Can Today’s “Environmentalists for Life” Deliver on Climate Legislation?
After about a gazillion article on the death of the climate bill, someone finally got around to asking why heads aren’t rolling at environmental groups that pushed for the legislation.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund and a coalition of dozens of other groups that teamed up to form Clean Energy Works, and spent millions of dollars on an advertising campaign aimed at pressing recalcitrant senators to signing on to the Kerry-Lieberman bill.
Well, we all know by now that the bill crashed and burned, setting off an unseemly round of finger-pointing. Besides the usual villains — Republicans, President Obama, the so-called Blue Dogs and the Senate Democratic leadership — an unnamed administration source took aim at environmentalists, saying their multimillion dollar campaign hadn’t even managed to convince a single Republican Senator to sign on.
But only this morning, Politico reporter Darren Samuelsohn finally got around to asking the impolite followup question: Why aren’t these groups now cleaning house of the enviro-operatives who led the failed lobbying effort? The upshot: The country’s top environmentalists aren’t blaming themselves. In fact, at least one operative, Steve Cochran, who ran EDF’s national climate campaign, has been promoted. Here’s an excerpt from the story that helps explain why the country’s most powerful environmentalists aren’t being too hard on themselves:
“The reason why I’m not looking around, hearing a lot of people scared for their jobs, I think the general view within the environmental community is consistent with mine: We ran a very effective, well-coordinated effort,” said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC’s climate center.
“We fell victim to much broader politics that were beyond our control that really didn’t have to do with the specifics of either the issue or the campaign,” Lashof added.
Would the same sanguine view prevail under similar circumstances at the Fortune 500 companies that today’s largest environmental groups so often emulate? It’s hard to imagine it would. Even Tony Hayward lost his job over the BP Gulf spill debacle.
But today’s leading environmentalists don’t face the kinds of pressure Hayward has faced. While they are supposed to represent the public, they are remarkably free of public accountability.
On the one hand, they have restructured themselves like corporations. Fred Krupp is the “president” of EDF, for instance, while former investment banker Mark Tercek is both the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Actual corporate executives sit on their boards. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds: They use corporate rhetoric and extol the virtues of running their organizations with the bottom-line mentality of corporations, while their nonprofit tax-exempt status and reliance on donations shields them from market realities that can make or break a company and a corporate leader.
Real CEOs have to worry about what shareholders and customers think, another harsh reality with no parallel at nearly all of today’s largest groups. With the exception of the Sierra Club, these organization no longer have rank-and-file members like you and me who have a say in how they operate.
Perhaps that’s why Lashof, Cochran and company aren’t feeling a need to polish their resumes.
But what does this environmentalist for life mentality say about the movement’s chances for getting Congress to act on climate change and other environmental concerns? Author and activist Bill McKibben crystalized these concerns in his comments in toward the end of the Politico story:
“We weren’t able to credibly promise political reward or punishment,” McKibben said. “The fact is, scientists have been saying for the past few years the world might come to an end. But clearly that’s insufficient motivation. Clearly, we must communicate that their careers might come to an end. That’s going to take a few years.”
The big question: Do the same environmentalists for life, who lost the latest round of climate politics, have what it takes to play hardball with lawmakers they’ve cut deals with for decades?