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Environmental groups face their future in climate-change debate

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; 9:10 PM

On Thursday, some of the country's most respected environmental groups - in the midst of their biggest political fight in two decades - sent a group of activists to Milwaukee with a message.

We're losing.

They put on what they called a "CarnivOil" - a fake carnival with a stilt-wearing barker, free "tar balls" (chocolate doughnuts), and a suit-wearing "oil executive" punching somebody dressed like a crab. It was supposed to be satire, but there was a bitter message underneath: When we fight the oil and gas industry, they win.

"We killed the clean-energy bill! There's still no cap on oil spills!" yelled Heather Brutz, the barker, who was pretending to speak for the industry. "And now, for our graaaaaaand finale, we're going to pass the diiiiiirty-air act!"

A year ago, these groups seemed to be at the peak of their influence, needing only the Senate's approval for a landmark climate-change bill. But they lost that fight, done in by the sluggish economy and opposition from business and fossil-fuel interests.

Now the groups are wondering how they can keep this loss from becoming a rout as their opponents press their advantage and try to undo the Obama administration's climate efforts. At two events last week in Wisconsin, environmental groups seemed to be trying two strategies: defiance and pleading for sympathy.

Neither one drew enough people to fill a high school gym.

"What was revealed by the last year or two was that the energy industry hasn't even had to break a sweat yet in beating this stuff off. Our side did absolutely everything you're supposed to do . . . but got nowhere," said author Bill McKibben, who co-founded the climate-focused group 350.org.

Washington's climate battle is still far from over. The Environmental Protection Agency is setting limits on some sources of greenhouse gases: first auto tailpipes, then power plants and factories next year. Now, industry groups and senators from coal-producing states are trying to prevent that.

The White House has said President Obama would veto such an effort, but that would be far easier if environmental groups could whip up public support for him.

There could also be fights over smaller pieces of environmentalists' agenda: efforts to require more renewable-energy generation nationally and to defend state-level climate plans like one in California.

Climate bill's outlook

Before, green groups had wanted so much more than this - they wanted a "cap and trade" bill that would set emissions limits nationwide. The House passed a bill like that, but - after industry groups said it would kill jobs and slow the economy - the Senate decided last month to not even take the issue up.

The bill's chances, already bad, will get worse if Republicans gain seats, as is widely predicted, in the midterm elections.

"If it's not addressed in a lame-duck session of Congress, it will have been punted to the next generation," said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

Environmental groups have won some victories in recent years, opposing individual coal-fired power plants and pressuring banks to stop funding "mountaintop removal" coal mines.

But for the green movement, this year's defeat was more than a loss; it was a reckoning, a signal that it had overestimated its influence.

Even in the hottest year on record, even with a historic oil spill polluting the Gulf of Mexico, even with a Democratic Congress and a friendly White House, it couldn't win the fight it had picked. In fact, in the Senate it couldn't even start it.

"The oil industry has tremendous reach and control in the United States Senate," said David Di Martino, a spokesman for Clean Energy Works, a coalition of more than 60 groups that includes big names such as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. "Our mistake was miscalculating . . . how far into the Senate it went."

Looking back, some environmentalists say their problem was timing; once the economy perks up, their logic goes, prospects will improve. Others blame implacable Republican opposition (though a number of conservative and coal-state Democrats also balked), or a president who they say didn't push hard enough and focused first on issues such as health care and financial regulation. The White House blames them back, for not winning any Senate Republicans over to support the climate bill.

But some activists from smaller groups say the problem is within environmentalism itself. To them, the Senate defeat showed that green groups don't have enough of Washington's two currencies of power: money and angry voters. To them, it's significant that no senator seems in danger of being voted out of office this November for denying the environmentalists the climate bill they wanted.

Spreading the message

This week, oil and coal groups will start a series of pro-industry rallies around the country, repeating a strategy that worked well last summer. In Wisconsin last week, environmental groups were trying to get their message across first.

On Wednesday, a coalition of environmental and labor groups called the "Blue Green Alliance" came to Green Bay during a tour of 30-plus cities. They arrived in a blue bus painted with a windmill, smiling workers - and a painted message that was resilience bordering on denial.

"The Job's Not Done," the bus said, meaning the climate bill.

"A new green job can be waiting out there for you" if the bill is passed and stimulates the growth of renewable energy, said Mark Westphal, representing a United Steelworkers local. "I'm here today to tell the United States Senate to get on board."

But only about 30 people attended the midafternoon event. A half-hour after it began, the speakers were back on the bus and the parking lot was almost empty.

The next day, in Milwaukee, the CarnivOil - put on by Clean Energy Works - took a different tack.

Instead of holding out hope for a climate bill, they declared it dead and tried to blame the oil and gas industry for killing it.

"The message to folks outside of Washington is that, while they're not paying attention, big oil's having a carnival in Washington," Clean Energy Works' Di Martino said. "Anything and everything that threatens their business model, they're able to stop. And the message to people is to wake up."

Every few minutes, there would be a fight. The person in the crab costume - said to be boxing on behalf of the environment - would take on the fake oil executive. Each bout followed the same script: The oil executive would bribe the referee, who would make the crab take off his boxing gloves.

Soon after, the crab would be lying on the mat, KO'd.

"Oh! The Earth is down! It's taken too many hits!" yelled "ref" Scott Thompson. "Remember, folks, just like in the real world, big oil always gets the upper hand!"

The event drew in scattered pedestrians, and afterward organizers said dozens had signed their petitions calling for action against climate change.

But, even among those drawn in by the spectacle, it was hard to see the seeds of an environmental revolution.

"It catches attention," said Jenny Schrank, 19, of Milwaukee after playing a game in which she pitched fake fish into bowls of "tar," a reference to this summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Normally, she said, the environment "is not something that I do anything about."

Would that change now?

"Um," Schrank said, "maybe."

"I don't know about that," said her friend Rachel Rutter-Smith, 20.

"We're all lazy," Schrank said.

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