When writer and climate activist Bill McKibben took to the pages of The Washington Post late last month to demand that legislators and activists back the most ambitious climate-change bill in the U.S. Senate, it was more than a call to action — it was a public salvo in a contentious behind-the-scenes battle. <

While senators are shaping and debating the merits of various global-warming bills, the really impassioned wrangling over climate legislation is going on not in the halls of Congress but within the environmental community itself. McKibben (who serves on Grist’s board of directors) and activist-oriented groups like Friends of the Earth are calling for no “half-measures” or compromises, while more establishmentarian groups like Environmental Defense are embracing moderate legislation on the grounds that it might actually pass. Other green groups are staking out their ground in between, praising bipartisan progress while stressing that moderate legislation needs to be strengthened.

At the weak end of the spectrum of Senate climate bills is one offered by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It centers around a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions, but initially it would hand out about 80 percent of emissions credits to industry instead of making companies pay for them, and it includes a “safety valve” mechanism that would dump cheap credits onto the market if trading pushed the price above a preset ceiling. It has virtually no support among Democratic leaders or environmental advocates, but a number of power companies and unions back it.

The strongest bill — the one basically every enviro would choose to implement if given the keys to the American political system for one day — was introduced months ago by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, aggressive reductions on par with what the mainstream scientific community says are needed. Boxer chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over this issue.

But much of the focus right now is on the America’s Climate Security Act formally unveiled on Oct. 18 by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). It’s projected to lower emissions as much as 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and as much as 63 percent by mid-century via a cap-and-trade system, and it doesn’t include a safety valve. It calls for about 20 percent of emissions credits to be auctioned initially, with the rest allocated freely to emitters and the states at a rate that declines over time.

Playing Defense

Environmental Defense is enthusiastically praising the Lieberman-Warner legislation — but not yet formally endorsing it, as the group took pains to point out after being criticized by other activists. Said ED’s Tony Kreindler, it “looks to be a very strong bill.” Perhaps more tellingly, Kreindler said, “I think the political process is now behind Lieberman-Warner. … Boxer said she would bring it to the floor.”

He’s right. Boxer seems willing to set aside her own bill and work on moving Lieberman-Warner forward. When the legislation was introduced last week, Boxer gushed, “with the introduction of the Lieberman-Warner bill, today will be remembered as a turning point in the fight against global warming. … [I]t represents a bipartisan breakthrough on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. … [I]f enacted it would be the strongest global-warming program in the world in terms of its reach.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council considers the Sanders-Boxer bill the “gold standard,” but David Doniger, who directs policy at NRDC’s climate center, says they’ve been “engaged in discussions with the Lieberman-Warner people.” A press release from the organization, timed to coincide with the bill’s release, notes with some tepidity, “Although this bill is a strong start, NRDC supports changes that would improve the bill by ensuring that emission reductions keep pace with the science, and by reducing free allocations and directing additional resources to provide more support for critical program features, including consumer and low-income protections, safeguards for affected workers, and faster deployment of energy efficiency and renewable-energy solutions.”

Loosely translated, that means they would like to see the bill strengthened as it makes its way through the congressional process, rather than see it heaved overboard and supplanted by a more ambitious but less politically feasible piece of legislation.

The Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earthjustice, among other groups, are taking similar stances — praising Lieberman-Warner as a marker of progress, but emphasizing needed changes. Their efforts have already helped to make the bill stronger than it was in early drafts.

Keeping the Pressure On

This strategy stands in sharp contrast to that of ambitious groups like Friends of the Earth and 1Sky, a new campaign formed specifically to push for aggressive climate action. They believe that anything short of the best bill in the Senate now could spell disaster — and that it’s worth waiting to act until after George W. Bush leaves the White House if it means a more radical path forward.

Behind these differences, notes 1Sky campaign chair Betsy Taylor, are “different theories of change.” She continued, “I think groups like Environmental Defense and NRDC are conditioned by years of playing defense. But in the midst of all this, a lot’s been going on because the science has been shifting incredibly rapidly. I think it’s been difficult for the big green groups to respond in a timely way to that science. … We need action commensurate to the problem.”

McKibben believes much the same. In his op-ed, he wrote, “the legislative process is backing away from what science demands — a strong bill put forward by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders is in danger of being supplanted by half-measures proposed by Sen. Joe Lieberman.”

As McKibben told Grist, “I don’t see that as a deep conflict, really. It’s a matter of cultures. If you spend all your time in Washington, the rules of the game in Washington come to seem like the fundamental reality of the world. … There are people in D.C. who are such good dealmakers that the deal is as important to them as the climate itself.”

Let’s Make a Deal

The deal is indeed becoming the focus, according to staffers for the Committee on the Environment and Public Works, who, in the days leading up to the release of the Lieberman-Warner bill, said the priority seemed to be getting something done quickly: “Many of the [environmental] groups are enthusiastic about moving legislation now,” noted one aide. “A few groups have more questions about that.”

“Getting started is very important to the legislative process,” the aide added, “and parts of Sen. Boxer’s bill will be very important to that process.”

Boxer is particularly stressing the importance of a “look-backs” provision in any climate legislation — a sort of pre-scheduled legislative audit that gives Congress the chance to examine the impact of the bill, and, if need be, strengthen it in the future. As Boxer describes it, it’s a provision “for continuing to review the science and the results of our policies at regular intervals.”

Enviros who are pinning their hopes on Lieberman-Warner are likely to be keen on the look-backs idea. They’ll continue working with the senators to push more aggressive provisions into the bill now, but they’ll surely hope to be able to revisit the whole package down the line, should it eventually make it into law. (And that is still a long shot, as Bush continues to oppose mandatory emissions cuts.)

Hard-line climate activists like McKibben et al. don’t want to count on a look-backs strategy. They want to get the bill right the first time, arguing that the urgency of climate change demands the strongest possible response, and that once Congress makes a grand bargain on climate change, lawmakers may not get around to revisiting the issue any time soon.

Should environmentalists jump on board the increasingly popular Lieberman-Warner bandwagon, hoping that a bipartisan, consensus-based approach will lay the groundwork for a long-term fight against climate change? Or should they hold out for the toughest possible bill?

Either way it’s a gamble — and the stakes couldn’t be higher.