On Thursday, some of the country’s most respected environmental groups – in the midst of their biggest political fight in two decades – sent a group of activists to Milwaukee with a message. We’re losing.
They put on what they called a “CarnivOil” – a fake carnival with a stilt-wearing barker, free “tar balls” (chocolate doughnuts), and a suit-wearing “oil executive” punching somebody dressed like a crab. It was supposed to be satire, but there was a bitter message underneath: When we fight the oil and gas industry, they win.
“We killed the clean-energy bill! There’s still no cap on oil spills!” yelled Heather Brutz, the barker, who was pretending to speak for the industry. “And now, for our graaaaaaand finale, we’re going to pass the diiiiiirty-air act!”
A year ago, these groups seemed to be at the peak of their influence, needing only the Senate’s approval for a landmark climate-change bill. But they lost that fight, done in by the sluggish economy and opposition from business and fossil-fuel interests.
Now the groups are wondering how they can keep this loss from becoming a rout as their opponents press their advantage and try to undo the Obama administration’s climate efforts. At two events last week in Wisconsin, environmental groups seemed to be trying two strategies: defiance and pleading for sympathy.
Neither one drew enough people to fill a high school gym.
“What was revealed by the last year or two was that the energy industry hasn’t even had to break a sweat yet in beating this stuff off. Our side did absolutely everything you’re supposed to do . . . but got nowhere,” said author Bill McKibben, who co-founded the climate-focused group 350.org.
Washington’s climate battle is still far from over. The Environmental Protection Agency is setting limits on some sources of greenhouse gases: first auto tailpipes, then power plants and factories next year. Now, industry groups and senators from coal-producing states are trying to prevent that.
The White House has said President Obama would veto such an effort, but that would be far easier if environmental groups could whip up public support for him.
There could also be fights over smaller pieces of environmentalists’ agenda: efforts to require more renewable-energy generation nationally and to defend state-level climate plans like one in California.
Climate bill’s outlook
Before, green groups had wanted so much more than this – they wanted a “cap and trade” bill that would set emissions limits nationwide. The House passed a bill like that, but – after industry groups said it would kill jobs and slow the economy – the Senate decided last month to not even take the issue up.
The bill’s chances, already bad, will get worse if Republicans gain seats, as is widely predicted, in the midterm elections.
“If it’s not addressed in a lame-duck session of Congress, it will have been punted to the next generation,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
Environmental groups have won some victories in recent years, opposing individual coal-fired power plants and pressuring banks to stop funding “mountaintop removal” coal mines.
But for the green movement, this year’s defeat was more than a loss; it was a reckoning, a signal that it had overestimated its influence.
Even in the hottest year on record, even with a historic oil spill polluting the Gulf of Mexico, even with a Democratic Congress and a friendly White House, it couldn’t win the fight it had picked. In fact, in the Senate it couldn’t even start it.