Over at OpenLeft.com, the always devastating Matt Stoller writes that “the green civil wars need to begin.” He’s urging other environmental groups to go after Environmental Defense for offering a ringing endorsement of the latest Warner-Lieberman climate bill.

Environmental Defense is justifying a large corporate giveaway under the rubric of environmentalism, and the rest of the green community is letting ED get away with it.

In terms of the policy, Environmental Defense is alone here. The green groups are remarkably polite to each other, as most of them started in the 1970s convinced that protecting the environment was a value system. At the time, it might have been. Today, the question is how to manage a commons, and these groups just don’t agree with each other. There is no movement around the environment anymore, there are progressives, corporatists, and deniers, all fighting over a large multi-trillion dollar rapidly shrinking commons. The lack of robust internal debate among green groups means that ED’s Fred Krupp can nonetheless speak for “the environmental movement,” scoop up his corporate money, and throw everyone else to the curb.

Having worked in the environmental movement, I’ve got to say that there is loads of “robust internal debate” and I know from my environmental friends that there has been very spirited debate on this exact issue within the green groups. But on the larger point, Matt is spot-on. Environmental Defense is once again destroying the unity of the environmental movement by endorsing this bill now despite some major weaknesses. In contrast, other environmental groups like Sierra Club are working hard to improve the bill — and are reserving judgment until the final details are hammered out.

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Here’s what the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope had to say:

The bill is a significant political step forward for the U.S. Congress, but unfortunately the legislation as introduced still falls short what is demanded by the science and the public to meet the challenge of global warming. This comes even as U.S. states, cities, and counties move forward with ambitious, science-based proposals to tackle the issue. We look forward to working with Senators to seek the additional improvements necessary for the bill to sufficiently address the challenge before us.

Sierra Club and its allies are making the right call. It’s way too early to either endorse or condemn a bill that includes some good elements and some elements where it must get better. And it’s really not right for Environmental Defense to try and suck up all the media attention and senatorial love by breaking the environmental movement’s united front and undermining efforts to significantly improve the bill. What incentive will senators have to do that when they can point to Environmental Defense’s press release saying that their bill makes “great strides toward climate security and economic growth?”

What’s more, we’re still far from the endgame, and thus far Sierra Club, U.S. PIRG, NRDC, Greenpeace, and their green allies have made huge strides: the Lieberman-Warner bill now is significantly better than it was in August, largely in response to their pressure. Overall, the debate is in the right place: two years ago, a simple, short-term cap-and-trade that gave emissions allowances to polluters would have made environmentalists happy. Now we’re debating how quickly a centrist “consensus” bill should move toward 100% auctions — auctions that will provide billions in funding for energy conservation, efficiency, and technology as well as vital forest conservation.

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As more Washington elites continue to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis, it’s likely that this “consensus” bill will continue to improve — if only Environmental Defense will give it a chance by not removing the pressure on senators. If a relatively good bill somehow passes Congress and gets signed by Bush, it’s crucial that enviros praise it, but not in a way that removes the political momentum for future action. Just because Congress passes a good climate bill in 2007, 2008, or 2009 doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t pass a better one in 2010, 2011, or 2012.

Hopefully, we only need a bit of skirmishing to get Environmental Defense back in line and not a full civil war. After all, despite doing things like heaping praise on former Bush EPA administrator Mike Leavitt when the rest of the movement was noting how he’d let polluters loose on Utah’s public lands as governor, ED does some excellent scientific and policy work that has made a significant contribution to the fight to save the climate and protect our oceans, forests, rivers, and wildlife. Sometimes, they even help the rest of the environmental movement win. But on this most important of issues, a little scrapping among friends is exactly what’s needed.

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