A wimpier shade of green

Why aren't environmental groups taking to the streets to protest the U.S.'s snubbing of the Kyoto Protocol?


Amanda Griscom Little
February 19, 2005 2:00PM (UTC)

It's been an action-packed week on the climate front: The Kyoto Protocol finally went into effect on Wednesday throughout the vast majority of the industrialized world (with the U.S. conspicuously not included), and Capitol Hill is awash in climate-related assaults and initiatives.

Congress faced a double whammy of President Bush's most environmentally controversial proposals: The back-from-the-dead omnibus energy bill -- a feast for purveyors of planet-warming fossil fuels -- got a hearing in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted on the Clear Skies Act, in the face of widespread criticism of its failure to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide.

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On the brighter side, or at least the greener side, was the trio of bills introduced Tuesday by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to spur the development of the technologies necessary to manage the climate crisis, and the reintroduction last week of the Climate Stewardship Act by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., which would cap CO2 emissions.

"It's remarkable that this many climate-related initiatives are taking the public stage at one time," said Casey Aden-Wansbury, Lieberman's press secretary.

Strangely, despite this swarm of policy activity, there are no grand stirrings within the Beltway environmental community. At a time when you might expect green leaders to launch a unified, large-scale campaign on climate change -- a march on Washington, say, or a nationwide media blitz denouncing Bush's withdrawal from Kyoto, or a forward-looking climate strategy endorsed by all -- the responses from Capitol Hill activists are surprisingly scattered and narrow in scope.

"It's pathetic," said one D.C.-based environmental leader who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's intensely frustrating. There was a meeting in December among the leaders of the major [environmental] groups to say, what are we going to do about [Kyoto]? How can we use it to generate energy, to raise awareness? The idea of a march came up, of far-reaching demonstrations, but not much came out of it. Basically, we dropped the ball on organizing."

To be fair, some national environmental groups made timely efforts: On Tuesday, National Environmental Trust hosted an event in Boston to release the findings of an EPA-funded study showing how global warming could affect a major U.S. coastal city. Scientists from several East Coast universities presented an animation demonstrating how rising seas could devastate the Boston area. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, for its part, released a new report on Wednesday that documents the economic benefits and job-creation opportunities of moving toward a clean-energy economy.

In a less wonky vein, Greenpeace USA rallied 50-some students at San Jose State University today to pass out slushies made with solar-powered equipment in Greenpeace's "Rolling Sunlight" truck and to call on the Cal State chancellor to implement a clean-energy policy for the statewide university system.

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And in a more far-reaching effort, some 300 miles south, a group of Hollywood activists led by Laurie David, a former comedy producer and now a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, hosted a Wednesday night speech in Los Angeles by Al Gore on climate change, attended by more than 700 people -- most of them, says David, "Los Angeles opinion leaders" (read: entertainment bigwigs). David published an Op-Ed on the Los Angeles Times last week titled "Snubbing Kyoto: Our Monumental Shame."

Attendees of the Gore speech were asked to sign a letter to the CEOs of the big automobile companies that are collaborating in a joint lawsuit against the state of California for implementing the first automotive standard in the nation for CO2 emissions. The letter calls on them to "innovate, not litigate." Major green organizations including NRDC and Environmental Defense also asked their members to sign on to the letter.

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The recently formed Climate Crisis Coalition collected signatures as well, hoping to get millions of Americans to join its campaign for a People's Ratification of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty.

Still, none of this adds up to a grand strategy. Where, you have to wonder, is the environmental community's unified voice and vision in the midst of this flurry of policy initiatives on Capitol Hill? If the launch of Kyoto, a major milestone in the battle against the world's biggest environmental problem, can't provoke a major response from the U.S. green community, what can?


Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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