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Energy / Environment

Green Groups Will Fight Smaller Battles

EDF, Sierra Club, and NRDC change tactics after midterm vote.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
November 4, 2010

Environmental groups are licking their wounds, regrouping, and planning a strategic comeback with a new message after Tuesday’s elections delivered a crushing blow to their agenda.

For the past three years, the nation’s most influential green groups – among them the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council – joined forces in an estimated $300 million campaign to push the most ambitious environmental policy ever: enacting a cap-and-trade emissions law that would fundamentally transform the nation’s energy economy.

Their effort sputtered this summer in the Senate and met its decisive end after Republicans surged into control of the House on Tuesday. Even President Obama has made clear that prospects for a comprehensive climate bill are politically frozen.


The big green groups will change from offense to defense. They'll do it with a stealth campaign that includes new messages, targets, tactics and allies, and, they hope, a lot more money.

The biggest pivot: Instead of media campaigns about saving the planet from global warming, look for public health pitches aimed at saving children from asthma, pregnant women from mercury poisoning, and small communities from the pollution of specific, local coal plants — such as thick, heavy coal ash. Watch for ads attacking Republicans who would seek to dismantle the Clean Air Act that regulates those pollutants. Even though the ads might not mention climate change, that’s what they’ll be about.  

The strategy is twofold: change the message from something broad and abstract to something concrete and tangible — and defend the newest front in the climate change battle.  In the coming Congress, lawmakers from both parties plan to mount an assault on the Environmental Protection Agency as it uses new authority under the Clean Air Act to roll out a slew of regulations on carbon emissions and other pollutants. Last year, the agency determined that greenhouse gases endanger human health, triggering a requirement that it regulate the emissions and begin crackdowns on polluters such as oil refineries, coal-fired power plants, and factories. Lawmakers want to go after the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases because they say the rules could harm the economy. Environmental groups will charge that in doing so, they would gut the 40-year-old law and its authority to protect public health.  

“We can’t rely solely on abstract concepts like cap-and-trade, and parts-per-million” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said. “Instead of talking about cap-and-trade, we’ll talk about public health. The public health aspects will wrap around a broad series of campaigns. We’ll talk about problems and solutions that are more direct and tangible.”  

Heather Taylor, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, gave a more visceral preview of the campaigns  “You can’t find a mom or dad or who has treated a child with asthma who doesn’t have strong feelings about pollution. We’re going to take that message to America. When it comes to why we need clean air and the EPA, there’s no more heartbreaking visual than a child in an emergency room having an asthma attack.” 

Industry leaders seem dubious about the campaigns and pointed out that as always, the green groups have an uphill climb.

“The biggest problem they have is a discernable majority in both houses is opposed to regulating CO2 from the EPA. They’re going to go after that hard,” said Frank Maisano, an energy lobbyist with Bracewell & Giuliani LLC.

Green groups are looking at other ways to revisit the climate campaign without going back to the cap-and-trade fight. The Sierra Club is embarking on a state-by-state campaign aimed at shutting down one-third of the nation’s coal fleet in the next five years, and replacing the generation with cleaner sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and natural gas. But instead of going after the coal industry as a whole, as a federal climate change policy would have done, the group intends to target specific coal plants, and spend on local campaigns to spread the message that the plants have a negative impact on public health. Brune told National Journal that next year's $18 million to $20 million Sierra Club campaign is the biggest in its history.  

With a focus on state and local initiatives, the green groups also hope to join forces with — and perhaps be bankrolled by — the coalition of clean technology executives who just raised nearly $30 million in a successful effort to defeat a California ballot initiative that would have gutted the state’s cap-and-trade law.    


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