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Environmental groups at odds over new tack in climate fight
Some favor playing down threat, focusing on bill's positives

By David A. Fahrenthold
Friday, November 6, 2009

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- A curious debate has broken out among American environmental groups, as the Senate balkily starts to focus on the threat of climate change.

Is this really the time to talk about the threat of climate change?

Now, some groups have muted their alarms about wildfires, shrinking glaciers and rising seas. Not because they've stopped caring about them -- but because they're trying to win over people who might care more about a climate bill's non-environmental side benefits, such as "green" jobs and reduced oil imports.

Smaller environmental groups, however, say this is the wrong moment to ease up on the scare because that might send the signal that a weaker bill is acceptable.

At the heart of this intra-green disagreement is a behemoth of an unanswered question: Even after years of apocalyptic warnings about climate change, how much will Americans really sacrifice to fight it?

"It's a lack of faith in the American public," said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona nonprofit, talking about the light-on-climate ads used by bigger groups. "If the scientists, the environmentalists in our country do their jobs, and explain the test of climate change, the public will come along."

"Instead of doing that job," Suckling said, "we're running away from it."

Playing down the threat from a warming climate may come with a cost for environmental groups, if it appears to give senators license to weaken measures aimed at helping the environment, such as limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Already, the push for energy "made in America" has given industry an opening to press for things some green groups don't want: more offshore drilling in U.S. waters and more support for the American coal business.

Lou Hayden of the American Petroleum Institute said his group does not debate environmentalists about climate science. But he said it will fight environmentalists on the jobs question, saying that the climate bill would kill more than it would create.

"Is it easier to respond to the jobs [argument] and to the kind of operational economic questions? Yes," he said.

'Beginning stages'

This summer, the House passed a bill that would limit emissions by 2020, using a complex system called "cap and trade" that would allow companies to buy and sell allowances to pollute.

But this week has shown that the Senate will be a much harder sell. On Thursday, a Senate committee voted 11 to 1 to pass a climate measure based loosely on the House legislation, with Republicans boycotting the vote. But a day earlier, a trio of senators said they were coming up with a separate climate bill -- making the one passed Thursday somewhat irrelevant.

"We're just at the beginning stages here," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the lead sponsor of the original bill and one of the senators working on the new measure.

Polling over the past decade has shown that solid majorities of Americans consider global warming real, and a significant threat, though few call it a top priority. Washington Post-ABC News polls this year have shown that a steady but thin majority of Americans, 52 percent in the most recent survey, favor cap-and-trade.

One poll done this fall for the Pew Environment Group found 76 percent of likely 2010 voters think global warming is happening now or will happen in the future, and 71 percent called it a serious threat. But another survey, done about the same time by the Pew Research Center, caused a stir after it found that the number of people who saw solid evidence that warming is happening had shrunk from 71 percent to 57 percent since April 2008.

Now, given the slow progress in the Senate, some green groups say they want to broaden their appeal beyond committed environmentalists, to the skeptical, the agnostic and the distracted.

That means minimizing doomsday predictions and focusing on positives: A climate bill will create jobs in the renewable-energy industry and keep money away from oil-state villains.

No more 'warming'

In 2006, for example, a well-known TV spot from the Environmental Defense Fund and the Ad Council showed global warming as a speeding locomotive bearing down on a little girl.

This year, however, the train is gone. So is the word "warming." Instead, one spot from the EDF shows solar panels and windmills, while an announcer talks about jobs and a reduced dependence on foreign oil.

"We need more renewable energy that's made in America and works for America, creating 1.7 million jobs," the narrator says. The spot doesn't mention the word "climate" and instead talks about cutting "carbon pollution," using a phrase common in recent ads by several groups.

"It's two words that are pretty easily understandable," said Daniel Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I mean, scientists like to talk about 'greenhouse gases.' Nobody knows what that means."

On Tuesday night, climate activist Nancy Jackson addressed one of the most climate-skeptical audiences in the country: Kansans. She was speaking to college students here in Manhattan -- a town where one religious leader was able to draw congregants to screenings of "An Inconvenient Truth" only by passing out Nerf balls, so they could hurl them at the image of Al Gore.

"Take climate change off the table, okay?" Jackson said, after reciting evidence that the climate really is changing. "You don't have to buy it for everything I'm about to say, because everything we do [to combat climate change] is a good idea for at least three other reasons."

She told the students that Kansas has an abundance of wind, sun and crops such as corn and prairie grasses -- all potential sources of renewable power. The message worked, at least on 21-year-old student Matthew Brandt. He said he doesn't believe in climate change, but -- after hearing Jackson's talk -- he was interested in windmills.

"I plan to have a wind turbine on my property" after graduation, Brandt said. "I figure it's a good investment."

The World Wildlife Fund, one of the groups critical of the good-news approach to climate advocacy, is running its own ads underlining fears about what climate change will bring. In Montana, the ads talk about increased wildfires. In Indiana, it's floods. In Maine, stronger storms.

"The reality is, we need to save ourselves," said Carter S. Roberts, the group's president. "The connection between an intact planet and people's well-being . . . is the part of the equation that's missing."

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