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Environmental groups at odds over new tack in climate fight

Some favor playing down threat, focusing on bill's positives

The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold reports on what appears to be a change in the messages by environmental groups. Advertisements by these groups once carried overtones of doom and devastation from global warming. The most recent ads focus on jobs and energy independence that is aimed at influencing climate legislation.
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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.

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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.

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