Industry Groups Take the Initiative With Senate Climate Bill Near

Climate activists floated rooftops in the Reflecting Pool last week to commemorate Hurricane Katrina's anniversary.
Climate activists floated rooftops in the Reflecting Pool last week to commemorate Hurricane Katrina's anniversary. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 2009

ATHENS, Ohio -- The oil lobby was sponsoring rallies with free lunches, free concerts and speeches warning that a climate-change bill could ravage the U.S. economy.

Professional "campaigners" hired by the coal industry were giving away T-shirts praising coal-fired power.

But when environmentalists showed up in this college town -- closer than ever to congressional passage of a climate-change bill, in the middle of the green movement's biggest political test in a generation -- they provided . . . a sedate panel discussion.

And they gave away stickers.

Next month, the Senate is expected to take up legislation that would cap greenhouse-gas emissions. That fight began in blazing earnest last week, with a blitz of TV ads and public events in the Midwest and Mountain West.

It seems that environmentalists are struggling in a fight they have spent years setting up. They are making slow progress adapting a movement built for other goals -- building alarm over climate change, encouraging people to "green" their lives -- into a political hammer, pushing a complex proposal the last mile through a skeptical Senate.

Even now, these groups differ on whether to scare the public with predictions of heat waves or woo it with promises of green jobs. And they are facing an opposition with tycoon money and a gift for political stagecraft.

"Progressives and clean-energy types . . . made a mistake and slacked off" after the House of Representatives passed its version of a climate-change bill in June, said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who blogs on climate issues. "And the other side really kept making its case."

The bill the House passed would require U.S. emissions to drop 17 percent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels. Its centerpiece is a "cap and trade" system, in which polluters would be required to amass, for every ton of their emissions, credits that could be bought or sold.

Environmentalists say it is crucial for the Senate to act now: In December, a conference in Copenhagen is supposed to create an international climate-change treaty. They fear that if the United States arrives without any plans to cut its emissions, other countries will feel emboldened to do less.

To get the Senate to do something similar, environmentalists are buying TV ads, running phone banks and holding public events. Much of the effort is coordinated from a "war room" shared with labor and veterans groups in Washington's Chinatown.

"People have been naysaying all year long," said Josh Dorner of the Sierra Club. But, he said, "We got a bill through the House, and you know . . . all signs point to yes" in the Senate.

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