Gore or Bush? Who cares? Not environmentalists

After eight dispiriting years of Clinton-Gore, frustrated green groups are targeting corporations instead.

Published October 23, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

It's the new millennium, the earth is burning up, you're a green-minded citizen and you're worried, because nobody -- not even Al Gore -- seems willing or able to do anything about it. But if you're concerned about how your presidential vote will affect the situation, you might try to think like John Passacantando, the new director of Greenpeace.

Passacantando doesn't care who becomes president because when it comes to the environment he doesn't think it will make much difference. His new strategy for Greenpeace is to bypass the political process altogether and target corporations instead. He wants to hit them where it hurts the most: brand identity.

"Corporations spend millions of dollars on their reputations in the market," says Passacantando, his feet propped on a picnic table during a Greenpeace retreat in the forested mountains of western Maryland. "They want to be considered sexy and attractive. And we're going to go after that identity."

Passacantando is one of a new breed of environmental activists. After eight disappointing years in which the first openly environmentalist occupants of the White House did little to brake global warming or advance the cause of other ecological issues, the locus of "green" activism has shifted from the world of policy and politics to corporations -- their boardrooms and the streets outside them, and the intangible space where their images are formed.

The opposing aspects of this trend were visible this week, when Environmental Defense, a buttoned-down, lawyer-led Washington group, announced it had arranged a partnership with seven multinational corporations that promise to substantially reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

A few blocks away, at Greenpeace USA's new headquarters, militants held a welcoming party for Passacantando, the energetic new executive director of the group, which has fallen on hard times in the past several years, with declining membership and a distinctly lower public profile. Passacantando was the first person arrested at the anti-globalization protests outside the gathering of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- he'd chained himself to a truck. In the same vein, at Greenpeace he's promising lots of direct action against global corporations -- shareholder protests, student disinvestment campaigns, street theater.

In the closing days of a presidential campaign that pits a governor who doubts the science behind global warming against a vice president who believes it but whose record indicates he can't or won't do anything about it, many environmental activists seem increasingly indifferent to the traditional political game. Some halfheartedly support Gore, while others are lending their support to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader even though they recognize his campaign as a lost cause.

And many are simply sitting out the process entirely. When the Sierra Club endorsed Gore in July, it declared that support for him within the organization was "overwhelming." But the press release announcing the decision also revealed that while 39 of the group's chapters voted to endorse Gore and only one voted for Nader, 16 chapters did not even bother to respond to the national office's six-month effort to survey membership opinion.

The reason for that indifference, says Passacantando, is that environmentalists now recognize that politicians are often just middlemen in effecting social change.

"Given the power of the global corporations, whether on trade or environmental issues, increasingly you have to take it straight to their brand identity in the marketplace, as opposed to going to politicians who act as their surrogates at one remove," Passacantando told Salon. "They spend millions of dollars creating a brand image; they know it's possibly the most valuable thing they have. There's no point in writing your congressman if he already gave up his power to some agency called the World Trade Organization."

Although Environmental Defense's tactics and philosophy are as restrained as Greenpeace's are flamboyant, Sarah Wade, the economic analyst in the group's Washington office, agrees with Passacantando that the corporate world, rather than the political process, is the most effective current focus of activity.

"On climate change," she says, "there's just not a lot of opportunity to work with the government right now." The Republican-controlled Senate has blocked initiatives the administration has pushed, she says -- most notably the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for the United States to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

This political deadlock has disgusted and frustrated many environmentalists who took Al Gore at his word when he campaigned in 1992 on a platform of radical environmentalism. At a time when the scientific consensus in support of global warming was far weaker than it is today, Gore took the Bush administration to task for failing to slow the greenhouse effect and boldly called for new taxes and government programs to stop it. His book, "Earth in the Balance," posed such a deep philosophical challenge to the American way of life that even neo-Luddite Jeremy Rifkin, the diehard opponent of genetic engineering and other new technologies, termed it "revolutionary."

But while Clinton and Gore stood their ground against attempts to overturn basic clean air and water rules, pushing for new regulations was a low priority. Giant fleets of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles zoomed onto the highways through a loophole in car-emission standards that the administration did nothing to close. While Motor City enjoyed subsidies for developing improved engines that have yet to make it to market, solar power got less attention than it had under President Bush. And with zero support for the Kyoto treaty in the Senate, the administration ended up undermining it -- the very thing Gore had lambasted Bush the elder for doing to the earlier Rio treaty, which had set the world on the path to cutting greenhouse gases back in 1992.

"Clinton-Gore have been all talk and no action," says Anna Aurilio of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a progressive muckraking organization. "That's the big disappointment."

It's not as though global climate change became any less evident during the Democrats' tenure. Eleven of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1987. There has been no shortage of unsettling anecdotes that suggest a catastrophic change in climate is occurring. Hundred-year storms and floods have hit almost every year. Coral reefs are cooking to death in hot water, swelling seas are slowly submerging South Sea islands and plagues of insects and microorganisms have moved steadily north. As I write this, trucks are spraying pesticide near my home in Washington against mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus, whose spread seems to be due to the proliferation of mosquitoes in northern areas experiencing longer, hotter summers.

Rather than aiming for systemic change, the environmental movement is largely approaching the problem in a piecemeal fashion. Activists are seeking to nudge individual corporations to take voluntary action because government regulation is much harder to achieve.

The Forest Stewardship Council, a tiny transnational group based in Oaxaca, Mexico, has used its green seal of approval to get retailers like Home Depot and manufacturers like Andersen Corp., a maker of prefabricated windows, to agree not to sell or use old-growth timber. Environmental Defense has worked with McDonald's to reduce excess packaging of its Big Macs and fries.

In the most far-reaching and controversial development, environmentalists, industry representatives and government officials meeting next month in The Hague will discuss establishing a system of pollution credits as a way to reduce greenhouse gases.

The idea is to set up a trillion-dollar market in CO2 production rights. Corporations that lower their emissions below particular targets could then sell their emission rights to polluting factories. Companies that plant trees -- which absorb CO2 until the trees return the carbon when they die and rot -- might also receive credits.

Some environmental groups think this market-driven approach is the way to go. Environmental Defense's partnership agreement with companies like British Petroleum, Dutch/Shell Group and DuPont is sort of a test run. By 2010, the seven companies have agreed to reduce their annual emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to 15 percent below 1990 levels -- a total cut of 90 million tons per year.

The companies have three motivations for entering into such agreements: public relations, saving money by reducing inefficient use of energy and a third that is closely linked to The Hague discussions. Forward-looking executives, says Wade, recognize that in the future they'll be forced to pay for higher emissions. By acting now, they may actually earn tradable pollution credits. "Let's say you're going to build a new power generating station," says Wade. "You don't want to make a bad investment today, so what does it really cost you to reduce your carbon output?"

Even Environmental Defense acknowledges that it will be hard to verify the reductions. There's also the dubious value of rewarding companies for changes that have nothing to do with an environmental commitment.

Some activists are skeptical of emission trading, saying it will achieve only nominal benefits. There is particular concern about deals that might allow U.S. companies to continue to pollute by paying off other countries for their pollution rights -- a subject that will be explored at The Hague. These countries include former Soviet republics like Russia and Belarus that currently emit less CO2 than they did in the benchmark year of 1990 -- because of economic collapse -- which gives them more leeway to pollute than signatories to the Kyoto Protocol whose emissions have grown along with their economies during the past decade.

"We think the U.S. needs to reduce domestic emissions," says Aurilio. "We're the biggest producers and we have a responsibility." She also criticizes the idea of crediting companies for planting trees. "There's no guarantee they'll stay standing," she says. "Someone can burn them down the next year."

The Sierra Club's Dan Becker is even more emphatically opposed to the emissions trades. He calls Environmental Defense's deal with the seven corporations "a scam that gives green cover to a bunch of polluters."

But if the threat of global warming seems to call for stronger measures, the public, whether out of ignorance, skepticism or a sense of powerlessness, hasn't responded in a way that puts pressure on politicians.

Hank Jenkins-Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico who has polled about 30,000 Americans on environmental issues, says that while concern about climate change is growing, people aren't willing to do anything about it.

"We've seen some dramatic stuff in the last few years," he says. "Open water at the North Pole. Horrible hurricane seasons. Plenty of data showing that temperatures are up. People clearly harbor unease. What's been striking is the ease with which resolve to do something about it can vanish in the face of even pseudoscientific argument."

In the view of environmentalists and a growing number of scientists, pseudoscience refers to studies funded by industry groups that suggest carbon dioxide simply fuels plant growth and isn't responsible for warming the atmosphere at all.

That's the attitude of Frederick Palmer of the Western Fuels Association, one of the lead industry groups opposed to regulations of CO2 output. The furthest his group will go is to say the government should pay companies to plant more trees to absorb the CO2, while waiting to see if more evidence of atmospheric damage comes in.

"The role of the government should not be to tax, cap and limit in terms of what we are doing and how we live our lives, but to develop technology solutions that prove to be necessary as we go forward in the years to come," Palmer said during a hearing before Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., last month.

With political gridlock over the issue, it's not surprising that most people concerned about global warming have come to focus on technical fixes. In one of the few statements Gore made about global warming during the presidential debates, he certainly wasn't stressing the "wrenching transformation to save the planet" that he wrote about in 1992.

"If we take the leadership role and build the new technologies like the new kinds of cars and trucks that Detroit is itching to build," Gore said during the second debate, "then we can create millions of good new jobs by being first into the market." It was both a pander to Michigan voters and a clear statement about the realities of environmental politics today.

Even a large segment of the environmental movement sees things the same way. Although they lambaste Gore for failing to deliver on his vision, many activists no longer stress individual lifestyle changes but instead lobby and pressure corporations to introduce technology that's green.

Passacantando came to Greenpeace in September from Ozone Action, a group he co-founded in 1993 to organize protests and generate research into the growing stratospheric ozone hole, and which eventually branched out to tackle global warming as well. Passacantando says he thinks the world can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50 to 70 percent -- the amount the International Panel on Climate Change says will be needed to stop greenhouse gas damage --"without profound lifestyle changes."

"That sounds outrageous but ultimately, efficiency is going to be incorporated into all our building structures, our cars," he acknowledges. "I think it's important to walk the walk, to be frugal, but if the choices in the market don't provide efficient alternatives, what can we ask the public to do, make their own refrigerators?"

Greenpeace, Passacantando says, doesn't see a big difference in the picture between a Bush and Gore presidency. Its strategy, regardless of who's elected, he says, will be to push corporations to introduce cleaner devices by attacking them where it matters: brand image.

"Is it disappointing that, given Gore's knowledge of global warming after seven years, they didn't go out there and push for strong solutions? Yeah, of course," says Passacantando, whose wife, Lisa Guide, is a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of the Interior. "Their internal calculus was that the issue's not ready and it will cost them politically. I don't believe that, but the interpretation I have to make of it is: We haven't done our job well enough yet. To work on issues as big as these, you've got to generally be an optimist."

Still, there are all those ugly SUVs out there -- a testament to public indifference in the face of a problem that, if we are to believe the scientists, could practically destroy our world. According to a recent study by the Sierra Club, the U.S. could be using a million fewer barrels of oil every day if SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks got the same mileage that cars do. "About 10 percent of our total CO2 emissions could be cut just by fixing our cars," says Becker.

But Passacantando, surprisingly, is not overly concerned about them. With oil prices rising and more attention being focused on vehicular safety issues, he ultimately expects the trend to pass. "I view the SUV trend as a bad stylistic choice," he says. "They're like bell-bottoms. They'll go away and we'll laugh at them. Ten years from now we'll see them in retro movies.

"In my opinion, the markets are going to take care of that," he adds. "These vehicles are unstable and wickedly unsafe and to drop $80 at the gas pump to fill your Suburban will at some point be either financially impossible or downright embarrassing to most people."

The other reality of climate change that environmentalists have to reckon with is the fact that it will be impossible to entirely eliminate doubt about whether climate change is happening, how much of it can be blamed on greenhouse gases, and whether there's anything we can do about the weather.

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently argued in a scientific paper that the most efficient way to slow climate change might be focusing on the reduction of greenhouse-producing substances such as soot and methane gas -- which are particularly harmful to the atmosphere -- rather than carbon dioxide. Energy companies jumped on Hansen's paper as evidence that CO2 wasn't the problem -- which isn't what Hansen was saying.

But while there's an overwhelming scientific consensus that growing CO2 emissions are going to cause some major climatic changes, no one can confidently predict what those changes will be, in part because the computer models used to predict change aren't complete. Though these models are sophisticated, they still lack certain hard-to-factor variables such as the ocean's role as a carbon emitter or absorber, the role that different types of clouds play in the heating equation and changes in the type of solar particles reaching the atmosphere.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the world presented by the computer models is about to be devastated by global warming," says James Trefil, a physicist and climate expert at George Mason University. "The problem is, Are we sure that our world is the world in the model?"

In Trefil's view, the warming models are real enough to present a risk that we should be doing something about. "But it's like paying an insurance premium," he says. "You shouldn't bankrupt yourself paying the premiums -- you don't want to shut down industrial society." A good middle ground, he says, is to push for improved technology -- better-insulated houses, commercial solar power, cars fueled by hydrogen batteries. "Fifty years from now, no one will regret that we've developed solar power even if global climate change isn't a disaster," he says.

By Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen writes on health, science and other issues for Salon and Kaiser Health News. He lives in Washington.

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