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Don't Give Up: Sierra Club Leader on How We Can Win the Fight for Clean Energy

The Sierra Club's Michael Brune talks about how we can transition to clean energy, and how his million-member organization plans to flex its muscle.
 
 
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There's no doubt that progressives took a trouncing in the midterm election, and there is ample reason to fear the influx of anti-science GOPers and Tea Party candidates coming into office. In the days following the election, President Obama said he was abandoning a climate bill for the next few years, and disappointed environmentalists by further extending a hand to the natural gas and nuclear industries.

This news comes at the same time the Union of Concerned Scientists released new information warning about the threat of an unprecedented number of wildfires that are the likely result of a warming planet, and the risk of a massive die-off of coral reefs -- our undersea forests -- that are crucial to the ocean ecosystem.

With pressing climate change threats colliding with political stonewalling, what do we do? AlterNet recently sat down with Michael Brune, who took the helm of the Sierra Club earlier this year, after serving as the executive director of Rainforest Action Network for seven years. A new edition of Brune's book, Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal has just been released. Brune gave us his take on what we can do next, how we can continue to prepare for a clean energy future, and how his organization of over a million members, is planning to harness its potential.

Don Hazen: Obviously this election was disappointing on many levels, including environmental issues. On top of that we have this phenomenon of almost the whole Republican party becoming climate deniers. The big question is what happens now -- to the environmental movement, the Sierra Club, the whole issue of climate change?

Michael Brune: I would say, as bad as the election results were, it's not as though we have to give up on climate change or bow down to those conservatives in Congress. Democrats do still hold the White House, one branch of Congress, we do have a lot of champions in Congress, the courts, the State Houses, the White House -- a lot of people who do have power and intellectually agree with the need for greater urgency on this challenge.

There is a lot we can do to stay on the offense and make dramatic progress in the next few years. Even with a realistic, sober analysis of our situation, I can still see ample reason for optimism, which isn't to diminish the challenges we face and it's not to deny the fact that the challenges are steeper now than they were a few weeks ago and they are more daunting then at the beginning of 2010 or last summer.

However, I not only think can we accomplish a lot, I'm confident that we will.

DH: What are some examples of what we can accomplish?

MB: The fight against coal is one of the areas where we should be the most optimistic. The work that the Sierra Club has been doing over the last few years on climate has been to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants. There were 150 new plants that were proposed early in the Bush years -- the Sierra Club and a big movement of grassroots groups have defeated 138 of them! There are a couple dozen more that have been added since then so there are more on the books but we have a plan in place where we think we can defeat 90 percent.

So that's historic -- that's a major change -- it gives us the opportunity to create a major change in how power is produced in the country. Now we are in a situation where the U.S. has an old and outdated fleet of coal-fired power plant -- 78 percent of U.S. coal plants are 30 years or older, 60 percent are 40 years or older. We've got dozens and dozens which were build in the '20s, '30s and '40s that don't have pollution controls, they don't have scrubbers, they don't have effective ways to deal with soot and smog and coal ash -- they consume large amounts of water and create large amounts of water pollution. And the kicker is that they are now being held to higher standards, where as though they have been grandfathered in under the Clear Air Act in 1970 and they were grandfathered in when the Clean Air Act was reauthorized, the administration is going through a series of rule-makings that will force these plants to either be upgraded or retired which creates a big opportunity.

So the Sierra Club, which has been focusing on stopping new plants from being built, will now shift resources to these old plants and our goal is to retire half of the existing coal plants in the country and replace them with clean energy over the next decade. If you think about the impacts of that, politically we'll have a coal industry that is half the size and we'll have solar and wind and efficiency companies that are growing larger and have more power and are more profitable.

DH: There is a scenario, which is not a crazy scenario given that there are 21 Democratic Senate seats open in 2012, that we will have a conservative president and significant control of both Houses. Are your plans still feasible with that kind of opposition?

MB: Even right now we are starting to see big threats coming from folks in Congress in both Houses challenging the EPA's authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. Over the next few weeks to months to years, we will see a variety of attacks on the EPA -- we'll see lawsuits filed to slow down the EPA and affect the implementation of different rules; we'll see legislative efforts to try to prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases; we've already seen bills that will delay the EPA's authority to regulate parts of the Clean Air Act; we'll probably see a national version ofProp 23; we'll see efforts to restrict the funding of the EPA probably; and we'll see personal attacks on Lisa Jackson and deputy administrators. There's going to be a whole lot of heat coming toward the EPA -- we've already seen it and it's only going to intensify.

That's with the current Congress -- so of course if there's a conservative president in a few years one can envision the scenario will intensify and if we had a new EPA head we wouldn't see that much progress. Elections are important, they do matter.

But there is still a lot we can accomplish between now and then. The rule on mercury is going to be finalized and the rule on coal ash is going to be finalized, as important examples. You have coal plants that are already not economical, that are already operating at the margins, whereas wind is getting cheaper, more efficient, more technologically advanced. There is no doubt that we will make continued progress to reduce our dependence on coal, where there is doubt is how far we'll go and how quickly that will happen.

First we have to stop the problem from getting worse -- we can't continue to build new coal plants, then we have to shut the existing ones down, replace them with clean energy and take care of the workers.

Tara Lohan: Given the subsidies for coal and oil right now, how can we get renewables to be competitive?

MB: The subsidies are a foot on the neck for solar and wind companies. Attacking subsidies is one area where we have a sliver of hope that we can work with some conservative members of Congress and address the deficit and level the playing field for a wide variety of energy solutions. We don't know what the posture of the new Congress is going to be but that clearly will be one area where there is bipartisan support for cutting subsidies that really don't contribute to the public good.

TL: YourBeyond Coal Campaignhas been really successful. How do we replicate that for other initiatives?

MB: It's bottoms up and a little bit top down, so one of the things that's unique about the Sierra Club is that we have a chapter in every state and a local volunteer group in just about every major city in the country. And the coal fight is very local -- there are plants in communities that are poisoning the people that live around them. A lot of our strategies come from the grassroots and then it is also supported by the national office in terms of our legal team, which has filed hundreds of lawsuits against new and old coal plants.

The growth area where we haven't done our job yet on the coal campaign is that we have to get better as an organization and a movement advocating for the solutions that we want to see. We have to be as sophisticated, as powerful, as creative in helping to fill the market share for clean energy. That is increasingly becoming important -- it's one thing to stop a new plant from being built but when you're arguing for a new plant to be shut down you have to make a plausible case for how you can keep the lights on.

So, the Sierra Club and the entire environmental movement needs to put more resources toward this -- change our budgets and add more staff and volunteers toward the task. To address that at the Club we've just combined our coal and clean energy campaigns so that they are one now, so each campaigner has a mandate for how many megawatts of old dirty power they have to help ensure is retired on a yearly basis, and how many megawatts of clean energy they need to help to get established.

TL: Where are you seeing the most growth in terms of getting renewable energy?

MB: The two areas of real growth are desert Southwest solar facilities, and we are seeing a lot of progress, but not a lot of megawatts yet, for offshore wind on the eastern shore. We are really interested in scaling up offshore wind in the Great Lakes, sited appropriately. What we need to clearly put more attention towards and create grassroots campaigns to support is more distributed generation.

For us, we're really interested in the upper Midwest where states like Wisconsin or Michigan have a lot of old dirty coal plants. The region gets a majority of their power from coal -- 60 percent or more. They have a large manufacturing base, a lot of skilled workers who are out of work, when you are talking about off-shore wind, it has got to be locally sourced, it's not economical to be shipping it from China, so there is a great opportunity to shut down coal plants in the same region and open manufacturing facilities and then site wind farms nearby. There is a set of holistic regional solutions there that can make big progress. We are going to create a new political dynamic when we do that where the clean energy concept isn't just a theoretical concept -- real people, real families will have jobs, and their lives will be impacted by the solutions we're promoting.

TL: One of the great things that I saw come out of the defeat of Prop 23 in California is that people got the connection between the economy and the environment -- that environmental regulations can create jobs and are stimulating, not hurting the state's economy, but it seems we haven't seen that elsewhere in the country as much.

MB: I left San Francisco on Election Day to go to DC, and the reason for that is that the story we have in California is pretty important in the sense that we have the third highest unemployment in the country. Voters in California took a stand for clean energy not in spite of the economic downturn but because of the economic downtown. They are seeing investments in clean energy as a core strategy to engineer an economic recovery.

DH: How does the Sierra Club fit in with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nature Conservancy and those other big groups? Are you all relatively compatible? Are there leadership gatherings and cooperation?

MB: There is an entity called the Green Group, which I think was once the group of eight or 10 but now there are 35 environmental organizations ranging from Audubon, TNC, NRDC, Sierra Club, Green for All, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others -- we meet three times a year. We moved our last meeting down to New Orleans to talk about oil and how we can work together and be more aggressive to reduce our dependence on oil.

It's a collegial, collaborative atmosphere, but we are going to have to evolve and become much more effective as a collection of organizations if we are going to meet the challenges we currently face.

DH: Is there growth in the environmental movement? Are young people apolitical?

MB: There is the potential for growth, I don't see many groups that are exploding in size, but there is not a shortage of activism, really. If you look at the coal work we are doing, it's a huge movement of organizations and individuals -- it's really easy to get into because there are specific places and specific policies. There are coal plants on 60 college campuses across the country and we've just hired an organizer for every one. You've got coal plants that are inside major cities. We don't see a shortage there -- but when it comes to broader national policy issues, it is probably more challenging than it was five or 10 years ago. I think a big reason for that is because there is just a declining confidence among too many activists that when they engage they can make a difference. They believe it more for local issues than for big national changes.

DH: You have the advantage of being able to go hyper-local with your infrastructure or global, while most groups can't.

MB: Yes, and I think one of the challenges we have is to remind people and inspire people and show people when we are making a big difference. We talk about 138 coal plants that have been defeated as a way of thinking about when people do organize and put their energy together for a specific purpose we can do great work. And we can apply that strategic focus toward bigger challenges ahead. Over the next few years as we create a track record of shutting down old facilities, capturing how that is happening and popularizing what actually worked is as important as shutting down the facilities itself because it is necessary to build momentum.

TL: Considering a climate bill has now been pronounced dead in Congress and with the president, how do we approach this issue, which many see as political suicide?

MB: I think that right now we are in a little bit of a trough where people are intimidated or feeling timid in talking about climate change and so they don't want to -- I don't really buy that -- I don't think it is as much of a politically radioactive term as some people will say. I think we should continue to talk about climate change and the Sierra Club will. At the same time it's natural that different people will be inspired by different things. Many people will be inspired to take action because they are concerned about public health, other people are really inspired by clean energy, other people are motivated by national security or economic competitiveness. What I think is most strategic for groups like the Sierra Club is to address all of those values, so we are more interested in telling people how our solutions will help people solve their every day problems instead of engaging in these debates about what's the right words to choose or the right frame.

TL: What about the international community that is waiting for actual legislative change in this country?

MB: I'm not saying that we shouldn't work on climate change, but the international community will have to adjust its expectation. It doesn't look like we are going to produce comprehensive climate legislation in the next couple of years. We need it. But we aren't going to get it. What we will get is bigger reductions in carbon over the next five-10 years than we would have gotten under any of the climate bills that were introduced in the last Congress. By cutting carbon coming from coal and cutting our oil consumption, we'll produce more carbon reductions between now and 2020 than was in any recent bill. I think it's important to note that one single bill coming through Congress wasn't the only way to address climate change in the U.S.

TL: In terms of cutting oil you're talking about fuel efficiency and electric cars. What else?

MB: Yeah, so that's most of it -- 71 percent of oil is used for transportation now and a lot of that is in cars, trucks, SUVs and heavy duty trucks. So it's a combination of electrifying transportation, using hybrids, mode shifting -- shifting freight away from heavy duty trucks to rail or boats -- and electrifying the rail system. Maybe for certain applications moving to compressed natural gas or liquified natural gas and then looking at what role biofuels might play in acting as a replacement for oil for airlines and other long distance uses.

TL: Where are you guys on the natural gas scenario and the idea that gas is a 'bridge fuel' from dirty to clean energy?

MB: We don't think it's a bridge fuel really, because it doesn't get us to a clean energy future. We have to get off coal as quickly as possible. It's the dirtiest fuel and natural gas is cleanerthan coal and in some cases cleaner than oil, but it's not clean. As we retire a coal plant we want a mix of efficiency and solar and wind and in some cases geothermal where appropriate and natural gas to fill in the mix. But it's got to be produced right. I spent some time in the Marcellus Shale and in Dimock, Pennsylvania -- it's just awful what is happening there. We have created a natural gas campaign at the Club since I started to address a lot of the concerns that frackingposes to water quality and air quality. To sum it up, we think that natural gas is an improvement in our energy mix, but there is a huge, fat asterisk next to gas that needs to be addressed.

DH: I've been putting together a list of all the reasons why Democrats lost. Is it that right-wing conservatives want to win more?

MB: We don't seem to have the same passion, we have not yet given evidence that we have the same enthusiasm and the depth in our organizing and so we need to reconnect to our base -- we have to lead with our values and not the policy solutions. There is way too much talk about cap and trade or cap and dividend and a lot less talk of the reasons why we are fighting for the things we are fighting for. There is a lot too much talk about the right frame or parts per million and a lot less talk about how we can cut pollution and make people's lives better and improve health and jobs.

But it can be turned around. We are not set in stone. Obama can plant his flag on any number of important issues, like ending mountaintop removal mining.

DH: Is there anything we haven't asked you that you'd like AlterNet readers to know?

MB: Here's what we think is important to do now: We are re-prioritizing, reconnecting to our base and working to build a coalition of progressive organizations to develop a really clear and complete vision for how a clean energy transition will make big improvements in people's lives. I know there is a lot of skepticism and pessimism about what our challenges are as a movement but I think that now is not the time to be timid or depressed; now is really our time to be clear and strategic and bold in the solutions we are advocating for.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet. Tara Lohan is a senior editor at AlterNet. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.