bruce Nilles‘ shop at the Sierra Club and their state allies? Or is it because investors have a sense that directly — or indirectly (see my earlier reference to CERES) — carbon will soon have a higher price tag? Or is it because the electorate in that state is sympathetic to the core message of green groups? It’s hard to know.

The point is that the growing fight against coal in the U.S. will make progress as context-specific institutions evolve to diminish the negative effects of this public goods problem. What green inside-the-beltway groups advocate over a few years will have some effect on the future of coal in the Northwest, but not in the kind of deterministic sense too often implied by policy Johnny-one-notes.

In the end, Mead and other green bashers spend too much time using the same flashlight to look at the same problem. Of course USCAP has made mistakes; but — ahem — they’re facing the most sophisticated, most well-healed set of opponents that we have seen in the political realm in our lifetimes. And yes, they long ago should have embraced the pro-R&D message of the Breakthrough Institute (see my forthcoming piece with Rebecca Henderson on this in the ‘Getting to 350’ edition of Solutions.) The social psychology of the Breakthrough-Big Green fisticuffs will have to be analyzed by those more trained than me; I do know it’s been a terrible opportunity lost.

But none of these and other truths about weaknesses of ‘greens’ take away the fact that Mead’s essay is notable for its obviousness and its lack of depth.