Not for forty years has there been such a stretch of bad news for environmentalists in Washington.
Last month in the House, the newly empowered GOP majority voted down a resolution stating simply that global warming was real: they've apparently decided to go with their own versions of physics and chemistry.
This week in the Senate, the biggest environmental groups were reduced to a noble, bare-knuckles fight merely to keep the body from gutting the Clean Air Act, the proudest achievement of the green movement. The outcome is still unclear; even several prominent Democrats are trying to keep the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.
And at the White House? The president who boasted that his election marked the moment when "the oceans begin to recede" instead introduced an energy plan heavy on precisely the carbon fuels driving global warming. He focused on "energy independence," a theme underscored by his decision to open 750-million tons of Wyoming coal to new mining leases. That's the equivalent of running 3,000 new power plants for a year.
Here's what we think is going on, in the broadest terms.
The modern environmental movement was born on Earth Day 1970, in an unprecedented burst of mass organizing -- by some estimates 20-million Americans, a tenth of the population, took to the streets. It was a young movement, at a time when large numbers of people were serious about not just cleaning the air but stopping wars and ending official discrimination. That popular base inspired -- or, more likely, cowed -- Washington: the next four years saw the passage of virtually all the environmental legislation that still forms the core of green law.
It also saw the birth, or rebirth, of many of the organizations we think of when we think of environmentalism. Powered by that initial burst of mass support, they were able to make real headway in DC, and so they concentrated on important and professional tasks: patient lobbying of subcommittees, careful report-writing. And they kept making substantial gains: Superfund toxic cleanups, acid-rain control.
But in recent years two things have happened. One, that battery wound up on the first Earth Day has finally wound down: congressmen, it turns out, can tell the difference between an aging membership list and a vibrant political movement. As the DC political bible Politico put it last month: "green groups are being forced to play defense in a world where D.C. pols aren't scared of them."
Second, the key issue has changed. Forget acid rain and Superfund; these were important but relatively easy fights that didn't directly confront anyone's business model. You could clean up acid rain by putting a filter on your power plant. But global warming is different -- you'd have to shut down that power plant, and replace it with a windmill or a solar panel.
And so the full power of the fossil fuel industry -- the most
profitable business in the planet's history -- has been brought to bear on
the fight, and they play hard and dirty. The Koch Brothers spend huge
sums to underwrite the network of global warming skeptics; the US
Chamber of Commerce emerged as the biggest campaign funder of them all,
shuttling 94% of its donations to climate deniers.
This kind of clout carried the day: the biggest dream of DC Washington groups was the so-called "cap-and-trade" bill, behind which they mustered every insider technique they'd spent the last four decades perfecting. But in the end they didn't come close: Harry Reid refused to even schedule a floor vote, knowing that he was far short of the votes needed to pass the bill. The White House stayed on the sidelines.
To us, the lesson is pretty clear. Since we're never going to have as much money as the fossil fuel industry, we need to rebuild the kind of mass movement that marked 1970: bodies, passion, and creativity are the currencies we can compete in. It's not impossible. Working with next to no money, the fledgling campaign at 350.org managed over the last three years to coordinate 15,000 rallies in 189 countries -- every nation on earth save North Korea. It's been active in every US state and Congressional district. And this week, it combined forces with another important American grass roots climate campaign, 1Sky, for extra reach.
1Sky was founded in the same spirit, and at the same time, as 350.org, and has worked to develop leaders around the country and help build a base of hundreds of allies. Together, we'll be smarter, bolder, faster, and more creative than we were before.
This new and expanded 350.org will mobilize on a large scale -- circle Sept. 24 on your calendar for a worldwide day of bike-based action. But it's also going aggressively after the backroom money, with a far-reaching new campaign that tackles the US Chamber of Commerce for its climate stance.
This youth-based campaign is linking up with labor, with faith communities, with frontline communities who have the most experience trying to shut down dirty power plants in their backyards. Most of all, it's actually out in the streets, organizing new blood. The idea is not to supplant the Washington green groups, but instead to give the whole movement new clout -- enough clout to withstand the crushing power of oil money. And enough energy to let us get off defense and back on the attack.
We don't know if we'll win in the end: the science of climate change grows darker by the day, and the window for effective action is swiftly closing. But any chance requires people power replacing corporate power. In the year of Tunisia and Egypt and Wisconsin, it's worth a try.