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Environmentalists Slow to Adjust in Climate Debate
Opponents Seize Initiative as Senate Bill Nears

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.

In Elkhart, Ind., the Energy Citizens, funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute, were cheering.

"The whole question of man-made climate change is really, really iffy," said limited-government activist Kelly Havens, speaking to a cheering, sign-waving crowd of about 200 at the recreational vehicle hall of fame. "I mean, what was man doing when Indiana's glaciers were melting? We weren't even here!"

The event had all the trappings of a political campaign stop: ready-made signs, a video featuring country music star Trace Adkins. All expressed worry that a climate-change bill would make high-polluting energy cost more.

Oil and natural gas groups have always had deeper pockets. In the first six months of 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics found they spent $82.1 million lobbying Washington on various issues, including climate policy. In the same time, environmental and health groups concerned with climate change spent about $6.6 million on lobbying and clean-energy firms $12.1 million, according to two other analyst groups, the Center for Public Integrity and New Energy Finance.

But last week, the impact of industry money really started to show in this debate.

The National Association of Manufacturers said it was spending millions on TV ads in 13 states, calling climate-change legislation "anti-jobs, anti-energy."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce began its road show with an event in South Dakota. The chamber has demanded a new "Scopes Monkey Trial," saying the Environmental Protection Agency needs to show it is certain about climate change. The EPA has said no.

"Reality is now being transmitted into the political system," said Bill Kovacs, of the chamber of commerce.

Environmental groups dispute the "reality" part. They have called the Energy Citizens and other industry-sponsored organizations "astroturf" -- fake grass roots, professional activists and paid employees masquerading as concerned citizens.

At the Elkhart rally, many attendees said they had come on their own, worried about what higher gas prices might do to a place that depends on recreational vehicle manufacturing and farm equipment. One man said he couldn't be astroturf: He was unemployed.

The event ended with a video in which person after person repeated, "I'm an energy citizen." Some of those filmed for the video were actors, a petroleum institute spokeswoman said.

In Athens, the environmentalists were as raucous as a zoning commission.

"We're sitting in a room right now that is overly air-conditioned," one woman said when the panel took questions. "My concern is that we have . . . thousands of inefficient buildings."

This was the Athens stop of the "Made in America Jobs Tour," a series of events put on by environmental and labor groups. It was, in some ways, the green side's answer to events like the "Energy Citizen" rallies -- but the two hardly seemed to belong to the same debate.

In a classroom at Ohio University, nobody shouted, nobody sang, nobody waved a sign. They talked about solar energy, home energy audits, utility regulation. Somebody else talked about the air conditioning. The House climate-change bill was barely mentioned.

The group behind this event said its rallies will be much bigger this week, including one in Detroit on Monday and another in Gary, Ind., on Tuesday attended by EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

It's hard to know now if anybody is winning. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent of Americans supported the cap-and-trade approach used in the House climate bill.

In the Midwestern heart of the current ad blitz, the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has been getting calls from people inspired by environmental groups' TV ads. But in the office of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a staff member said letters were running 100 for and 7,000 against climate legislation.

Even the optimists in the environmental movement talk about the next few months as a cliffhanger, rather than a sure thing.

"I often refer to it as 'The Moment.' It's the moment we've all been waiting and working for, for a very long time," said Maggie L. Fox, CEO of the Alliance for Climate Protection, an activist group founded by former vice president Al Gore. "Yes, it's a test for the environmental movement. But it's a test for our civilization."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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