LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. -- Environmental groups have too often approached climate change politics with an air of disdain for their opponents, and that must change if major federal legislation is going to advance, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund said yesterday.
With neither a comprehensive energy policy nor a carbon cap-and-trade bill moving in Congress, EDF President Fred Krupp said advocates must reassess their strategy and perhaps adopt a less arrogant approach that takes into account all sides of the global warming debate.
"There has to be a lot of shrillness taken out of our language," Krupp said yesterday, during Fortune magazine's Brainstorm Green conference here. "In the environmental community, we have to be more humble. We can't take the attitude that we have all the answers."
Krupp went on to suggest that the movement he has been part of as chief of EDF for 26 years would be well served to heed lessons learned over the past several years, which saw the optimism of a Congress and White House controlled by Democrats give way to a newfound hostility to climate policy after Republicans dominated the 2010 midterms.
In other words, Krupp appeared to acknowledge that the time has come for lobbyists associated with the green movement to play defense, especially on Capitol Hill, where confident Republicans are targeting U.S. EPA's authority to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act.
"I don't think we're likely to see anything in the next couple of years" in the way of comprehensive legislation, said Krupp, adding that major public policy measures like a national carbon cap had entered "a really hard moment" following the acrimonious debate over health care and the ensuing GOP takeover in the House.
"This is the first time in four decades that there's been an attack on the Clean Air Act," he said. "It will be a defining moment."
Looking forward, Krupp hopes that environmental groups will focus, in the short term, on state carbon policies and ground-up approaches like updating the nation's power grid and improving energy efficiency. He would also press for more federal investment in clean technology research and development.
"We have to make [these policies] relevant to everyday life," he said.
Is 'cap and trade' dead?
Appearing at the same event was Duke Energy Corp. CEO Jim Rogers, who offered a similar take on the state of climate play in Washington, D.C.
In Rogers' view, "cap and trade" cannot be sold and must be reinvented.
"I think it's at a point where we need to rename it or come up with something new," he said of a national cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions. He added that those who lament how close they were to moving a climate bill following House approval less than two years ago should regard that period in Congress as "a piece of history."
"It is going to be very hard to resurrect cap and trade," Rogers said.
Krupp also appeared to agree that cap and trade's moment has perhaps passed, at least for now, and he called on his colleagues in the environmental community to open their hearts to other approaches that might capture a bipartisan center by emphasizing, for instance, the national security implications of U.S. oil dependence.
"The idea of humility means we need to be open to any solution," Krupp said.
Still, Krupp insisted that no pollution problem has been solved without "putting a limit" on emissions under a performance-based standard.
Also defending that view was the European Union's top negotiator in international climate negotiations, Connie Hedegaard, who bluntly argued that the cap-and-trade concept could die in the United States but thrive elsewhere.
Asked if cap and trade might not be too complicated, Hedegaard responded, "It might be for the Americans. It is not for the Chinese."
She added, "It is not dead."
Pointing to 89 nations that have committed to voluntary carbon targets through talks engineered by the United Nations, she said, "Some of us are still trying to get an international agreement."
Shellenberger weighs in
Also in attendance here yesterday was Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute and author of the 2004 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." Regarding cap and trade, Shellenberger offered a frank analysis that countered Hedegaard's directly.
For one, Shellenberger scoffed at the notion that 89 nations agreeing to voluntary targets indicates progress. In the next breath, he argued that emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol actually led to the construction of 22 new coal-fired power plants in Germany that would otherwise have been fueled by natural gas if not for the credits secured under cap and trade.
Looking ahead, Shellenberger said the focus should shift wholesale to encouraging investment in clean-tech R&D, to lower the cost difference between fossil fuel and renewable energy.
Part of the problem in recent years, in his view, is advocates may not have been entirely honest about the "huge gulf" that still exists between the price of clean technologies and fossil fuels.
"The environmental community has been less clear than it should have been about the gap," he said. "This technology gap ... has got to be overcome if you're going to do anything about climate."
Rogers agreed, noting China has "poured money" into improving electric batteries, solar and wind.
"The reality is the Chinese are closing that gap," he said.
Hedegaard's response to Shellenberger was to note that half of the revenues generated in the European Union's trading scheme are directed into research and development. She argued that good policy to reduce greenhouse gases should connect the two sides of the same coin -- with the cap on one end and innovation on the other.
"It's not an either-or scenario," she insisted. "Cap and trade and technology are very much linked."
Sullivan is based in San Francisco.