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The Green Emperor Gets Naked, Part III

Stumbling into Bethlehem: How the Public and Private Sectors are Failing and Succeeding to Protect the Environment


And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

[Stumbles into] Bethlehem to be born?


-with apologies to William Butler Yeats
Part II of this essay discussed the notion of re-framing environmental issues, particularly the fight against global climate change, as suggested by the authors of "The Death of Environmentalism." While the paper's authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, may have a point that the definitions and rules of the environmental game need to change, it does not seem likely that the "frame" they themselves are suggesting is really going to solve the deeper cultural problems that centralized energy and a global economy create. As an alternative, it is suggested that we are better off reframing the debate on the environment and global warming in the vernacular of the sustainable development movement that was prominent during the 1970s and early 1980s.


The notion that environmentalists don't have a good story to tell the American people is poppycock. Somewhere along the way people just stopped listening--either that or those with the grant money stopped telling good stories. And yet, the ideas and philosophies of the early sustainable movement spun an excellent, democratic, open-ended story about human ingenuity, vision, and the spirit of an economy that rewards creative, positive, human innovation. It is somewhat puzzling why this story just vaporized in the 1980s, but it did. The result has been a fizzling national environmental movement for at least the past fourteen years. In the face of imminent oil depletion during the next several decades, and growing concern about global climate change, this decline demands attention by all of us at every level of life.


Part II of The Green Emperor ended on a note of hope: despite the state of mainstream environmental groups, the truth is that sustainable philosophies are in operation in all components of society--government, business, the environmental professions, and the voting, consuming, living, breathing individual consumer.     


 Massive, Ambiguous Problems

The beauty of massive, somewhat ambiguous problems like global warming is that the boundaries of policy are expanded in the minds of decision makers, public servants and citizens alike. Those informed enough to be concerned about global warming feel that the world needs to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels by at least 70% by 2025 or else we’re cooked (metaphorically speaking). However, with China and India industrializing and growing annually by double figures, many theorists and policy analysts feel that a 70% reduction by 2025 may be an impossibility. In just the past decade China's oil consumption has doubled.  This is one of those W.F. moments in life that people don’t want to face. “WF, man!” This is a short way of saying, “We’re Fucked!”


Does this mean the end of the human race by 2026? Hardly. But it does mean that we’re in for a lot of heavy weather and unpredictability. It may well also mean that rebuilding New Orleans is a fruitless endeavor. In fact, it may mean that coastal cities and resorts throughout the world will regularly make the nightly news as we watch rich and poor alike, bereft, consumed by despair, surprised by the wrath of Mother Nature. What it also means, more than likely, is that government, as the major social institution that sets the rules of the game (through policy, law and regulation), needs to make global warming--and environmental issues in general--a key component of planning and public investment from here on out. (To re-frame that last sentence in more palatable terms: Government’s role in moving us into the future is to plan and support the development of a post-fossil fuel economy.)


Mindless Irregulation

After watching how fragile our current oil production and distribution system can be in the face of one single hurricane this past September, it would seem that those charged with protecting the public’s (and the economy’s) interest would understand once and for all the importance of guiding us toward a more positive, robust, and decentralized system of mixed energy sources. But, as everyone who reads the paper or watches the nightly news knows, this is not the case. Despite a staggering spike in gasoline and heating fuel costs nationwide; despite the possible collapse of an American automobile industry that depends upon gas-guzzling SUV sales; despite the inflationary fallout of higher energy prices on the cost of transporting goods to market throughout our economy, the Bush Administration and a decidedly conservative legislative branch are using our current malaise as an opportunity to push hard for opening up oil fields on public lands (especially the Arctic National Wilderness Area), reducing regulations for off-shore drilling, and supporting through more tax breaks and subsidies the expansion of fossil fuels and centralized energy systems.


The problem right now is that those in power seem to be doing everything possible to obfuscate rational, common sense problem solving. They are so desperate to protect the interests of big oil, coal and natural gas that they have mounted attacks against science and regulation and are using fear as the underpinning of their policies. The sooner this attitude can be ferreted out of Washington, the sooner we get to walk into the future.


From the beginning, the Bush Administration’s answer to environmental regulation has been voluntary measures and partnerships with industry. A very surprising project put forth once they had claimed office in 2001 was called the Resource Conservation Challenge (RCC) that, while not directly addressing climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, amalgamated an enormous array of programs under the banner of conserving natural resources. In 2002 the RCC website provided a downloadable list nineteen pages long summarizing sixty-three separate national and regional resource conservation programs. Most of these are still in operation, but the RCC website now only lists seven programs. Word is, EPA wants to simplify things.


The rhetoric of voluntary partnerships and solutions might have been taken up by a whole host of progressive interest groups as an olive branch, but it wasn’t. Bush’s EPA still seems serious about making such an approach work, but it is not clear how programs without standards, measurement techniques, serious goals, and timetables can be effective.


Scientists are Schmucks with Agendas

Besides volunteerism, the current administration also seems to be struggling with the scientific method and the business of grant-based research. Reports from the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been publicly dismissed by the Bush Administration time and time again, and numerous conservative think tanks and elected officials have essentially called global warming a hoax perpetrated by over-educated, progressive scientists who earn their living off of grant money and fear-mongering. This in the face of the IPCC, National Science Foundation, and dozens of other highly respected bodies of professionals employing peer review processes and transparent data analysis telling them time and time again that the world is definitely heating up and human beings are playing a crucial role in this process, and it looks like things are going to keep heading in that direction if we don’t do something today.


Over the last few months—attacks on science and rhetoric about voluntary problem-solving aside — it actually look as if the Bush Administration is beginning to cave in on global warming. The Administration’s top science advisor, John Marburger, seemed to have the White House blessing when he said last summer, “…this administration has acknowledged the Earth is getting warmer and we’re going to have to take responsibility for our emissions.”


But if the new strategy being deployed is finally an acknowledgement of global warming, there is still a determination to hang on to volunteerism. There is also a renewed emphasis on “clean technology.” This is, in fact, not unlike the “clean energy” message Shellenberger and Nordhaus have given the environmental community in their send up of the Apollo Alliance. The main difference is that the Bush Administration is pushing the sale of “clean coal” and nuclear technology to the developing world, and the Apollo Alliance is looking at a broader range of technology systems and alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydrogen.


Framing convergence? Maybe. Either that or the right gets all their good ideas from the left and then screws them up because lots of money can make just about anyone crazy.


Thinking Locally, Acting Locally

The lesson is clear. If the federal government isn’t going to step up to the plate and make things happen, it’s up to local and state government. Sometimes it takes extraordinary effort by common citizens, but it can be done. The other alternative is to remain disenfranchised and powerless.


Feeling disenfranchised and powerless is not something folks in this country are good at. The impetus for Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s “The Death of Environmentalism,” was in part a response to these feelings. Two successive Democratic candidates for President almost seem to have gone out of their way to avoid making global warming the focus of their campaigns. These were men who are professed environmentalists and clearly two of the more progressive candidates the country has seen since George McGovern. The environmental community raised a great deal of money for them, but seemed willing to sit on the sidelines and let campaign strategists call the shots. What the hell is going on?


And yet, around the country over the past year informed citizens and politicians have moved beyond their dismay over the results of elections and pushed forward a number of local initiatives directly aimed at curbing global climate change on a small scale. In August, officials in nine Northeastern states came to an agreement to freeze power plant CO2 emissions and then reduce them 10% by 2020. Some of these same states have also taken California’s lead and are mandating strict emission standards for automobiles far beyond EPA’s national fleet standards. What is now called "Green Power," i.e., the many guises of renewable energy, has been mandated by many states as an investment goal by utilities and industry, with defined percentages and timetables put in place. Non-fossil fuel-based electricity options are already available to citizens through utilities in numerous states. And citizen’s groups, local environmental organizations, and government agencies throughout the country are beginning to analyze local and regional global warming impacts.


Perhaps the level of government with the biggest promise is the municipal sector. Portland, Oregon began in 1993 to plan ways to address greenhouse gas reductions, and reported this year that the city had achieved a 13% reduction with no negative effect on the local economy. Numerous other cities are also well on their way to grappling with this issue in numerous ways, including Austin, Salt Lake City, Boston, Flagstaff and dozens more. The ICLEI (International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) a U.N. supported NGO, lists over 470 member municipalities around the world dedicated to sustainable development and renewable energy innovations.


The point here is that the “frame” of sustainable development is out there, and since it’s so diffused in local and regional governments and agencies there’s very little that Washington can do to completely shut down these positive stories. Possibly most troubling is the fact, again, that the mainstream media and big national organizations do not seem as tapped into these programs as they might be. The end result, of course, being that the frame of sustainable development seems only to float on the periphery of the national conscience. Even Shellenberger and Nordhaus thought they were making some profound statement about environmentalism, when in fact, the very ideas they feel need to supplant the old green movement have been in place and are getting quietly played out by enlightened local governments everywhere.


So, are we fucked? Maybe it depends on the city you live in, who you vote for, and how hard you’re willing to work for your grandchildren’s grandchildren.


Next: Part IV, Getting In Bed with Corporate America: Green Sheets for All!



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