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It's Not Easy Being Green: Are Some of the Biggest Enviro Groups Giant Sell-Outs?

As climate change worsens, the internal strains in the environmentalist movement are starting to show.

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But since the fracking boom began in earnest, a larger, anti-fracking grassroots has emerged. Small towns in the East that were unaccustomed to the thrum of the fossil-fuel industry have been shocked to find themselves surrounded by trucks and heavy machinery and with compressors in their back lots whirring all night long. Some homeowners had their wells contaminated with flammable methane. Places like Ohio and Arkansas that weren’t used to seismic activity started to experience earthquakes when underground wastewater injections stimulated geologic faults. Today, the movement against gas fracking has become a cause célèbre (Yoko Ono and Mark Ruffalo have an “Artists Against Fracking” group) and is one of the most invigorating issues among grassroots environmentalists. At February’s Forward on Climate rally near the White House, easily a fifth of the placards in the crowd of 35,000 had to do with gas drilling.

“No sensible person would ever be a proponent of shale gas,” anti-fracking activist Maura Stephens says. “The number of people whose water is contaminated, I can’t even count. And the number of people who have been given a gag order and been given shut-up money is incredible. The whole idea is to do the harm and then mitigate.”

“Of all the forms of fossil-fuel extraction, fracking is the only one that is wrapped up in a green myth,” says Sandra Steingraber, who wrote the letter against the Sierra Club. “The demand for energy is not some inexorable thing like gravity. We control that. And it’s plain to me that we could reduce our energy use by half and entirely run our economy on renewables.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have a nearly opposite worry: that the intensity from partisans like Steingraber and Stephens has forced some big green groups to retreat from gas. The World Resources Institute, a D.C.-based environmental research organization, is an example of that shift. As recently as early 2012, the organization was expressing qualified enthusiasm for gas as a “potential game changer” that “should be part of America’s low-carbon energy mix.” But when asked recently to comment on the gas controversy, Jennifer Morgan, director of the institute’s climate and energy program, chose her words carefully. “It’s an extremely fraught and tough discussion,” Morgan told me. “I think we recognize both the risks—and the risks are significant—and the potential opportunity.”

And, of course, the Sierra Club has retreated from natural gas under its new executive director. Last week at a conference in Santa Barbara organized by The Wall Street Journal, Michael Brune warned that fracking’s greenhouse-gas emissions might be worse than coal due to leaks of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas. The club also has launched a new section on its website: “Beyond Gas.”

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Whether the question is shale-gas development, nuclear power, utility-scale solar and wind, or GMO crops, the core of the debate among environmentalists comes down to what’s realistic. That, of course, is the same dilemma that confronts any political movement, whether on the right or on the left. But environmentalists’ conundrum is especially complicated because it involves a system beyond our control: Earth.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger say their pragmatism is grounded in what is politically possible given a range of shitty options. In the other camp, Steffen, Steingraber, and Stephens also claim the mantle of pragmatism, one based on geophysical necessity. The existential threat of climate change has become a sort of projection screen: Either it confirms that we are locked into business as usual, or it’s proof that we need to make a societal 180-degree turn in how we relate to the planet.