The Environmental Movement's Winter of Discontent

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After a frustrating two years on the Hill, environmental groups are worried that the midterm elections may leave energy and global-warming policy progress out in the cold.

With Democrats losing control of the House, the chamber that had already passed a climate-change bill, and an influx of newly minted Republican members of Congress who are skeptical of warming, frustrated advocates say they expect only small advances between now and the 2012 elections, while a "cap-and-trade" law for carbon emissions is almost certainly dead in the water. "The next two years are not going to be fertile for getting major legislation enacted," says Eric Haxthausen, director of U.S. climate policy at the Nature Conservancy. "We've got to step back and look at the long run."

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The 2008 election seemed to be a turning point for environmental legislation. In addition to winning the White House, Democrats, who are more likely to back aggressive environmental regulation, retained control of both houses of Congress and captured a large majority of the House and a supermajority in the Senate. When Congress came into session, Rep. Henry Waxman of California began drafting a bill, which the House eventually passed in June 2009. But the Senate, strained to the breaking point by rancorous debates over health-care reform and financial regulation, never took up the issue, and managed to alienate Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the few Republicans willing to work on it.

The new Congress stands to be far less disposed to action. Almost all the new Republican senators have expressed skepticism about the veracity or causes of global warming; Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson said, "I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven—not by any stretch of the imagination. I think it's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity." Presumptive incoming House Speaker John Boehner strenuously opposed cap-and-trade in the House and has suggested he's skeptical of the science as well. And as The New York Times reported in October, opposition to climate-change legislation is a central tenet for many Tea Party groups. Even on the Democratic side of the aisle, things have gotten tougher. Democrats managed to win a special election in West Virginia to replace the late senator Robert Byrd, but the new senator, current Gov. Joe Manchin, has been a strong backer of coal, a major industry in his state, and even took a pot shot—literally—at the cap-and-trade bill in a television ad during the campaign. (Republicans are reportedly wooing Manchin for a party switch.)

It remains to be seen which Republican will lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals most directly with many environmental issues. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is the committee's most senior GOP member, but he is widely seen as too extreme and loose-lipped—it was Barton who famously referred to a compensation fund set up by BP for victims of the gulf oil spill as a "shakedown." He's now locked in a fierce battle to take the chair. His leading opponent, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, has been less strident in his critique of environmentalists, but his major proposal so far is not legislative but rather a promise to hold the White House accountable. Both representatives' office declined to comment for this article. Environmental advocates say they're waiting to see who will lead the committee and what agenda they lay out before defining their own strategies.

Against this challenging and uncertain background, advocates see three main paths: first, passing components of the comprehensive bill piecemeal, perhaps as part of other, unrelated bills, such as transportation appropriations; working to push issues on which there's bipartisan agreement; and largely ceding Washington for two years, focusing their efforts on state governments and grassroots campaigns that don't require congressional action. The Sierra Club, for example, is ramping up an existing program that works at the state level to close the highest-emission coal-fired power plants in the country. Executive Director Michael Brune says the campaign, which flies in the face of Congress's inaction on carbon emissions, will employ 100 full-time activists, cost some $20 million, and be the largest the 118-year-old group has ever launched. "It would be nice to capture some low-hanging fruit," Haxthausen says. Among the most promising issues are reducing foreign-oil dependence through natural-gas development, encouraging hybrid cars and renewable energy, and improving efficiency. "Even in the last few weeks, poll after poll after poll, the majority of voters support clean energy," says Heather Taylor, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund. During the 111th Congress, proponents held tightly to those areas of agreement, hoping to use them as bargaining chips for the comprehensive bill. Some activists are already concerned that President Obama has been too willing to compromise, although another school of thought within the movement argues that energy and warming issues are dire enough that it would be irresponsible to simply take them off the table until the mood in Washington is more favorable.

A fourth option is perhaps the most effective one available: executive-branch machinations. In the absence of legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency will play a key role. The congressional push in 2009 and 2010 was intended to circumvent EPA regulation, which was politically contentious. But with no legislative fix forthcoming, the agency will act. The Department of Energy could also push energy-efficiency guidelines with wide-ranging impacts.

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There's also some hope that Republicans might be willing to compromise. Haxthausen holds up the example of Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who was elected with Tea Party support but took moderate positions on issues once in the Senate, including casting a swing vote on the financial-regulatory-reform bill. "One thing that tends to happen when people get into office is they have to respond to a broader range of constituents: universities, businesses, a wide range," he says. And he says digging deeper into some candidates' platforms reveals more nuanced views than their soundbites. "The first paragraph is always, 'I am absolutely opposed to cap-and-trade.' But once you get further in, there's a diversity of opinions and willingness to work with people," Haxthausen says. Indeed, despite the intransigence of the grassroots Tea Partiers, there are signs that the conservative establishment is more willing to consider compromise. In mid-October, the influential neoconservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute released a paper by Steven F. Hayward, Mark Muro, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger that quietly called for a carbon tax—albeit one smaller than what Congress was considering—"to pay for an ambitious federal clean-energy research, development, and procurement program."

Beneath the maneuvering and anticipation is an undercurrent of soul-searching about how the clean-energy and global-warming movements ended up where they are today. This year, there's little anyone could have done, Brune says. "The foremost issue in voters' minds appears to be the economy—anytime the electorate is focused on jobs, it's hard to get them to focus on their long-term interest," he says. Taylor hopes to appeal to this uncertainty by selling green energy as a job-creation strategy. Elsewhere, Brune is encouraged by the overwhelming rejection of California's Proposition 23, which would have suspended a law mandating reduced greenhouse-gas emissions until the state's unemployment rate, currently higher than 12 percent, dipped below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. More than 60 percent of voters voted no on the measure. "There's no evidence that [voters] are not swayed," Brune says. "The evidence we see is that voters have a longstanding commitment to climate change."

Some recent polls are unconvincing, though. A March Gallup poll showed that an increasing number of Americans see fears of warming as exaggerated. The "Climategate" data-manipulation scandal, though ultimately debunked, seems to have set back the cause. And Al Gore, once the global figurehead for the global-warming movement, has been largely quiet of late, appearing in headlines most recently for his divorce and a sexual misconduct allegation of which he was later cleared after a police investigation. Through a spokeswoman, Gore declined to comment for this story. Haxthausen worries that the general awareness and understanding of the science has "walked back" recently. Perhaps there needs to be more focus on how global warming could affect typical Americans, he says. "It's become associated with polar bears and icons like that," Haxthausen says. "That's one piece, but humans are a species that's going to be affected too, and people tend to care more about people than polar bears."

Not everyone is so willing to accept the blame. With harsh words about Republican obstructionism, Taylor says the movement has been a victim of dishonest smears. "I'm more concerned about the leadership of our country," she says. "What we're believing about fossil fuels drives me over the edge. It's not just on climate change. It's a lot of issues where we're just making things up. I hope the public starts to see soundbite politics for what it is—just postcard politics. This is a time for serious politicians." If frustration were enough to force bills through, however, environmental legislation would have passed long ago.