Eco-pragmatists need stiffer spines

Forty years ago Denis Hayes was US national coordinator for the first Earth Day.  This year he is international chair for the 22 April event. He has a notable record as an environmental activist and early proponent of solar power. But he’s chafing under the blandness that he detects threatening environmental movements in the US. In an articlerecently published in Yale Environment 360 he both supports Earth Day and warns of its limitations. In particular he’s concerned that American environmentalist groups are being inveigled into political compromises on climate change which impair any prospect of adequate legislation in the US.

He recalls the origins of Earth Day:

“Earth Day 1970, for which I served as national coordinator, was huge. Twenty million Americans took part. Millions of Americans who didn’t know what “the environment” was in 1969 discovered in 1970 that they were environmentalists.

“Moreover, Earth Day was bipartisan.”


For a time results followed:

“Over the next three years, Congress passed the most far-reaching cluster of legislation since the New Deal — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and myriad other laws that have fundamentally changed the nation. Trillions of dollars have been spent differently than they would have but for this new regulatory framework.”

Understandably, he says, the environmental movement drew the lesson that it should try to grow as large as possible and be bipartisan.  But times have changed. Reagan assembled the most anti-environment cabinet in history. Bipartisanship isn’t working in today’s scene.

“…the Republican leadership is now so robustly anti-environmental that the League of Conservation Voters uses affirmative action in evaluating its scorecards. A Democrat with a 60 percent voting record is seen as awful, while a Republican with 60 percent is seen as exceptional.”

Striving for bipartisan support in such a context produces legislation that is at best inadequate and at worst designed to fail. Earth Day itself, which is a mainstream phenomenon,  must continue to be as embracing as possible, with a broad common denominator. But the environmental movement mustn’t rely on this approach to effectively address climate change.

“… to succeed against the wealthy, powerful forces arrayed against it on issues like climate disruption, ocean acidification, and a global epidemic of extinction, the environmental movement also needs a large block of people who will fight for a sustainable future valiantly and without compromise.”

It’s no good relying on Congress to do the right thing.

“Although Congress has some brilliant, courageous individual members, as an institution it is dumb and cowardly. The only way that Congress will act intelligently and boldly on this issue is if we give it no choice.”

The current Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill now making the rounds in the Senate gets weaker at every draft.

“Every draft does a poorer job of putting a reasonable price on carbon. Every draft is larded with more taxpayers dollars for socialized, centralized nuclear power and for ‘clean coal.’ Every draft carries more sweeteners for the utility industry, the automobile industry, the coal and oil industries, and the industrial farmers and foresters”

The eco-pragmatist view is that this is the price that must be paid to get any climate bill at all. Hayes laments that this pragmatic view has been broadly, if reluctantly, embraced by most of the large, mainstream national environmental groups working on climate as well as by the Obama Administration.

It’s time for sterner stuff. Instead of weakening the bill, we need to change the politics.

“Politicians who try to ignore climate disruption — and that’s a whole lot of them — need to start losing their jobs next November.”

There was a sharp edge to the first Earth Day in the US. Hayes notes that the organizers jumped into the subsequent Congressional elections, seeking to defeat a “Dirty Dozen” of incumbent Congressmen. The targets were selected because they had abysmal environmental records, but also because they were in tight races and were from districts with a major environmental issue that voters cared about. Seven Congressmen were taken out that election.  Hayes considers that was a useful shock for legislators and helped the 1970 Clean Air Act pass the Senate unanimously.

He wants to see environmental groups put aside support for further compromise and concentrate instead on creating an intense environmental voting bloc that will subordinate all other issues to climate. That block needs to construct a successful campaign to return some Congressional villains to private life—perhaps even a couple of dozen.

“We must make it crystal clear to politicians everywhere that we are serious. This issue to too vital and too urgent to do any less.”

Hayes claims, incidentally, that the Cantwell-Collins bill in the senate is acknowledged by most experts as the best climate legislation that has yet been proposed. It’s the only option under consideration that would make a significant dent in emissions in the near term. It has a cap but no trade. Carbon permits are auctioned and the proceeds returned to the public on a pro rata basis. It sounds like what James Hansen is so strongly advocating.

I admit to having difficulty following the labyrinthine processes of American politics, but Hayes seems to be grappling with an underlying issue which is not confined to the US. Is something better than nothing in legislation to tackle climate change?  Do we settle for less and hope it might grow into more with time?  Or do we say we haven’t got that time, that nothing less than adequate, and soon, will do?