Recently, acclaimed writer and activist Terry Tempest Williams alerted The Nation about a new documentary she had just seen that caused her to question her long-held opposition to nuclear power. Pandora’s Promise, which appears in theaters in June and will be broadcast by CNN in the fall, features five “converts” who argue that the dire threat of climate change requires humanity to embrace nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels. Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, who has been covering the nuclear industry since investigating it for his book Nuclear Inc. (Pantheon, 1983), had a different reaction to the film. What follows is a dialogue between Williams and Hertsgaard about the film, the history of the nuclear industry and alternative solutions to the climate crisis.—The Editors
“As visionary as Obama is, he is hamstrung by his pragmatism.” So says Michael Marx of the Sierra Club, America’s largest grassroots environmental organization. It is therefore “incumbent on our movement,” Marx continues, to press the president to be more visionary than pragmatic during his second term—above all on climate change, the make-or-break challenge for our civilization.
One way to push Obama is through “a show of force,” Marx says, by turning out large numbers of people at two big climate demonstrations planned this year in Washington. The rallies, on Presidents’ Day weekend (February 17) and Earth Day (April 22), will bookend a 100-day Obama Climate and Clean Energy Legacy campaign intended to press the president to show much stronger environmental leadership in his second term.
The Sierra Club is upping the ante another way as well: its board of directors has authorized the use of peaceful civil disobedience for the first time in the club’s 120-year history. “For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest,” wrote Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, in announcing the decision. The wrong in this case, he continued, “is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.” In an interview with The Nation, Brune declined to specify what kind of civil disobedience was planned, or for when, saying only, “It’ll be focused on Obama.”
The campaigners will appeal both to Obama’s visionary and pragmatic sides. With climate change arriving much sooner and nastier than even the most pessimistic scientists had predicted, activists will argue that Obama must regard this crisis as fundamental to his legacy: history will remember whether this president avoided the climate cliff, not the fiscal one. Obama seems receptive to this argument; in his second inaugural address, he declared that Americans must “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Pragmatically, activists are urging Obama to use his executive authority and take immediate actions, which he can do without approval from congressional Republicans who refuse even to acknowledge the existence of climate change, much less move against it. These actions include the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline; Obama’s decision on the pipeline, currently under review by the State Department, is expected this spring. Activists will also be pressing the administration to use the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act to slash US greenhouse gas emissions, with different groups pushing for a range of approaches (more on these below).
“To build the political space for the president and EPA to take the necessary steps, our movement needs to show some numbers and some militancy,” says Marx, who directs the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign. “We need to turn out 25,000 people or more at the Presidents’ Day rally and another 100,000 or more on Earth Day. And we need to show that it’s not only the environmental community that cares. It’s also the faith community, because climate change is the ultimate moral issue of our times. It’s also the consumer community, because oil companies take money out of consumers’ pockets every time we pull up to the pump. It’s the healthcare community, because fossil fuels not only overheat the atmosphere, they also give people cancer and asthma. It’s people of color, because they live closest to and get the most sick from coal plants.”
Of course, protest marches are a dime a dozen in Washington. Even so, the Obama Climate Legacy campaign seems worthy of attention, if only because it is being sponsored by two groups that have accomplished something rare among environmental organizations over the last four years: they won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org, its partner on the Washington demonstrations and the Climate Legacy campaign, scored major victories in the climate fight during Obama’s first term.
It was 350.org, a group co-founded by writer Bill McKibben, that galvanized grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, the construction of which would light “a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” in McKibben’s words. Days after 350.org brought more than 10,000 people to literally surround the White House in November 2011, the Obama administration reversed course and delayed a decision on whether to approve it.
As for the Sierra Club, while most big green groups were demanding that all environmentalists stand and salute the god of cap-and-trade—the Obama-backed legislation that went down to ignominious defeat on Capitol Hill in 2010—the club was collaborating with grassroots activists across the country to impose a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. As I described in Mother Jones, the Beyond Coal campaign helped prevent 174 (and counting) new coal plants from coming on line, thereby limiting America’s future greenhouse gas emissions nearly as much as the cap-and-trade system would have done (and that assumes the system functioning as well as its proponents had claimed—no sure thing considering how badly the bill was weakened in the congressional horse-trading).
As important as the victories themselves was how they were won. Both the Sierra Club and 350.org eschewed the inside-the-Beltway focus and top-down political strategy of big mainstream environmental groups, as exemplified by the cap-and-trade campaign. Instead, they emphasized grassroots organizing at the local level on behalf of far-reaching demands that ordinary people could grasp and support. Their immediate goal was to block a specific pipeline or power plant, but their strategic goal was to build a popular movement and accrue political power. Without power, their thinking went, the best policies in the world were doomed to defeat, for a policy’s intellectual merits alone could never persuade politicians to cross the richest business enterprise in history, the fossil fuel industry.
This same conviction—that political power is built from the bottom up, in local communities and congressional districts, and then brought to bear on Washington—also underlies the new Obama Climate Legacy campaign, says Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “One of the lessons [from Obama’s first term] is that there is no silver bullet for…tackling climate change. Dozens of organizations are addressing the issue from various angles—litigation, state and federal legislation, EPA rules—and we are all building upon our success in moving America beyond coal.”
* * *
The fight for climate survival may also benefit from a related initiative that environmental groups helped launch. In December, the leaders of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, along with their counterparts at the NAACP and the Communications Workers of America, convened a meeting with three dozen other progressive groups to create something called the Democracy Initiative. The assembled labor, civil rights and environmental organizations agreed to share their resources and staff and collaborate in pursuit of objectives that will further both their individual agendas and the progressive cause. The Democracy Initiative has three initial goals: reforming the rules of the Senate to halt abuse of the filibuster; fighting voter suppression efforts so that all eligible Americans can vote; and reforming campaign finance laws to break the stranglehold of corporate money on government. “The current Senate rules blocked a climate bill from passing—there was no way to get sixty votes for a bill that was any good,” says Phil Radford, the executive director of Greenpeace. “Voter suppression keeps people out of politics who don’t share the right-wing corporate agenda. Campaign finance reform is critical because the only way to win on the environment is for people to have more voice than the corporations that are getting rich from polluting the planet.”
Progressive organizations have talked in the past about uniting in pursuit of common objectives, but those efforts usually fizzled. This time it’s different, Radford says: “We’re focused on having a really powerful ground game. We didn’t invite anyone that didn’t have field organizers and a substantial [membership] base.” And the intent is to play hardball. The Democracy Initiative will not merely seek to gain access or befriend politicians, a mistake that progressives have often made in Washington; instead, it says it intends to punish or reward politicians depending on how they vote and govern. This resolution will be tested now that the most recent push to reform the Senate rules fell flat, after Senate majority leader Harry Reid reneged on his pledge to fix the filibuster in late January.
* * *
Grassroots organizing is also central to a crucial battle against climate change that has yet to receive national attention: the campaign to block coal exports from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels, and the West, especially Wyoming, holds plenty of it. Coal companies are eager to sell to China and other booming Asian economies, but that requires transporting the coal by rail to the Pacific coast as well as constructing terminals where it can be transferred to cargo ships.
“There are five proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest,” says K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions, a clean-energy group that is a leader of the Power Past Coal campaign. “Just two of those terminals would have greater impacts on climate change than the Keystone XL pipeline would.”
Paralleling the strategy and tactics of the Beyond Coal campaign, activists with Power Past Coal have reached far beyond environmental circles to organize and educate a wide range of constituencies about the links between coal exports and climate change. Power Past Coal says it has the support of 600 medical doctors, 450 business leaders and dozens of local elected officials, especially from the small towns through which the coal trains would travel on their way to the coast. Most of these allies are not primarily motivated by climate change but by concerns over traffic and local pollution, Golden says, “but we always bring the climate angle in as well.”
“Our strategy is to make [the idea of coal exports] toxic, to organize broad constituencies against it, and to make it hard for public officials to approve it,” Golden adds. Building and educating broad constituencies also builds the political power needed to win the larger fights ahead. “Our approach has been much closer to that of the Beyond Coal campaign than to the cap-and-trade effort, but ultimately those two models for making social change need to come together. We do need a cap on carbon emissions…. We need to have that policy fight. But first we need to build the political power to have that fight and win it.”
* * *
Some champions of cap-and-trade now recognize this flaw in their previous approach. Praising the Beyond Coal and Keystone XL campaigns for “engaging people at the local level, which is a critical aspect of gaining political power,” Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says, “It’s maybe something we didn’t pay enough attention to. It’s a lot easier to mobilize people around concrete new investments in polluting facilities than around new legislation or regulations for EPA.”
Policy expertise has its place, however, and Lashof, the director of the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program, has produced a new blueprint for how Obama’s EPA can use the Clean Air Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions. (There is a great irony here, because the cap-and-trade bill that the NRDC and most other big environmental groups championed would have stripped the EPA of regulatory authority over coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act.) The new NRDC plan would deploy the act primarily against the roughly 1,500 existing power plants in the United States; of those 1,500, roughly 500 are coal-fired, and they account for 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention thousands of deaths, heart attacks and asthma cases every year. (To be clear, the Beyond Coal campaign is focused on blocking new coal plants.) The EPA would work with state governments and utility companies to find cost-effective ways to scale back or shut down many of these 500 plants. Replacement power would come from improving energy efficiency and increasing solar, wind and other renewable sources, as well as some natural gas. The electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions would decline by 26 percent by 2020.
A much more ambitious plan comes from the Center for Biological Diversity, which is urging the EPA to “set a national pollution cap of no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide,” says Kassie Siegel, director of the center’s Climate Law Institute. Siegel and the center have long described the Clean Air Act as one of the nation’s most powerful tools against climate change—a point they repeatedly tried to make to environmental colleagues, the Obama administration and the media during the cap-and-trade fiasco, to little effect. Now that Congress is recognized as a dead end for climate policy, will that position attract more support? Already, forty-seven US cities representing 18 million people have passed the center’s “Clean Air Cities” resolution, calling on the EPA to impose the 350 ppm cap. “We haven’t succeeded yet, but we will,” Siegel says. “When people are marching in the street demanding action, the EPA will act.”
If the EPA does issue tough new greenhouse gas rules, congressional Republicans will doubtless try to block their implementation, but Obama could overcome them. Indeed, this scenario played out twice recently, when the EPA issued rules on coal plants’ mercury emissions and then on their interstate air pollution. Under the Congressional Review Act, explains Nathan Willcox of Environment America, the Senate can block any rule promulgated by the executive branch with a simple majority of fifty-one votes. In that case, however, the measure goes to the president, who can veto it painlessly, for such measures cannot be attached to other legislation. Opponents would need a two-thirds majority of the Senate—sixty-seven votes—to override the veto.
In short, Barack Obama already has it in his power to slash greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the damage climate change inflicts in the years ahead. But will he exercise that power? Activists can pressure him and appeal to his legacy, but in the end, the choice is Obama’s to make. And the activists are right: future historians—if there is a future on this rapidly overheating planet—will judge him accordingly.
Never has a hurricane been more aptly, if tragically, named than Sandy, the superstorm that flooded New York City and battered much of the East Coast. At press time, the storm had killed at least forty-three people and caused an estimated $32 billion in damages to buildings and infrastructure—figures expected to increase in the coming days as emergency personnel pick through the wreckage—and left 8 million homes without electricity.
Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
And so it has been with America’s response to climate change. For more than twenty years, scientists and others have been warning that global warming, if left unaddressed, would bring a catastrophic increase in extreme weather—summers like that of 2012, when the United States endured the hottest July on record and the worst drought in fifty years, mega-storms like the one now punishing the East Coast.
Hurricanes are fueled by hot ocean surface temperatures. The Atlantic Ocean is about five degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual this fall, and as Katharine Hayhoe of the University of Texas has noted, about 15 percent of this extra heat is directly due to global warming. The flooding unleashed by Sandy is especially destructive, Kayhoe adds, because global warming has caused sea levels in the New York region to rise by one foot over the past century.
But scientists’ warnings have been by and large ignored—at least within the corridors of power in Washington. As in the myth of Cassandra, today it remains unclear whether even the latest catastrophe—the devastation of America’s greatest city, its center of commerce, finance and, tellingly, the news media—will cause the nation to wake up and take serious action.
There are signs of hope. Speaking Tuesday in Minneapolis, former president Bill Clinton called out Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for ridiculing the idea of fighting climate change, thereby becoming the first political heavyweight to explicitly link Sandy with climate change. Slowing the rise of the oceans, as candidate Barack Obama pledged to do in 2008, but which Romney mocked in his address to this year’s Republican national convention, sounds like a pretty good idea in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Clinton said, adding, “In my part of America, we would like it if someone could have done that yesterday.”
New York governor Andrew Cuomo, in a press briefing Tuesday morning, did not raise the climate connection himself but did affirm it. “We have a 100-year flood every two years now,” Cuomo said he told president Obama by telephone. “Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic shift in weather patterns is denying reality,” Cuomo added.
Obama himself, however, has not linked Sandy with climate change, thereby continuing the climate silence that has characterized both his and Governor Romney’s presidential campaigns. Climate change went completely unmentioned in all three of the Romney-Obama debates, as well as in the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan. This was historic: it marked the first time since 1984 that climate change was not discussed in any of the campaign debates. And when Obama was finally questioned about the omission last week in an interview with MTV, what was his response? Obama said he was “surprised” that climate change hadn’t come up in the debates—as if he himself had nothing to do with that result. After all, he’s only the president of the United States. Yet somehow Obama found plenty of time in the debates to brag about the record amount of oil drilling and pipeline laying his administration has presided over.
As bad as the presidential candidates have been, the mainstream media continues to treat climate change as a third-tier issue that matters only to a niche audience of environmentalists. Moderating the second Romney-Obama debate, CNN’s Candy Crowley did an admirable job of keeping the discussion moving and correcting candidates’ misstatements. But she reflected the media’s beltway mentality when she later explained why she had not brought up the climate issue. She had thought about it, she said—apparently she had been deluged with requests to do so from what she called “you climate people”—but in the end decided that the economy was really the issue people wanted to hear about.
Tell that to the insurance industry, which now faces at least $20 billion in damage claims following Hurricane Sandy. Tell it to America’s taxpayers, who are on the hook for an estimated $10–12 billion in additional uninsured damages—a figure that happens to equal the amount taxpayers already provide in subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries that are most responsible not only for causing global warming but also for blocking government action against it. “How about instead of using our money to fuel climate change, we start using it to help people and stop future disasters?” asks Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International.
Above all, tell it to Valerie Baulmer, the heartbroken mother of 11-year-old Jack, who was killed with his best friend, 13-year-old Michael Robson, when the ferocious winds of Hurricane Sandy blew down a tree that smashed the Baulmer’s house in New Salem, New York. “I lost my son,” Ms. Baulmer wailed as she fell into the arms of the boy’s uncle. “I lost my son.”
If there were any poetic justice, this superstorm “would be named Hurricane Chevron or Hurricane Exxon, not Hurricane Sandy,” wrote Bill McKibben, the author and founder of the activist group 350.org. By funding the disinformation campaign that has frightened elected officials out of taking action and left the United States as the only country in the industrialized world where the scientific consensus on man-made climate change is seen as somehow controversial, Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry have made catastrophes like today’s both more likely and more deadly.
But ours need not be a Greek tragedy. Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there is no reason to continue disregarding scientists’ warnings about where our current path leads. Nor is there reason to doubt that a better path is possible. The solutions we need—a dramatic increase in energy efficiency; a rapid shift to solar, wind and other clean energy sources; a reversal of our current government subsidy patterns to champion climate-friendly rather than climate-destructive policies; and much else—are already available. Moreover, they promise to advance economic prosperity and summon the best of the American people and spirit.
“We are free to make choices,” says Betsy Taylor, an environmental activist who leads Breakthrough Solutions.
“We can choose to garner all of our ingenuity, our workforce, our schools, churches, farmers, youth and military to transform our buildings, transit systems, food systems, and power sources to become the most efficient, clean energy economy on the planet. Or we can keep drilling and live with the nightmare of extreme droughts, floods and storms. And if fossil fuel companies stand in our way, they underestimate the fury of mothers and fathers who will lay down their lives to stop the drilling and protect their children.”
The challenge of climate change is no longer a technical one, if it ever was. The challenge has always been primarily political, political and ultimately economic, as exemplified by the de facto veto power the richest industry in human history, Big Oil, has long exercised over US federal policy. We as a civilization have known for more than 20 years how to stop global warming: we have to stop burning so much fossil fuel. But Big Oil won’t hear of it. They’d rather relocate the Farm Belt, as Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson recently suggested, than leave the last drop of petroleum unburned.
The question Hurricane Sandy really raises, then, is how long Big Oil will be allowed to hold the government of the United States hostage. How long will Exxon-Mobil’s business plans take precedence over the wellbeing and indeed survival of our children? Neither of the two presidential candidates provides great inspiration on this point, though Obama is at least willing to talk about the problem, as when he advocates eliminating some taxpayer subsidies to oil companies. (Romney, for his part, thinks Big Oil has not been favored enough by Washington.)
But no president can cross Big Oil in the way that is required to defuse the climate crisis without the help of a powerful and sustained popular movement. If Hurricane Sandy contributes to building such a movement—and McKibben and his fellow activists at 350.org and allied organizations are launching a national tour shortly after Election Day that aims to do just that—America might still avoid the curse of Cassandra by heeding her warnings at last.
This story originally appeared at Salon.
“Follow the money” is an elementary rule for understanding American politics, and in the case of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the money trail leads to a case of apparent money laundering that involves his Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney and a $1 million contribution from the same Texas tycoon who bankrolled the “Swift Boat” attacks against the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry.
Bobby Jack “Bob” Perry, a residential construction magnate in Houston, is not related to Rick Perry by blood, only money. But there has been lots of that. As with the Swift Boaters to whom he donated $4.45 million, Bob Perry ranks as the single largest donor to Rick Perry during the latter’s 10 years as governor of Texas, according to official figures tabulated and analyzed by Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit watchdog group in the state capital of Austin.
Bob Perry contributed $2,531,799 directly to Rick Perry from January 2001 to July 2011, TPJ reports in “Crony Capitalism: The Republican Governors Association in the Perry Years.” That puts him well ahead of such other notable donors as Koch Industries, the energy conglomerate owned by David and Charles Koch, the chief funders of the Tea Party, and Contran Corp., whose efforts to establish a nuclear waste dump in Texas have succeeded thanks to regulators appointed by Perry. (As Justin Elliott reported this week, Perry is also a leading funder of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads political action committee.)
But to truly understand Rick Perry’s “pay-to-play” approach, TPJ executive director Craig McDonald told Salon, one must also look at contributions to the Republican Governors Association, which he chaired from 2008 through August 2011.
In an apparent and possibly illegal attempt to hide the money’s true origins, Bob Perry has routed $11,450,000 — five times the amount he has contributed to Gov. Perry directly — through the Governors Association since 2006.
That same year, Perry donated $1 million to the Governors Association, which days later channeled $1 million to Gov. Perry’s troubled reelection campaign. When Chris Bell, Gov. Perry’s Democratic challenger in 2006, filed suit alleging campaign finance violations, Perry’s campaign agreed to settle the case and pay Bell $426,000, nearly half the amount of the contribution at issue.
The Governors Association, however, refused to settle. In 2010, state Judge John K. Dietz ruled that the group had violated Texas law by not registering as a political committee and not reporting the $1 million contribution until after the election. The judge awarded $2 million to Bell, a ruling the Governors Association is appealing.
“I think it was a pass-through,” Bell told Salon. “They were trying to hide the source of the contribution.”
Bell speculated that the Perry campaign wanted to avoid charges of hypocrisy after criticizing Bell for accepting a $1 million contribution from a Texas trial lawyer, a contribution that Bell announced publicly. Texas law allows individuals to contribute unlimited amounts to candidates.
“Bob Perry had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Rick Perry’s campaign prior to 2006,” Bell said. “So why else would he pass it through the Republican Governors Association, if they weren’t trying to hide the source of the contribution?”
That $1 million contribution by Bob Perry could come back to bite Rick Perry during this year’s presidential campaign. Romney could also face trouble. He was the chairman of the governors group in 2006 and reportedly participated in the decision to channel money to Perry’s campaign.
As reporters Murray Waas and David Henderson of Reuters revealed on Wednesday, court documents describing Romney’s role indicate that two of Gov. Perry’s closest aides may have given “false or misleading testimony under oath” in their depositions for Chris Bell’s civil suit:
“[T]he testimony of [top Rick Perry] aides David Carney and Deirdre Delisi was directly contradicted by a sworn statement from Perry’s own gubernatorial campaign committee … which said that Delisi and Carney met with Romney in Washington DC on October 4, 2006 to discuss a last-minute contribution to [Perry's campaign] .”
Carney has long been Perry’s top political advisor. Delisi, who served as his chief of staff in the governor’s office, is now senior policy advisor to the campaign.
When asked about the Oct. 4, 2006, meeting, Mark Miner, press secretary of the Perry presidential campaign, told Salon that “due to a settlement by both sides we cannot comment on this case.” The Romney campaign did not respond to questions about the meeting.
To have the two presumed front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination and the funder of the infamous “Swift Boat” attacks implicated in a single money laundering scandal is a remarkable development in the Republican race. It raises a host of questions that other GOP candidates — and the media — may want to address.
Did two of Perry’s closes aides commit perjury? Why the divergent statements about the last-minute contribution? Did Romney endorse passing along Bob Perry’s $1 million to Gov. Perry? If so, why? And what did Rick Perry know about the source of the contribution?
In short, did the two now-bitter rivals for the Republican nomination forge a friendly backroom deal in 2006 that was possibly illegal?
An offensively low price
“Other Texas politicians have done pay-to-play before, but Rick Perry has taken it to a high art,” said Craig McDonald of TPJ. “In his 10 years as governor, he has raised $102 mil[lion], and half of that came from an inner circle of 200 mega-donors. George W. Bush never raised anything like that amount during his years as governor [1994 to 2000]. Bush raised $43 million for two election campaigns, and most of that came in the second campaign when everyone knew he was running for the president and people wanted to cozy up to him.”
At times, though, Perry’s pay-to-play proclivities have been less high art than low comedy. In the Sept. 22 candidates’ debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., hammered Perry for issuing an executive order requiring Texas high school girls to get a vaccine that prevents cervical cancer. Right-wingers had previously attacked the morality of his order, saying it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Bachmann ventured a new line of attack, noting that the vaccine was manufactured by one of Perry’s campaign donors. Far from backing down, Perry took the offensive, naming the donor, the drug company, Merck, and stating — inaccurately — that the pharmaceutical giant had contributed only $5,000 to him. In point of fact, Merck has given $28,500 to Perry since 2001.
“I raise about $30 million,” Perry continued. “And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
Like many of Perry’s public comments, this one was more revealing than he seemed to realize. The Texas governor did not protest that he could not be bought; he simply joked that $5,000 was an offensively low price.
Which it may well be in Texas, a state where bragging about bigness is common.
After all, Bob Perry had to contribute 45 times that much to Gov. Perry before the state created what amounted to Perry’s own regulatory agency. To wit, the Houston home-builder gave the governor $225,000 between May of 2001 and August of 2003, according to the TPJ. Its “Crony Capitalism” report, based on contemporaneous accounts in the Texas news media, recounts what happened next:
Texas lawmakers created the Texas Residential Construction Commission in 2003. The agency ostensibly was supposed to mediate disputes between the buyers and builders of new homes. But construction defects made a lemon of this lemon-home agency. John Krugh, Bob Perry’s general counsel, helped draft legislation to create the agency. Governor Perry then skewed the agency’s foundation by only appointing housing-industry representatives — including Krugh — to the new commission. “In Texas you can buy your own state agency, then regulate yourself,” Houston Democratic Rep. Garnet Coleman quipped at the time.
The results were predictable. The de facto Bob Perry housing commission issued such egregiously one-sided rulings that public anger led the Texas Legislature to abolish it in 2009. Which, according to McDonald, “shows you that Bob Perry is not all-powerful.”
But it’s crucial to recognize, McDonald added, that beyond such direct business benefits, Bob Perry has also gotten his central ideological desires serviced by Rick Perry: “Bob Perry is for low or no taxes and regulation, no civil lawsuits. And Rick Perry has delivered on that broader ideological agenda day in and day out as governor.”
A second example of the hilariously blatant cronyism under Gov. Perry involves Harold Simmons, the billionaire CEO of Contran Corp. Contran ranks second only to Bob Perry as Gov. Perry’s most generous contributor. The company has given $1.12 million to Gov. Perry directly and $1.875 million to the Republican Governors Association for a total of $2.995 million.
Some people look at radioactive nuclear waste and recoil. Harold Simmons saw it as a profit-making opportunity. Waste Control Specialists Inc., a subsidiary of Simmon’s Contran Corp., had been operating a hazardous waste dump in west Texas since the 1990s; Simmons wanted the facility to handle nuclear waste as well.
In 2003, Simmons finally persuaded the Texas Legislature to allow a private company to store so-called low-level nuclear waste within the state’s borders. The Legislature stipulated, however, that Texas state regulators would have to approve the operating plans of any such waste site before granting a license.
The next part of the story has been well told by reporter Forest Wilder of the Texas Observer:
Three years into the review process at [the Texas Council for Environmental Quality], a team of geologists and engineers unanimously decided that the proposed dump was fatally flawed. The main problem, they wrote in a memo to superiors, was that the dump was within 14 feet of groundwater, raising the potential for radioactive contamination of water that could be part of the vast Ogallala Aquifer. Nonetheless, then-TCEQ executive director Glenn Shankle [who had been appointed by Gov. Perry] issued the license anyway and denied all the citizen protestors the right to contest the permit in an administrative court. Six months later, Shankle went to work for Waste Control Specialists as lobbyist taking in at least $100,000.
There’s more. Originally, Harold Simmons’ dump was to handle nuclear waste only from Texas, New York and Vermont. But in 2011, another set of Perry appointees at the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission voted to open the facility to nuclear waste from 36 other states.
And in another example of the shamelessness that permeates the pay-to-play culture under Gov. Perry, Simmons later publicly boasted about his achievements, telling the Dallas Business Journal:
“We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license [to handle radioactive waste], and we did that. Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied.”
All of which recalls the old Texas political joke:
“What’s the difference between a bribe and a campaign contribution?”
“You report the contribution.”
“Who butters his biscuits?”
Few if any Texans have watched Rick Perry longer or more closely than Jim Hightower, the populist rabble-rouser and author. Perry first gained statewide office in Texas by beating Hightower, the incumbent, in the 1990 election for agriculture commissioner. The Svengali behind the scenes of Perry’s success was a political operative by the name of Karl Rove.
Perry and Hightower first crossed swords when Hightower, as agriculture commissioner, issued regulations limiting the amount of pesticides that could be applied in Texas.
“The chemical lobby was really pissed off,” Hightower told Salon, “so they wrote legislation to take pesticide authority away from my office and make my office appointed rather than elected.”
Perry, then a state legislator, carried the chemical lobby’s bill in committee, Hightower recalled, but it failed after Hightower drew hundreds of people to the hearing by inviting singer Willie Nelson as his lead witness. “When Perry called for a motion on his bill, nobody [else on the subcommittee would speak up] in front of this crowd. I remember Perry saying, “C’mon guys!’”
“That made the chemical lobby even more furious,” added Hightower. “So suddenly Karl Rove appears, recruits Perry to switch parties from Democrat to Republican and run against me.”
“Perry was a terrible campaigner back then, and Rove sent him out to attend [Texas] Farm Bureau meetings in the Panhandle to keep him away from the media. Then Rove raised millions of dollars for TV attack ads — typical stuff of a hippie burning a flag, and my face appears out of the flag.”
“What I learned from this about [Perry] is, he knows who butters his biscuits,” Hightower said. “He saw what they could do, which is to raise bucks and win him an election he probably didn’t think he could win. And that’s still who he is today: a corporate crony. You want an appointment to state office? You want a state contract? Just give him a contribution.”
“Twenty cents of every dollar he’s raised as governor has come from someone he appointed, or that someone’s spouse,” McDonald of TPJ noted. And the quid pro quo works in the other direction as well. Forty-three of Gov. Perry’s largest contributors have employed 89 people whom Perry has appointed to state boards and commissions, Crony Capitalism reports.
The “Wild West political past”
Whether Rick Perry’s apparent weakness for cronyism will hurt his chances of becoming president remains to be seen, but it does not appear to have affected his standing in Texas.
“He’s certainly been attacked on it, by both his Republican and Democratic opponents,” said McDonald. “Deborah Medina, the Tea Party candidate in the 2010 Republican primary, went after him for pay-to-play, as did [former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey] Hutchison. [Democrat] Bill White tried it in the general election too. White’s people would tell you, though, that cronyism and pay-to-play didn’t focus-group or poll very well with Texas voters. White kept pushing it, but it never did stick.”
“Why the hell not?” McDonald asked, chuckling. “Well, maybe there’s just less outrage about this stuff in Texas than in other parts of the country because of our Wild West political past and the extremely corrupt system it left us with. We have very few restrictions about how much money people can give to politicians; there’s actually no limit on what an individual can give, as long as it’s not during the legislative session. It’s outrageous, but it’s the system we’re used to.”
But in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that corporations are free to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political candidates, are the Wild West ways of Texas really so out of step with the rest of America? And if not, doesn’t that leave Rick Perry, with his abundant pay-to-play experience, better positioned than most to exploit the new rules on behalf of the rich and powerful in 2012?
If human civilization is to have a realistic chance of surviving global climate change, President Barack Obama and mobilized citizens will have to lead a virtual revolution in America's approach to the issue. Because the hour is so late and America's role so central, Obama must lead, and be pressed to lead, on three fronts at once. First, the United States must commit itself to serious reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions and begin achieving them without delay. This will restore US credibility on the issue, paving the way for step two: encouraging the rest of the world, especially China, to cut its emissions dramatically. The United States and China together account for 40 percent of global emissions, making them climate superpowers: if they do not cut emissions, it won't matter how much other nations reduce. Finally, Obama must urge the United States and all nations to begin preparing for the sea-level rise, water shortages and other impacts of climate change that are inevitable, with special emphasis on assisting the poor, who stand to suffer first and worst despite having done nothing to cause the problem.
It's a tall order, but America can achieve these triple imperatives if the Obama administration launches a Global Green Deal: a crash program to jump-start the transition to a global economy that is climate-friendly and climate-resilient -- that is, an economy that emits relatively few greenhouse gases and is shielded against the impacts of climate change. Done properly, a deal of this sort will green not only our societies but our wallets. A massive program of green investment will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as it stimulates jobs, profits and innovation worldwide and lifts millions of people out of poverty and economic distress.
The stimulus package is a good start. It contains $71 billion in direct green spending and $20 billion in green tax incentives, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. The World Resources Institute has calculated that every $1 billion in green spending generates approximately 30,000 jobs, so the green portions of the stimulus package should create about 2 million jobs, many in the construction sector, which has been hit especially hard. Retrofitting buildings, installing solar panels and constructing wind farms require skilled and semiskilled labor and create decent-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced. Investing in climate-friendly development in poor countries, where money buys more, should yield even more jobs and economic uplift -- no small consideration, given the recent warning from the US director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, that the economic downturn could become the gravest threat to international stability if it triggers a return to the "violent extremism" of the 1930s.
But even more will have to be done, at home and abroad, if we are to slash emissions quickly enough to preserve a livable planet. President Obama has promised to reduce US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This sounds impressive compared with the Bush/Cheney years, but precisely because of Bush-era foot-dragging, the United States and the rest of the world need to achieve larger and faster emissions reductions than previously assumed. We have "a very short window of time," Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in January at a Worldwatch Institute conference. If we want to avoid such scenarios as twenty feet of sea-level rise, which would put most of the world's big cities under water, the rise in global temperatures must be limited to 2.0 to 2.4 Celsius above preindustrial levels. That means global emissions must peak by 2015 and then fall rapidly for decades, said Pachauri. In this context, he added, Obama's goal "falls short of the response needed by world leaders" in preparation for the negotiations in Copenhagen in December to produce a successor to the Kyoto treaty. Instead, Pachauri urged Obama to embrace the European Union's target: reducing emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which the EU says it will achieve by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by 20 percent.
Privately, Obama may understand that his policies don't go far enough -- his science advisers are excellent -- but the forces of the status quo are too powerful for him to overcome without help. As the squabbling over the stimulus bill demonstrated, the same special interests that have blocked reform for years remain on patrol. Senate Republicans, even the supposed centrists whose compromise eventually passed, reportedly demanded and got the removal of $4 billion to build or modernize green schools. And Republicans aren't the only problem. Inside the Beltway, even some Obama allies are lowering expectations in the name of "political realism." I recently attended an off-the-record briefing by a climate change insider, a thirty-year Washington veteran, who stressed again and again -- to a very green audience -- how "complicated" and "difficult" it will be to get agreement on Obama's emissions targets. Forget that Obama had just won an undeniable electoral mandate and that Democrats control both houses of Congress. Republicans are opposed, so saving the planet is just too ambitious.
Under the circumstances, there is no substitute for fresh thinking and intense public pressure, both of which will be brought to bear in the run-up to Copenhagen. "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants," Al Gore said in 2007. On March 2, Gore will get his wish. James Hansen of NASA, America's foremost climate scientist, will join hundreds of activists, many of them college students with the Power Shift climate movement, in an act of civil disobedience outside the coal plant that powers the US Capitol. Hansen has argued that preventing catastrophic climate change requires an end to new coal plants; now he will get arrested to make that point. "If there are young people sticking their necks out, how can old geezers who caused their problem hang back?" Hansen told The Nation. Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and Gus Speth are some of the other environmental luminaries who plan to get arrested in the action, which is being spearheaded by Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus Society and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.
I first proposed a Global Green Deal in 1998 in my book Earth Odyssey because six years of world travel had convinced me that fighting poverty had to go hand in hand with fighting climate change; you can't expect people to starve today to save tomorrow's planet. Relying on a mix of government policies and market mechanisms, the plan would use federal spending and regulation to encourage the rapid deployment of green technologies and practices here and abroad, especially in developing nations. A Global Green Deal follows in the tradition of the New Deal, which President Roosevelt devised to fight the Great Depression in the 1930s; the Marshall Plan, which restored stability in Europe in the '40s and '50s; and the Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon in the '60s and led to the personal computer revolution of the '80s. Like each of these forebears, a Global Green Deal would mobilize America's public and private resources with a wartime sense of urgency. Government would spend more, but it would spend more wisely, and its investments would stimulate enough economic activity that increased tax receipts would cover the costs. The deal would shift taxpayer support away from practices that make climate change worse -- i.e., Washington's copious financing of oil and coal projects -- and toward green counterparts. Policies that reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience at the same time, such as the rejuvenation of degraded forests and soils, would be a top priority.
The core principles of the deal have been embraced by leaders and citizen groups around the world, such as the prime minister of Japan, the foreign minister of Germany, and labor and environmental groups in Britain and the United States, including the AFL-CIO. In December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a very similar plan. In February Ban and Gore urged the world's governments to counter the economic crisis with spending that addresses immediate social needs and "launches a new green global economy." Noting that thirty-four nations are planning $2.25 trillion in stimulus spending, Ban and Gore warned that channeling this money "into carbon-based infrastructure and fossil-fuel subsidies would be like investing in subprime real estate all over again."
Most significant, President Obama has advocated policies that, at least domestically, align perfectly with those of a Global Green Deal. The stimulus package increases federal spending on green energy to three times the current level. But stabilizing our climate also requires that governments stop subsidizing activities that make things worse. Here, Obama still has far to go. The stimulus package contains $17 billion for mass transit but almost twice that much for new roads, according to Friends of the Earth. Senate-House conferees wisely deleted $50 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants from the bill, but fossil fuels continue to receive nearly twice as much in federal subsidies as do renewables and energy efficiency. For example, the stimulus package devotes $4.6 billion to research carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that, if it can be made to work -- a big if, in some experts' minds -- would capture a coal plant's carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground, where they would not contribute to global warming. Without CCS, continuing to burn coal is incompatible with preventing catastrophic climate change, says Hansen. But since it will be many years before CCS can be deployed, the more urgent task is to stop building coal plants and start phasing out existing ones. That goal, which Obama has given no sign of endorsing, is possible only if green alternatives receive even greater government support.
Energy efficiency is the alternative of choice under the Global Green Deal because it is the quickest and most lucrative means of reducing CO2 emissions and sparking economic development. Naysayers often complain that going green costs too much, especially in this time of economic crisis; but evidence suggests otherwise. Corporations and governments alike have found that investments in energy efficiency are extraordinarily profitable. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its global network of production facilities and offices. The company ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs -- a stunning thirty-two-fold return on investment. "Six companies -- IBM, DuPont, British Telecom, Alcan, NorskeCanada and Bayer -- have each reduced emissions by at least 60 percent since the early 1990s, collectively saving more than $4 billion in the process," according to Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Happily, the stimulus package contains $9.4 billion to upgrade the efficiency of government and military buildings. Under the Global Green Deal, the government would extend the same opportunity to businesses and households. Federal loans would underwrite the upgrades, and the resulting savings on energy bills would be used to pay taxpayers back with interest. The deal would also boost the efficiency of vehicles, appliances, and power and water use. For example, the rules governing electric utilities would be revised to reward them for selling less power. California did this in the 1970s. Since then, the state's electricity use has been flat, despite a growing population and economy, while the utilities have enjoyed solid profits.
Bringing other states up to California's efficiency levels would save as much electricity as is produced by 60 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. To offset the remaining 40 percent, solar and wind power must continue their recent rapid expansion. Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, notes that Texas, of all places, "has 45,000 megawatts of wind power either on line, under construction or in development, which is about equal to the average amount of electricity generated by forty-five coal plants." That's more than Texas can consume, and it illustrates the importance of developing a national "smart grid" so that wind power produced in one region can be transported to customers elsewhere. The stimulus package invests $11 billion in this vital initiative.
Although the Obama administration is embarking on a scaled-down version of the Global Green Deal at home, similar policies must be applied internationally as well. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report made it clear that rich nations cannot survive unless developing nations -- particularly China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies whose emissions are rising rapidly -- also cut emissions. As a moral and practical matter, the rich will have to help pay for this shift; otherwise it will not happen. Congressional Republicans will howl, but the facts are clear: rich countries released 80 percent of the greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere, and on a per capita basis they still emit much more than developing nations, where hundreds of millions of poor people need affordable energy. Most rich nations have long rejected the idea of paying the poor to go green. Now we have no choice. Instead of resisting, the United States should make a virtue of necessity by helping these countries go green at maximum speed. If we're smart, a Global Green Deal will open new markets for US exporters, just as the Marshall Plan did after World War II.
The deal also provides a framework that could break the most important impasse in climate change diplomacy: the longstanding mutual insistence by the United States and China that the other climate superpower act first to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the United States and the Soviet Union had with nuclear weapons during the cold war, the United States and China have loaded guns pointed at each other's heads, and at everyone else's. If both superpowers do not reduce emissions -- if they do not lower and unload their guns -- they will destroy themselves and the rest of civilization.
For years, Washington's intransigence has given China an easy excuse for refusing to reduce its emissions. Pursuing sharp emissions reductions, however, would give America leverage to press China to do its part. And there is reason to believe that China would welcome a climate deal, provided it is equitable. Its leaders at last appear to recognize that climate change is not only a rich man's problem. China is already being hurt by climate change -- 2007 brought the worst drought in ten years while record floods further undermined food production -- and worse lies in store, including a sea-level rise that could flood Shanghai. What's more, Chinese experts have long recognized that energy efficiency is the most potent source of green energy available. Studies supervised in the 1990s by Zhou Dadi, a top government adviser, showed that China could use 40-50 percent less energy if it installed efficiency technologies. Under the Global Green Deal, the United States and China would work together to capture these savings -- by promoting more efficient refrigerators, light bulbs and air conditioners, insulating China's notoriously drafty buildings and installing smarter electric motors and equipment.
Secretary of State Clinton's talks with top Chinese officials are cause for hope. Washington and Beijing pledged to work together toward energy efficiency and renewables and to achieve a "successful outcome" to the Copenhagen negotiations. A new report jointly produced by US and China experts and co-chaired by Steven Chu, a Chinese-American serving as Obama's energy secretary, urges regular "leaders summits" between China and the United States to pursue a climate deal. When Obama meets Chinese President Hu Jintao in April at the G-20 summit, he should invite Hu to join him for a series of talks to forge a path toward mutually assured reductions in emissions. (Such summits should augment, not displace, the UN negotiations that will culminate in Copenhagen.)
Can America make this green dream a reality? As candidate Obama famously said, Yes we can. But a Global Green Deal would amount to almost a revolution in how Washington works. It requires fundamental changes in where government money goes, including taking billions of dollars away from some of the most powerful lobbies and corporations in the country, above all the oil and coal industries. Obama promised to change how politics is done in Washington, but does he have the stomach for this? We'll see.
In any case, such change will come about only if President Obama and others in government are pushed from below -- by intense and sustained public pressure. As Obama explained to an audience in January 2008, when few gave him much of a chance to be president, "Change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up.... [People] arguing, mobilizing, agitating and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable.... That's how we're going to bring about change."
A day before Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, his colleagues in the Senate began preparing for the biggest global warming vote in Congressional history. America's Climate Security Act would for the first time impose large mandatory cuts on greenhouse gas emissions. The bill is not expected to become law, if only because of George Bush's promised veto. But the Senate debate could reveal a lot about how the next Congress and the next President, whether Obama or John McCain, will address the most urgent issue facing humanity.
In contrast to Bush, McCain and Obama recognize climate change as a top-priority threat that requires action now. Environmentally, Obama's proposals are stronger. The Democrat favors what science says is necessary: an 80 percent cut in emissions, from 1990 levels, by 2050. Obama would achieve this through a "cap and trade" system that sells corporations permits to emit greenhouse gases and then invests the revenue in green energy development and rebates to Americans hit with higher energy prices.
McCain, who co-sponsored the last important climate bill, in 2005, supports a 60 percent emissions cut by 2050. But it is doubtful that McCain's approach would actually deliver such large cuts, since his cap-and-trade system would give most permits away free, a provision environmentalists attack as a corporate giveaway. Obama, by contrast, proposes to sell all emissions permits at auction. Obama is also much less enthusiastic than McCain about nuclear power as a response to climate change.
The Climate Security Act -- whose cap-and-trade system aims to reduce emissions by 19 percent by 2020 and 71 percent by 2050 -- goes further than McCain's proposal but falls well short of Obama's. It also confronts both candidates with a political minefield. With gas hovering near $4 a gallon, politicians are wary of any measure that could raise prices even higher. Further complicating matters is an explosive new study that says that reversing climate change will require a swift end to burning coal. Neither candidate seems likely to endorse that idea (though Obama's website says he'll consider it) since it would all but doom his chances in Appalachia and other coal regions in November.
The coal ban recommendation comes from James Hansen of NASA, the dean of America's climate scientists. In April Hansen co-wrote a study that found that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut much more sharply than anyone previously assumed if humanity wishes to avoid the worst scenarios of climate change. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now 385 parts per million and climbing 2 ppm a year. Alarmingly, Hansen's study concluded that 350 ppm is the maximum compatible with a livable planet. In other words, humanity is already in the danger zone and must reverse course rapidly.
"We need a moratorium on the construction of traditional coal-fired power plants by 2010 and a phaseout by 2030," Hansen told me. This farewell to coal "has to be global," he added, and include China and India, which insist that burning coal is essential to lifting their people out of poverty. Yet eliminating coal burning is not unthinkable. Already about sixty of the 150 US coal plants planned a year ago have been canceled and another fifty are being contested. Moreover, a recent article in Scientific American suggested that solar thermal power could supply all of America's electricity. A self-described conservative, Hansen blames "special interests" for blocking these and other green energy solutions. "There's no reason we can't make the changes necessary except that the fossil fuel industries are determining governments' policies," he said.
The Climate Security Act is a case in point, argue Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which have urged defeat of the bill if it is not strengthened. Contrary to the bill's stated goal of 71 percent emissions cuts by 2050, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it would deliver cuts of just 25 percent. Why? Largely because the bill gives away 49 percent of the emissions permits, thus reducing the incentive for corporations and consumers to switch to greener energy sources. Nevertheless, most environmental groups and former Vice President Al Gore support the bill while urging that it be improved.
At press time, it remained unclear what role Obama and McCain would play in the Senate debate. But whatever the outcome, the fight for a new policy on climate change is just beginning. The real showdown comes next year, when a new Congress and President tackle the issue afresh. Despite its weaknesses, the Climate Security Act marks a decisive shift; its rhetorical commitment to 71 percent emissions reductions goes well beyond what was considered politically realistic even a year ago. But the earth does not compromise. If Hansen is right, the government will have to take much larger steps, and soon, if we are to salvage a livable planet.
It used to be that only environmentalists and paranoids warned about running out of oil. Not anymore. As climate change did over the past few years, peak oil seems poised to become the next big idea commanding the attention of governments, businesses and citizens the world over. The arrival of $119-a-barrel crude and $4-a-gallon gasoline this spring are but the most obvious signs that global oil production has or soon will peak. With global demand inexorably rising, a limited supply will bring higher, more volatile prices and eventually shortages that could provoke -- to quote the title of the must-see peak oil documentary -- the end of suburbia. If the era of cheap, abundant oil is indeed coming to a close, the world's economy and, paradoxically, the fight against climate change could be in deep trouble.
Though largely unnoticed by the world media, a decisive moment in the peak oil debate came last September, when James Schlesinger declared that the "peakists" were right. You don't get closer to the American establishment and energy business than Schlesinger, who has served as chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, head of the CIA, Defense Secretary, Energy Secretary and adviser to countless oil companies. In a speech to a conference sponsored by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, Schlesinger said, "It's no longer the case that we have a few voices crying in the wilderness. The battle is over. The peakists have won." Schlesinger added that many oil company CEOs privately agree that peak oil is imminent but don't say so publicly.
One who does is Jeroen van der Veer, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. Without using the term "peak oil," van der Veer warned in January, "After 2015, easily accessible supplies of oil and gas probably will no longer keep up with demand."
Of course, peak oil could arrive sooner than 2015; columnist George Monbiot has claimed in the Guardian that a Citibank report calculates the date at 2012. But even 2015 leaves a very short time in which to prepare, because modern societies were built on cheap, abundant oil.
"The world has never faced a problem like this," warned a 2005 study funded by George W. Bush's Energy Department. "Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary."
The United States, with its two-hour commutes, three-car families, atrophied mass transit and petroleum-based food system, is most vulnerable to an oil shock. But similar vulnerabilities exist in most industrial societies, not to mention the roaring economies of China and India, where oil consumption is rising faster even than GDP as newly middle-class consumers buy the cars they have long dreamed of.
At first glance, one might think that peak oil would help the fight against climate change. After all, less available oil should translate into less oil consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But modern civilization, to borrow George W. Bush's term, is addicted to oil. If peak oil arrives before the addiction is treated, the junkie will seek even more dangerous ways to get his fix.
Indeed, this is already happening. In Canada, energy companies are mining so-called tar sands -- a mix of sand, water and heavy crude oil that can be refined into usable petroleum. But burning tar sands is about the worst thing to do if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change because the resulting petroleum has a much greater carbon footprint than conventional oil. Currently, a dozen such projects are under way; projects awaiting approval would quadruple the emissions those projects generate. One encouraging sign: in response to a lawsuit filed by Ecojustice, the top federal court in Canada has temporarily blocked a tar sands project proposed by an ExxonMobil subsidiary on climate change grounds. "This is something which will clearly apply to every single oil-sands project that comes before environmental assessment of any kind," said Sean Nixon, a lawyer for Ecojustice Canada.
More encouragement: some high-level government officials recognize the danger of peak oil and may be contemplating action. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband wants his country to consider creating "a post-oil economy." New York Governor David Paterson has spoken in detail about the imminence of peak oil and what government can do about it: invest in greater energy efficiency in the short term and new low-carbon energy sources in the medium to long term. Plug-in hybrid cars, for example, can get more than 100 miles per gallon -- double that of today's generation of hybrids. And if the plug-in hybrids rely on electricity generated by solar, wind or other green energy sources, they fight climate change and peak oil at the same time.
Finally, activists in scores of towns and cities around the world are trying to prepare their communities for the transition to a post-oil economy. Rather than wait for national governments and multinational corporations to save them, these ordinary citizens are examining how their communities can produce their own energy, food, buildings and other essentials using local resources rather than materials that arrive from afar via oil-based transport. "Economic relocalization will be one of the inevitable impacts of the end of cheap transportation fuels," argues peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg. In Britain this movement has taken the form of "transition towns," which seek, in the words of organizer Rob Hopkins, "to design a conscious pathway down from the oil peak." Drawing on the experience of his hometown of Totnes, in Devon, Hopkins has just published The Transition Handbook, which explains how other towns can also begin preparing for the post-oil future.
Some of the transition movement's ideas -- printing local currency, forming solar buying clubs, building "cob" houses made of mud -- may seem quaint, inconvenient or naÃƒÂ¯ve. But nothing is more naÃƒÂ¯ve than assuming that the endless oil that modern societies grew addicted to over the past fifty years will last forever. The day of reckoning appears imminent, and as Hopkins says, "it is better to plan for it than be taken by surprise."
Fresh from winning the Nobel peace prize for his climate change evangelism, Al Gore is apparently considering an invitation from a prominent environmental group to engage in civil disobedience against the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
Rainforest Action Network issued the invitation to the former U.S. vice president, according to RAN executive director Michael Brune. The San Francisco-based group has a twenty year history of protesting against destructive logging practices and other causes of climate change; it specializes in targeting corporations as much as governments.
"We came across a quote from Gore in an interview with [New York Times] columnist Nicholas Kristoff back in August, saying he didn't understand, quote, 'why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them constructing new coal-fired power plants,'" said Brune. "We thought, 'Great idea!' That's the kind of activism we do at RAN. So we decided to invite Gore to join us."
The most interesting environmental leader in the United States right now is a former petrochemical worker from Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" named Jerome Ringo. As chairman of the board of the National Wildlife Federation, Ringo heads what is by far the nation's largest environmental organization, with 4 million members, not to mention one of its richest, with an $80 million budget.
It's unusual enough that a former union and community organizer would rise to the top of the NWF; traditionally, the group has belonged to the polite, apolitical wing of the movement -- more inclined to publish nature magazines for kids than to challenge corporate power ÃƒÂ la Greenpeace or Rainforest Action Network. But what really sets Ringo apart, both at NWF and throughout the mainstream movement's leadership, is that he is black.
"I am the first African-American in history to head a major conservation group," he says. Environmentalism in the United States has been dominated by well-to-do white men since the late nineteenth century, when John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt first put the notion of preserving natural resources on the national agenda with their campaigns to establish publicly owned parks and wilderness areas. Alluding to this history, Ringo says the whiteness of today's movement isn't because of racism. It's simply that most environmental groups "were founded by people who fished to put fish on the wall, not by people who fished to put fish on the table. And for poor people, issues like ozone depletion have not been a priority, compared with next month's rent. But I tell people in Cancer Alley, What good is next month's rent if you're dying from cancer?"
Now Ringo wants to bring these varying constituencies together across class and racial lines to build a broader and more powerful green movement. His chosen vehicle, besides the NWF, is the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor unions, environmental groups, business leaders and elected officials that advocates a massive green jobs and development program for the United States. Apollo proposes investing $300 billion of public funds in green energy technologies over the next ten years. This investment would create 3 million new jobs and countless business opportunities, Apollo claims, while also fighting climate change and cutting US dependence on foreign oil.
The benefits to poor and working-class Americans of such an economic stimulus program are clear, but the idea is also business-friendly enough to have attracted support from prominent Democratic moderates and other centrists, including the group Republicans for Environmental Protection. "I had a phone call with the chief of staff of [New Mexico] Governor Bill Richardson just this morning," says Ringo, who assumed Apollo's presidency last September. "Several months ago I joined Hillary Clinton and [Pennsylvania] Governor Ed Rendell when the Democrats released their Energy Independence 2020 Plan, and one of the first items was an Apollo project. Apollo began five years ago as a vision. My goal is to turn it into action."
It's still too early to say, but if Jerome Ringo and the Apollo Alliance are representative of larger trends, green politics may at last be finding its voice again in the United States. In the past, most environmentalists did not bother to articulate much of an economic message. Perhaps because they tended to be economically comfortable themselves, they overlooked the fact that many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and thus need to hear that green policies can mean not only cleaner air but also more and better jobs. Indeed, environmentalists often failed to reach out to other constituencies at all; they stayed inside their own issue silo and assumed that having facts on their side was enough.
"Our movement has been apolitical," says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "The idea was that politics is dirty and you don't want to get your hands dirty." Except for the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, environmentalists shunned electoral politics in particular. Green groups did not even turn out their own members to vote, much less boost turnout among ordinary citizens. When the outrages of the Bush Administration finally led some groups to consider taking a more active role in the 2004 elections, internal polling found that the 10 million members of national environmental groups voted at the same low turnout rates as the general population. "Some groups' members didn't even know there was much difference between Bush and Kerry on the environment," adds Blackwelder.
"No one feels the pain when they vote against the environment. They should," says Wendy Wendlandt, political director of the National Association of State Public Interest Research Groups. Noting that no politician, including Bush, wants to be seen as anti-environment, Wendlandt adds that the movement must "regain control over what it means to be environmentalist. We need to pick bright-line issues that define who is for you and who is against you and then hold elected officials accountable."
Bush's November 2004 victory jolted environmentalists, as did the nearly simultaneous release of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus's essay "The Death of Environmentalism." First reported in The Nation, the essay argued that the movement was failing because it remained wedded to timid, technical-fix solutions that ignored potential allies and left ordinary people uninspired and confused.
In the ensuing storm of argument, many greens responded that they had been saying as much for years. Others pointed out that Shellenberger and Nordhaus defined the movement very narrowly, ignoring thousands of state and local, environmental justice, anti-corporate and other grassroots organizations. The essay "reads more accurately and less offensively" if one realizes that when "the authors use the words 'environmental movement' they are actually talking about large budget" national organizations based in Washington, DC, wrote John Sellers of the Ruckus Society and Steve Kretzmann of Oil Change.
Those groups were indeed "locked into a costly and near futile legislatively dominated strategy," they added, but small and medium-sized groups were still driving change through local organizing and protest. To support their case that change in Washington tends to come "only after a lot of noise has been made, and attitudes have changed in the field," Sellers and Kretzmann cited a study by Jon Agnone of the University of Washington, who analyzed Congressional passage of environmental laws in the United States from 1960 to 1998. Agnone concluded that shifts in public opinion did help get legislation passed, but only when accompanied by visible acts of grassroots protest.
What no one disputes is that the movement's glory days of the 1960s and '70s seem long ago and far away. Back then, mass awareness and targeted activism propelled Washington politicians of both parties to enact a series of landmark laws -- including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act -- that transformed America's ecosystems and were copied by nations around the world. Ronald Reagan began the environmental rollback in the 1980s, and the Clinton Administration regained little ground in the '90s. But it is George W. Bush's Administration, with its overt hostility to environmentalism, that best highlights an embarrassing paradox for the movement.
Opinion polls indicate that more than 70 percent of the American people think we as a society should do "whatever it takes" to protect the environment. And no one can say the environmental movement lacks financial resources; the budgets of local and national groups amount to an estimated $1.7 billion a year. Nevertheless, Bush and his Congressional allies have pursued the most anti-environmental policies in the nation's history -- and escaped without paying much of a political price. As popular and wealthy as the environmental movement appears, the Bush era has exposed it as something of a paper tiger.
Yet the Bush years may turn out to be the movement's salvation, for they have led even the national groups based in Washington to recognize that a new approach is needed. And political space has now opened around climate change in particular. Hurricane Katrina, combined with a relentless accumulation of scientific findings, has at last awakened both the public and elites in the United States to the gravity of the threat. How else to explain how Al Gore, a man the media mercilessly mocked as dull, pretentious and untrustworthy during his 2000 presidential campaign, is now being treated as one of the hottest politicians in America, thanks largely to his starring role in the climate change documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
There are successes to learn from. The federal government is a dead end at the moment, but state and local environmental organizations are scoring solid victories in red and blue states alike. Meanwhile, years of pressure have led a surprising number of big-name corporations, including such longstanding villains as General Electric and Wal-Mart, to make and sometimes honor promises to change their operating practices -- thanks to a good cop, bad cop routine that offers them a choice between the in-your-face denunciations issued by groups like Global Exchange and Forest Ethics and the genteel green tutelage offered by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund.
Environmental justice groups like West Harlem Environmental Action are developing real political clout while proving that affluent white people aren't the only ones who care about clean air and water. And there has been an explosion of student activism, particularly around global warming, which Billy Parish, coordinator of the Climate Action Coalition, calls "far and away the biggest issue on campuses now, and not only for environmental groups. There are now 200 campuses purchasing substantial amounts of clean energy."
The successes have a number of themes in common, beginning with a focus on economically attractive solutions rather than downbeat warnings of disaster. "As scary as things look nowadays, we have decided to spend half of our time building the new -- showing how to solve these problems and have a better life in the bargain -- rather than always playing defense," says Betsy Taylor, founder of the Center for a New American Dream.
Another key has been reaching out to new and sometimes ideologically or culturally distant constituencies, and doing so in plain language that ordinary people can grasp (rather than the policy-wonk gibberish that environmentalists often utter). A third element has been an emphasis on sustained local organizing that grows the movement's base of support and seeks to build real political power -- a departure from many groups' reliance on activist insiders skilled in lobbying, litigation and other tactics aimed at the status quo.
One hesitates to dust off the clichÃƒÂ©, but together the strategies recall the 1960s slogan "Think globally, act locally." The stress on organizing begins to correct a mistake that progressive movements made in the wake of the high-profile victories of the 1960s, argues Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. As grants from mainstream foundations began boosting budgets dramatically, says Jones, the civil rights movement became a civil rights bureaucracy, staffed with lobbyists and lawyers who increasingly tried to stand in for a demobilized black community. The same happened with other progressive movements, with the result, Jones adds, that over time "most of us spent more time writing grant applications and doing work that had nothing to do with building political power."
"The huge successes of the 1970s were built on decades of work, a lot of it done at the local level, around issues and concerns that then were taken national. We've been drawing down on these capital reserves ever since then without rebuilding them at the local level," says Buck Parker, executive director of Earthjustice and current chair of the Green Group, made up of leaders from thirty national environmental groups who convene regularly to discuss strategy and tactics.
It was self-deceptive for environmentalists to think they enjoyed support from 70 percent of the American public, argues Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. A keener analysis of polling data, says Pope, reveals that about 40 percent of the public are pro-environment but not pro-environmentalist. These 40 percent take green positions on policy questions (e.g., Do you support action on global warming?), but culturally "they see us as too extreme. They tend to be more rural and conservative but also include significant numbers of urban, nonwhite and less educated people. The right effectively split them off from us in the 1980s and '90s, and we did nothing to prevent this. We didn't build good relationships with churches, labor unions and African-American and Latino constituencies." Concludes Pope, "Our challenge is to reknit the environmental majority, because it's still there, it's just been artificially divided." The place to start is at the state level, where activists are passing "amazing legislation that we couldn't even talk about with the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. Idaho just enacted a two-year ban on coal-fired power plants. The Idaho governor, who is now Bush's new Interior Secretary, didn't want to do it, but the legislature rolled him. Maryland, with a Republican governor, has signed on to the Kyoto Protocol."
"In 2004 Kerry lost Colorado, but we won everything else here," says Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. Jones's group was a key member of a broader progressive coalition that, in a state with a majority of Republican voters, passed three progressive ballot initiatives, took back the state legislature and won the US Senate seat. "Seeing how the conservatives who orchestrated the Gingrich revolution [in 1994] went back to the grassroots made me realize that we needed to do the same thing," says Jones.
The key in Colorado was to "appeal to people across the political spectrum" by addressing their concerns as much as environmentalists' own. To pass the renewable energy initiative, progressives won over economically strapped farmers in the east of Colorado, who have traditionally voted Republican, by stressing how wind farms could help them pay their bills. Even the Farm Bureau, usually environmentalists' enemy, ended up backing the initiative, as did the Republican Speaker of the House.
A similar green upsurge has taken place in Michigan. "For fifteen years we counted it as a success if we could just protect the status quo," says Lana Pollack, president of the Michigan Environmental Council. "Now we actually move the ball down the field. And we have a Republican House and Senate and a Democratic governor, so we have to move things through both parties." Much of the change comes from implementing what Pollack concedes are Politics 101 tactics. "You have to work at the ground level. We turn out thousands of letters to get constituents informed and revved up. We don't put out dense reports but shorter, more newsworthy releases. We stopped looking at everyone outside the environmental world as the hostile, unwashed masses and saw them as distinct interests that on occasion might align with ours, including nurses groups, business groups and the Michigan Association of Realtors."
Leaders of national groups say they too are returning to the grassroots, mainly by collaborating more with state and local organizations. "It was critical to be in Washington the last few years to resist the [Bush] rollback, which we've done," says Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. But when the Administration proposed allowing inadequately treated sewage to drain into coastal runoff systems, Beinecke adds, NRDC "took the issue out of Washington to a state that would be severely affected by that proposal, Florida, and worked it there. We put local groups like the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs out front to raise awareness of the issue, and we got eighteen out of twenty-five members of the Florida Congressional delegation to come out against it, including very conservative members like Katherine Harris."
The successes in Michigan and Colorado might not have happened without deep-pocket local donors who supported such grassroots organizing, local activists say. But national activists complain that national funders, especially foundations, have resisted this approach in favor of quick-fix solutions. "Funders have very short time spans and want to see measurable results, and you can't build the kind of [movement we envision] in a short period of time," says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. Carl Pope says the Sierra Club is now "in partnership with the United Steelworkers, the biggest industrial union in America, to go into a number of states and try to create a class-blind environmental movement." But foundations have declined to fund the initiative because it cannot promise specific policy outcomes within the next two years, says Pope, who adds, "I assure you, not a single important right-wing funder in this country thinks that way."
Some $2.8 billion is donated every year to progressive service and advocacy groups in the United States, according to Democracy Alliance, a group of nonfoundation donors and activists who are working to fortify the progressive infrastructure. Only $500 million of that money, about 18 percent, goes to groups that work locally. Within the environmental field, activist groups receive a total of $1.7 billion a year, of which only $187 million -- barely 10 percent -- goes to groups that work at the local level. (By far the largest portion of environmental funding goes to land trusts, which buy and protect land that is environmentally or aesthetically valuable.) "Those numbers show what is readily apparent when you look around Washington, DC," says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "This is a top-heavy movement. You need lobbyists and experts, sure, but not as many as we have. Look at the National Rifle Association. They know that power is built in the field, so they focus on individual Congressional districts.... The difficulty is, organizing is not sexy. It doesn't get you headlines in the New York Times. It is scruffy, dirt-under-the-fingernails power building."
"In-depth organizing is a hard sell to national foundations," says Bill Roberts, president of the Beldon Fund, which underwrote the organizing in Michigan. Roberts does not bring up the following example but does confirm it when asked: After some environmental groups finally began to collaborate with other progressive organizations during the 2004 election campaign, Roberts tried to convince other funders to help him keep the best parts of the infrastructure in place for future work. His appeal was rejected. "Some funders were persuaded," he recalls. "But many others wanted to know what specific activities would be developed and implemented in 2005 before committing funds."
Joshua Reichert, managing director of the policy initiatives and environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, counters that it is unreasonable to ask foundations to underwrite long-term organizing. Arguing that the current state of the movement is "reasonably strong," Reichert charges that green groups are themselves responsible for any lack of grassroots organizing: "Most of these groups get more of their money from memberships [in dues] than they do from foundations. Groups can pour that money back into organizing, if they choose to. Foundations put money in when they're interested in a specific program a group is doing."
If working outside the Beltway is crucial to making environmental progress, environmental groups have to learn to talk in a way people outside the Beltway can understand. "What ordinary person knows what carbon sequestration means?" asks Peggy Shepherd, the founder of West Harlem Environmental Action. Sitting in her modestly furnished office above the fast-food and discount stores of 125th Street, Shepherd points out the window and continues, "We spend a lot of our time translating this stuff into language that makes sense to people living in that housing project over there. We've got to let people know that the environment is their home, it's their kids' school, so they can understand their connection to these global problems that seem so big."
Reaching out more will also require environmentalists to face issues of race and class -- issues they have long skirted, despite the well-known fact that poor and nonwhite communities are disproportionately victimized by environmental degradation. Fifteen years after the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit put environmental justice on the green agenda, the top ranks of mainstream organizations remain dominated by white men. Of the thirty leaders in the Green Group, all but two are white; all but three are men. "Whenever I go to middle- or high-level environmental meetings, I'm always the only person of color in the room and, what's even more shocking, one of only two or three women," says Shepherd. "It's very surprising, because I know those women and people of color are out there."
"It is a bit tragic that people who are presumably progressive are so far behind on this," says Carl Anthony, deputy director of the Ford Foundation's community and resource development unit. "Take your average corporation, say Pepsi Cola; they're way ahead of the environmental movement in terms of doing at least lip service on this. Even George Bush's Administration has an African-American Secretary of State."
Diversifying the movement is not a matter of political correctness, Anthony emphasizes, but of effectiveness. "Look at what the environmental justice movement has taught everybody about toxics. In the 1970s environmentalists were saying if we don't cut back on toxics, such and such bad things would happen. But environmental justice folks were saying, 'It's already happening in our communities.' Unless we build this edge to our movements, we can't win."
More and more mainstream environmentalists agree, if only because they realize that middle-class white people are increasingly unrepresentative of twenty-first-century America. "The changing demographics of the United States mean that environmental groups, to succeed, have got to speak to Latinos, African-Americans and other new constituencies," says Bill Davis, director of the State Environmental Leadership Program.
Jerome Ringo knows from his years of organizing in Louisiana that bridging the divide won't be easy. "You can't just tell people in Cancer Alley that they should join conservation groups because they'll ask, What have you done for me lately?" he says. "And conservation groups don't have much of an answer for that. They have to step up to the plate and address the issues that impact minority communities."
Mainstream environmental leaders concede the problem and are working on it, says Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society and coordinator of the Green Group's efforts on diversity. "I remember sitting at a table at one of the conferences we've begun holding to support this kind of work," he says. "Seated to my right was a woman from Florida who was very involved in environmental justice issues; she was opposing a coal-fired power plant. To my left was a CEO of an organization that worked on climate change. He was bemoaning that he didn't have the constituency at a local level that could push the McCain-Lieberman climate bill in Congress. She was complaining she didn't have the national visibility needed to stop that plant. Investing in building that kind of infrastructure, to make sure those linkages occur, is the most important work we can do in the next five years."
Robert Gottlieb, the author of "Forcing the Spring," a history of the US environmental movement, says outreach by mainstream green groups to environmental justice activists is "sufficiently widespread that you can't say it's just window dressing." But, he warns, "without a rootedness in local organizing, the full potential of this movement will not be realized."
Part of what makes Jerome Ringo interesting is that he personifies this potential to create an environmental movement that is broader and deeper than before -- to "reknit the environmental majority," in Carl Pope's phrase. As a former union organizer and community activist, Ringo is clearly sympathetic to the disadvantaged. But his years as a successful business owner enable him to reach out to the private sector, and as chair of the National Wildlife Federation he can also relate to the 20 percent of voters who describe themselves as hunters and anglers. Those people are usually assumed to be conservative. But a recent poll commissioned by the NWF found that 78 percent of them support renewable energy, perhaps because they recognize that fossil fuels are ruining their recreation areas.
"The glue that connects the dots" is the fight against climate change, says Ringo. In the past, green groups diffused their impact by working on too many different issues, he continues, but now every major green group "has recognized that global warming is the issue." Donning his Apollo Alliance hat, Ringo argues that environmentalists can best pursue this battle, and gain new allies in the process, by championing green energy and jobs.
It's a good time to be making this argument. Not only has global warming finally been widely acknowledged as an urgent problem, it is now undeniable that fighting it can be extraordinarily profitable. The more that conventional energy prices go up, the more profitable it will be to invest in green energy -- above all, in energy efficiency. It's not exciting, but energy efficiency -- doing more work with less fuel -- is and will remain for years to come the most potent and lucrative source of green energy. To paraphrase Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the greenest energy is the energy that is never produced in the first place.
Many corporations are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, energy giant BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its production facilities and offices. It ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs -- a stunning thirty-two-fold return on its original investment. But why let the private sector have all the fun? There is no reason state and local governments, schools and other public entities, community groups and individuals cannot cash in as well. At the moment, most of civil society is leaving this energy efficiency windfall on the table. But clever activists could change that. Bring together the key players -- public officials, energy planners, efficiency companies, unions, financiers and community leaders -- outline the opportunities at hand, and the economics are so compelling that the rest of the job should almost take care of itself.
Illustrating that Republicans need not be blind to this logic, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has pushed some of the greenest energy policies in the nation. "The Governor's Green Building Initiative is designed to reduce the state's energy use in state buildings 20 percent by 2015," says Terry Tamminen, Schwarzenegger's top environmental aide. "We're doing audits right now on all the state government buildings and finding that if you put in energy-efficient lighting, you can earn your investment back in eighteen months." At Schwarzenegger's direction, the Public Utilities Commission has also approved a Million Solar Roofs program, which will spend $3.2 billion in the next eleven years to subsidize installing solar energy for new buildings. "That $3.2 billion will generate four times that value in jobs, according to the California Energy Commission," adds Tamminen. "And those jobs will be here in California, where much of the research and development for the next generation of solar energy is happening."
Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson is an unapologetic Democrat in what may be the reddest state in the nation. But he has implemented serious green policies during his five years as mayor -- and won not only re-election but plaudits from the local business community. "When I can get up in front of the Salt Lake City Rotary Club, which is by and large conservative businesspeople, and get a standing ovation after talking about the kinds of changes we're making here, that says a lot," Anderson says. His city government committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels (i.e., more than Kyoto requires). By the end of 2005 it had already exceeded that target while boosting city revenues, thanks to dramatic increases in energy efficiency and methane recovery from its wastewater and landfill facilities. The city then shared its lessons with local businesses and citizens via so-called E2 programs -- energy and environment. "We show them how they can do the same and generally save money as well," says Anderson, who adds, "It's important to have a positive message. People respond so well to the sense that, yes, we have these [environmental] challenges, but we have a can-do spirit and we can do the right thing and come out ahead."
At Anderson's invitation, Ringo spoke about the Apollo program at the National Conference of Mayors in June and got a standing ovation, too. The Apollo message is ready-made for municipal governments; 235 mayors have committed their cities to meeting or exceeding the greenhouse-gas emissions reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol. And many cities are already sold on green development plans, says Keith Schneider, a former New York Times reporter who is deputy director of an environmental group, the Michigan Land Use Institute. "Cities have become the great incubators of sustainable ideas and policy in the United States, and are generally much farther ahead than any state government and certainly farther ahead than the federal government," Schneider notes, adding that local leaders think such efforts are "as vital to their community's well-being as fighting crime and improving public schools."
Environmentalism teaches that everything is connected. Yet when it came to politics, environmentalists ignored this truth for many years -- until now. By going local, talking plainly, promoting solutions and working with a broad range of stakeholders, environmentalists could drive the next great wave of economic growth in this country while also addressing the single gravest threat to our collective future. Making such an end run around the federal government will not make George W. Bush irrelevant. But it will leave him behind, as the rest of the world has already done on climate change, and return environmentalism to the American mainstream, where it belongs.
George W. Bush may not know it, but one influential part of his government is finally taking global climate change seriously. An extraordinary new report by an elite Pentagon planning unit has declared that climate change is a national security threat of the greatest urgency and demands an immediate response.
Directly contradicting Bush and other right-wingers, the Pentagon report maintains that climate change is not only real, it could strike sooner and with much deadlier effect than is usually thought. By 2020, when babies born today will be in high school, climate change could unleash a series of interlocking catastrophes including mega-droughts, mass starvation and nuclear war, as countries like China, India and Pakistan battle over river valleys and other sources of scarce food and water. If the climate's tipping point is reached, change could come abruptly, within a span of three to five years, and ironically result in another ice age. A frozen northern Europe would become all but uninhabitable. The American Midwest would be rendered a dust bowl. Southern California would go thirsty. The risk of such outcomes is uncertain and "quite possibly small," the Pentagon report notes before adding,"but given the dire consequences, it should be elevated beyond a scientific debate. Action now matters."
Bush and his allies in the fossil-fuel and auto industries will find these conclusions hard to accept but also hard to ignore. The naysayers' usual defense -- that climate change is more a theory favored by liberals than a reality proven by data -- won't work against Andrew Marshall, the brain behind the Pentagon report. At 83, Marshall is a legendary figure who has done "big picture" strategic planning for the military for decades and been a trusted associate of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld since the 1970s, when the two men were among the earliest advocates of missile defense, the right wing's holy grail.
It's not known whether Rumsfeld has read the climate change report, but either Marshall or someone close to him made sure it didn't get buried: A copy of the unclassified study was given to Fortune, which published a measured yet terrifying summary in its February 9 issue. Placing the report in such a respected, widely read business publication may have been Marshall's way to do an end run around the White House and send a message to US business leaders: Wake up to climate change's dangers and work to shift civilization's course.
One immediate effect may involve the World Bank, whose board of directors is expected to vote by April 15 on a controversial recommendation to stop all funding of coal and oil development, the two fuels most responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions that propel climate change. The vote poses a dilemma for World Bank president James Wolfensohn, for the recommendation comes from an advisory commission he himself appointed to show that the bank was open to input from civil society.
The so-called Extractive Industries Review commission was chaired by Emil Salim, a former environment minister of Indonesia and former board member of a coal company, and it featured representatives of industry, labor unions, Third World governments, nongovernmental organizations and indigenous peoples. Citing the dangers of climate change and the often punishing human rights and pollution effects on local people, the review urged that the bank halt all coal loans immediately and all oil loans by 2008. It also recommended that the bank increase renewable energy loans by 20 percent a year and grant local peoples the right to veto projects they don't want.
These changes would amount to a virtual revolution in the World Bank's operations, so it's not surprising that bank management has resisted them. "The bank has been one of the world's leading public investors in climate change," says Daphne Wysham, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, who monitored the Extractive Industries Review. Wysham notes that the World Bank's energy lending is lopsidedly biased, with 94 percent of total funds underwriting fossil-fuel projects and only 6 percent supporting renewables like wind and solar.
According to a draft response, World Bank management wants the board to reject nearly all the commission's reforms. Rather than halt coal and oil loans, management urges $300 million to $500 million a year in new funding. Fossil fuels, reasons the draft, are the cheapest energy available and thus promise to speed Third World countries' ascent from poverty.
But the Pentagon report makes it harder for defenders of the status quo to sustain such arguments. What good is it to ascend from poverty into a world descending into weather chaos and social breakdown? Such reasoning is unlikely to sway George W. Bush; progress in the United States will have to wait until after he is replaced as President. But at the World Bank, the board of directors will soon make a fateful decision: Either back management's call for more coal and oil or lead the way to a post-carbon future. If board members take the trouble to read the Pentagon's warnings in Fortune, it's hard to see how they could vote the wrong way.
Mark Hertsgaard is an independent American journalist and the author of five books, including "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World."