For the past year, major environmental groups have framed the climate change bill as the movement's single most significant piece of legislation in several decades -- if not ever -- dedicating the bulk of their political muscle and heavy financial resources to passage of the effort.
But as the bill moves forward, with this summer's historic House vote and yesterday's Senate committee markup, some question whether in their quest to get a bill, environmentalists and their allies are far too willing to compromise on historic priorities such as offshore drilling and nuclear power.
Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says major environmental organizations have failed to exert pressure on lawmakers and are content to operate as an extension of the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
"It's been a politically naive campaign," Suckling said. "While the opponents of climate change legislation have run an aggressive campaign to the right of the bill, the national environmental lobby just takes its talking points from the Democratic Party and is not pressuring lawmakers to improve the legislation.
"If you're not running to the left of the bill, you can't possibly sustain even what's already in it," Suckling added.
Officials from major environmental groups contend that simply building political momentum for climate change legislation is not an insignificant task, arguing that some lawmakers and voters still need to be convinced of the benefits of a cap-and-trade bill.
"The most important message that the Senate needs to hear is now is the time to act," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "It needs to be comprehensive, not energy-only, but a comprehensive approach, and if we do that right, it will be good for our economy, it will be good our security and it will be good for the planet."
And though environmentalists openly admit that the final product may not be their ideal bill, they also argue there is no choice but to accept some items they do not want in a situation where the fate of the legislation hangs on moderate lawmakers who are hesitant to back a bill.
"We can only do what we have the political support to do," said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America.
"In our ideal world, we would have legislation that got us 100 percent clean energy. In our ideal world we would auction off all the permits. In our ideal world we would set a cap at 20-25 percent in the short-term and 80 percent in the long-term," Alt added. "At the end of the day, as a first step we would be excited to support a bill that created the clean energy economy by forcing more renewables onto the market."
That attitude represents a departure for the mainstream environmental movement, which during the days of President George W. Bush was generally unwilling to compromise on major issues.
And while critics on the left acknowledge that compromises need to be made to secure passage of the bill, they say that by focusing their efforts simply on passage -- without making many demands -- environmentalists are missing opportunities to pass a stronger bill.
"There's a desperation to pass any bill, no matter how flawed," Suckling said.
On the Hill, lawmakers who are working on the bill know the environmentalists would rather have a flawed bill. "In the end, the worst thing for the environmental community would be no bill at all to curb greenhouse gas emissions," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who co-sponsored an agriculture climate amendment this week.
There are a handful of environmental groups that have been openly critical of the legislation that passed the House and the draft Senate bill, among them CBD, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Public Citizen. But those groups represent largely the left fringe of the environmental community and their positions are the minority rather than the norm when it comes to Washington lobbying from green groups.
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica declined to comment on the motivations of other environmental groups but said he viewed the goal of his organization as advocating for the strongest possible bill. "We need to be, as an environmental advocacy organization, for what we know the science dictates and what is sound economic and environmental policy," he said. "Friends of the Earth's role is to push the strongest bill possible and shift the politics."
Pica also pointed to the health care debate as an example for the need of a strong left-wing to push on lawmakers, pointing to the liberal groups that called for the inclusion of the "public option" even as many pundits and moderate lawmakers proclaimed that such a policy is not politically feasible. At the moment, the public option is still in play. "That's the type of core commitment that is required," he said.
Others say that the debate is on a path where both advocacy groups and key negotiators will end up with a bill that fundamentally misses their goals. "What kind of bill is going to come out there?" said Lawrence Rothenberg, an environmental politics expert at the University of Rochester. "The bill that comes out of there is going to be a mess, and it will ultimately be a disappointment to hard-core environmentalists."
Is there a breaking point?
Environmental groups have laid out their own wish lists for the climate bill, including items such as stringent caps on carbon dioxide emissions, significant incentives for alternative energy sources and lack of loopholes for conventional fossil-fuel industries.
But one thing environmentalists and their congressional allies have not done is make specific demands on items that must be in the bill to ensure the environmental community's support. Perhaps even more telling, when lawmakers have pushed for policies that have been vehemently opposed in the past, environmental groups have not actively pushed back.
The clearest example to date is last month's op-ed from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), which stated the climate bill needs to have provisions for increased offshore drilling and support nuclear power if it hopes to pick up bipartisan support and pass the Senate.
There has been virtually no outcry from mainstream environmental groups over the bill's sponsor (Kerry) seemingly backing such a position, even though many of the groups have consistently fought against new offshore drilling legislation. In fact, some on the left hailed the op-ed as a sign that climate change legislation was picking up increased political momentum.
Athan Manuel, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said yesterday he was optimistic that a climate bill could make it to the president's desk without the offshore drilling provisions, pointing out as popular as offshore drilling may be with some lawmakers it also runs into fierce opposition from a number of others.
But when asked if the Sierra Club would oppose a climate bill that includes offshore drilling, Manuel responded that compromises may be necessary. "We understand that at the end of the day we will have to accept some things that we don't like," he said, adding that he did not envision any bill carrying a major expansion of drilling.
Offshore drilling is just one item in a long list of compromises that are on the table or are already part of the Senate climate bill. Among them: increased development for nuclear power, investment in carbon capture and sequestration, a lowering of the bill's emissions targets, limits on EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases, protections for agriculture and changes in trade policy to reflect the lack of carbon regulations in other nations.
For some environmentalists, many of those potential compromises do not just represent items that they have historically opposed, but items they say undermine the very purpose of the legislation.
"If you believe that it's got to be at 450 and it ends up being 575, you're going to have to pay for the consequences of that," said Rothenberg, referring to the concentration of C02 in the atmosphere.
"My skepticism is about compromises that either make the total cap on national emissions less stringent or allow people to get around the cap," said Stacy VanDeveer, an environmental policy and politics expert at the University of New Hampshire. "Because we so badly need climate change emissions to come down over time, a bill with lots of compromises but one that forces climate change emissions down over a reasonable time seems like a reasonable compromise.
"A lot of the compromises that might be added to this bill to create the Christmas tree effect would be worth making if the cap is stringent," VanDeveer added.
A lobbying push without demands?
While environmental groups want to keep the bill as strong as possible, observers and critics say they have not adequately hammered that message home to lawmakers and voters.
The bulk of the environmental community's advertising on the climate bill has focused on swing votes, with messaging broadly calling on them to support a bill. "We are not negotiating particulars. At this point we are trying to make sure that the Senate understands the urgency of acting now and acting in a comprehensive way," said LCV's Karpinski.
CBD's Suckling, however, said environmentalists should be making sure the legislation is strengthened rather than voluntarily reaching out to lawmakers who seek a weaker bill. "It's the job of the administration, Pelosi, Reid to find 60 votes. It's the job of the environmental community to produce a bill that will work," he said.
Much of the political messaging in support for the climate bill has come from the recently formed coalition of about 60 groups called Clean Energy Works. Its membership includes most of the largest environmental groups in Washington -- Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Environment America, the Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
Other members include labor unions, religious organizations, veterans groups and wide range of other left-leaning advocacy organizations.
The group's almost singular agenda is to campaign for passage of the legislation without any specific conditions on exactly what must be a part of the bill. "We're pushing for a bill that has less pollution, more jobs, greater security and it is clear that all those elements are in the bill," said Josh Dorner, spokesman for Clean Energy Works. "Given the role of the campaign and the public discourse out there, I think we're positioned just right."
Earlier this week, the Alliance for Climate Protection's Repower America campaign launched another media campaign that calls for passage of the legislation on the basis that it will create a clean energy economy, while mentioning little about its impact on reducing emissions. The group is founded by former Vice President Al Gore, who has called for the United States to produce 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources within a decade.
The group unveiled the campaign in a conference call and when asked by one of the participants why the campaign did not articulate Gore's goal, David Boundy, campaign manager for the group, said, "We're not addressing any particular policy point in the debate, what we're trying to do is set the table for action in this country."
Reporters Ben Geman and Allison Winter contributed.