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Mapping environmentalism's road ahead

Conventional wisdom says environmentalism suffered a near-death experience in 2010, when a sweeping climate change bill ran aground in the Democratic-run Senate. But aspiring eulogists for the green movement have gotten ample material in the years before and since that failure.

Federal climate legislation is now an all-but-impossible goal. President Obama's attempt to curb carbon through executive branch power is challenged at every turn by industry opponents and combative Republicans.

The healthy decline in U.S. emissions that many greens welcome is in large part due to a natural gas boom, driven by hydraulic fracturing, that fractures the conservation community. Even winning votes for a simple bipartisan energy efficiency bill, for environmentalists, is a slog up Capitol Hill.

But looking only from 10,000 feet fails to judge the movement by its own heterogeneous, still-rebellious terms, a task provocatively attempted by Breakthrough Institute strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their nearly decade-old essay "The Death of Environmentalism." That treatise excoriated green leaders as complacent and lacking vision.

Over the next week, E&E Daily will take its own look at the movement in its midlife -- profiling five environmental groups and their paths out of the cap-and-trade bill's wreckage.

Can the Environmental Defense Fund's commitment to market-based solutions coexist with the Sierra Club's newfound sense of activism? How does the Natural Resources Defense Council's bookish defense of federal laws mesh with the political machinations of the League of Conservation Voters and the envelope-pushing ethos of newcomer 350.org?

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The interconnected web of enviros

This chart prepared by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, is designed to show the interconnected web of environmental partnerships, with networks that include businesses, trade associations, labor unions and nonprofit groups. Click on the image for a larger version. Chart courtesy of Robert Brulle.

About this report

In this series, E&E looks at the U.S. environmental movement as it hits middle age, with an in-depth examination of five groups that are driving the agenda in Congress and throughout the nation.

Stories in the Series

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The education of a climate upstart with a 'weird' name

A trip to the United Nations' climate talks in Bali sounds like every young activist's dream. But when a group of recent Middlebury College graduates trekked there in 2007 to continue the environmental work they began in school, at least one found the scene more daunting than inspiring.

The aspiring young leaders had orchestrated rallies in all 50 states that year to push for slashing greenhouse gas emissions -- only to be greeted in Bali by "endless meetings about long-term targets, most of which weren't going well," one of them, Phil Aroneanu, recalled recently.

Just as Aroneanu began "falling a little into despair" at the task of slowing global carbon, the Middlebury friends got a new email from their friend and adviser Bill McKibben. Government climatologist James Hansen, he told the young greens, was setting 350 parts per million as the atmosphere's CO2 safe zone in his newest research.

McKibben also suggested that since 350 ppm was about to become a very important climate number, why not rename their group after it? Jamie Henn, now the group's communications director, remembered his initial reaction when the email arrived during a moment of reflection on the beach: "That's totally weird."

People would undoubtedly assume the name was 360, Henn thought at the time. But then the former classmates realized that the number's initial obscurity also illustrated its potential to pique curiosity.

"It poses a question," Henn said. "Then you get to start talking to them about climate change. I get that debate every day."

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From legal mavericks to inside policy players

In the fall of 1970, the Vietnam War was in full swing, campuses across the nation were still reeling from the May shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University and the world had celebrated its first Earth Day. And in New York, a group of young lawyers turned a three-room office in the New York City Bar Association Building on 44th Street in midtown Manhattan into the nation's first environmental law firm.

The Natural Resources Defense Council may be a fixture of the environmental policy world today, with 450 employees and assets totaling $185.5 million last year, but it wasn't always so. The group's founders, who are fanned out across the country and include several of the elder statesmen of the environmental movement, remember that their effort was nearly stamped out in its first year of existence before living hand-to-mouth for decades.

"The pain to build something like this is just incredible," said founding Director John Adams in an interview. "And to find the funding and worry about it from year to year."

It wasn't until 1990 that the group built its endowment to the point where it was assured survival beyond a fiscal year, Adams said.

But the new group did survive and became a pioneer in the use of litigation to enforce environmental protection. It also contributed to a plethora of environmental statutes and rulemaking, and counts presidential Cabinet members, state officials and U.N. leaders among its former staff.

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Still 'electing the best, defeating the worst' -- but with far greater resources than before

In the mid-1980s, as League of Conservation Voters founder Marion Edey was stepping down from the organization she had created, she distilled the nonprofit group's mission as simply "electing the best, defeating the worst."

More than four decade later, the organization Edey started as a way to intertwine environmental issues into the electoral process pursues much the same mission. But now it's a political heavyweight with significant financial means, a network of dozens of state affiliates and a popular congressional scorecard that is used as a frequent reference point for advocates and impartial observers.

During the 2012 election cycle, LCV spent nearly $15 million looking to influence federal contests, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics -- putting it among the top tier of nonprofit organizations that spend on campaigns.

At the time Edey departed in 1985, the Los Angeles Times reported the group's total annual budget at $1.25 million, or about $2.7 million in today's dollars.

Despite a smaller budget in those early years, Edey told E&E Daily in an interview this month that the group claimed important wins.

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Market approach to fighting pollution produces results -- and compromises -- that set EDF apart

A glance at Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp's environmental allies presents a strange picture: They include Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke; former President George H.W. Bush counsel C. Boyden Gray; and executives from Anadarko Petroleum, Noble Energy and Encana.

Not exactly the typical Rolodex for the leader of one of the country's largest environmental groups.

But the ethos of EDF under Krupp's 29-year reign has been atypical: The group will work with anybody and everybody to find a workable solution to combat climate change and pollution. Under the right circumstances, even a coal company can be a worthy ally.

"If you're going to move America, you have to move American business," Krupp said in an interview. "Businesses are central to the economy, so where we can find folks that want to get things done, it's in our interest to work with them in a nonpartisan way."

It's netted results and has given industry interests an open ear in a movement not known for working with big business. But it's also placed EDF firmly on the right of the environmental spectrum and opened the group's leaders to criticism by hard-core greens.

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Doing for clean energy what John Muir did for preservation

In September 2005, thousands of Sierra Club members gathered at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for the largest-ever gathering of the venerable organization.

Amid outings to parks and presentations by environmentalists, pundits and comedians, more than 700 delegates from around the country voted to make climate change their No. 1 priority.

The importance of the vote was not lost on the club's leaders.

"That was a major shift," said Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director at the time. "That was a statement that in the 21st century, you can't protect local places without protecting global systems."

That vote has set the basis for the club's activities since, and the group is waging the fight on several fronts, including halting coal-fired power plants, battling natural gas and oil production, and advocating for renewable energy. Climate change has also been the driving force behind increased partnerships with outside groups and the club's work to fight Senate rules on filibusters and increase voter access to polls.

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