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Revealed: The Day Obama Instructed the Big Greens to Keep Silent on Climate Change

“My most vivid memory of that meeting is this idea that you can’t talk about climate change,” said Jessy Tolkan, who at the time was a leader of the climate youth movement, Power Shift.

 

“On a separate note, I’m curious what new ‘directives’ from the White House this time around might be for the climate movement, from one of those exclusive insider events, you know?  Those insiders among you, mind to share with the rest of us a little sooner this time, than the end of the second term?  Or do we still have to deduce from the unified talking points among you?  On National Public Radio a progressive movement leader explained that, at the beginning of Obama’s first term, he couldn’t be pushed very much, because he had to avoid jeopardizing the chances for his second term.  That’s why we needed to vote for him again, so that now he can really fight for us!  You see, keeping his job in the Oval Office is so much more important than the fate of the world, and savvy movement leaders can obviously agree with that.” – Scientist Maggie Zhou

Revealed: the day Obama chose a strategy of silence on climate change

Sandy has blown climate change back on the agenda – and many believe the White House was wrong when it decided in 2009 that climate change was not a winning political message

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent

guardian.co.uk

Barack Obama

Barack Obama: a 2009 off-the-record event marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change. Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis

The invitation to the White House in the spring of 2009 struck Barack Obama‘s allies in the environmental movement as a big moment: a clear sign that climate change was on his radar and that the president was eager to get to work.

The event was indeed a turning point, but not the one campaigners expected. Instead, it marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word – a decision some campaigners on the guestlist say produced the strange absence of climate change from the 2012 campaign, until hurricane Sandy blew it right back on the political agenda.

The storm – which interrupted campaigning for three of the last eight days of the presidential race – may even prove the decisive factor in the elections, with voters watching how Obama handles Sandy’s aftermath. The devastation has already sparked debate about America’s present-day vulnerability to climate change.

But back in 2009, the off-the-record event with the White House green team at the old executive office building offered the first chance for the White House to share its plans for getting a climate change law through Congress. Aides handed round a one-page memo of polling data and talking points.

“It was in the context of the financial collapse. With everyone struggling, how do we connect with the public and build political support when everyone’s mind was on the very scary economy,” said Betsy Taylor, president of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions an organisation that works with philanthropic and non-profit clients, who attended the meeting.

The answer was clear: climate change was not a winning message. Raising the topic would also leave Obama open to attack from industry and conservative groups opposed to intervention in the economy.

“What was communicated in the presentation was: ‘This is what you talk about, and don’t talk about climate change’.” Taylor said. “I took away an absolutely clear understanding that we should focus on clean energy jobs and the potential of a clean energy economy rather than the threat of climate change.”

The message stuck. Subsequent campaigns from the Obama administration and some environmental groups relegated climate change to a second-tier concern. After industry and conservative groups mobilised to attack Obama’s policies and climate science in the summer of 2009, the topic was seen as an even greater liability and politically toxic.

There was no mention of climate change during six hours of televised debate. Moderators failed to bring up the question, and Obama and Mitt Romney made no effort to fill in the gaps – even during a long and heated exchange about offshore drilling and coal.

Romney’s convention speech reduced climate change to a laughline. Obama defended climate science at the Democratic convention, and he answered a question on climate in an MTV interview last month.

Otherwise, Obama mentioned climate only in passing and in front of safe or rock-solid Democratic audiences, such as fundraisers in San Francisco and New York or events on college campuses. Since Sandy’s devastating storm, a number of prominent Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore have talked about climate change, and taken Romney to task on the issue.

Those gathered on 26 March 2009 to hear from key members of Obama’s green dream team — Carol Browner, then energy and climate adviser, Nancy Sutley, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Van Jones, then green jobs adviser, believed it would be a pivotal year.

The White House and both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats, world leaders were due to gather in Copenhagen in December to finalise a global climate change treaty.

But the economy was in meltdown. The White House, after studying polling and focus groups, concluded it was best to frame climate change as an economic opportunity, a chance for job creation and economic growth, rather than an urgent environmental problem.

“My most vivid memory of that meeting is this idea that you can’t talk about climate change,” said Jessy Tolkan, who at the time was a leader of the climate youth movement, Power Shift. “The real sense at that time was that talking about clean energy jobs, green jobs, was the way we were going to be able to gain momentum and usher in real change. Talking about climate change and global warming was not going to resonate as much.”

None of the principal White House officials would talk on the record about the meeting. The White House did not release materials related to the meeting or respond to a request for visitors’ records.

But most of the environmental groups were inclined to go along. “When the White House invites you to a meeting and says: ‘here is how we are going to talk about these things’, it sends a very clear message,” said Erich Pica, president of the US Friends of the Earth Action, who was also at the meeting.

COMMON DREAMS | Mainstream Green Groups Cave In on Climate

Note – This article has been endorsed by James Hansen.

Published on Tuesday, April 20, 2010 by CommonDreams.org

Mainstream Green Groups Cave In on Climate

Dangerously Allow Industry to Set Agenda

by Gary Houser and Cory Morningstar

“Governments will not put young people and nature above special financial interests without great public pressure. Such pressure is not possible as long as big environmental organizations provide cover. So the best hope is this — individuals must demand that the leaders change course or they will lose support.” – Dr. James Hansen

With climate scientists warning that we are in a global emergency and tipping points leading to runaway catastrophe will be crossed unless carbon pollution is rapidly reduced, one would expect groups identified as environmental defenders to be shifting into high gear. Instead, we are witnessing the unspeakably tragic spectacle of a mainstream environmental movement allowing itself to be seduced and co-opted by the very forces it should be vehemently opposing. At the very moment when moral leadership and courage are needed the most, what we see is a colossal failure of both – with potentially irreversible consequences for our civilization. If Congress chooses an inadequate response to the crisis, policies can get “locked in” which virtually guarantee that these tipping points are crossed. These organizations are using their significant financial resources to create a public impression that the “environmental community” has given its “stamp of approval” to this policy and to marginalize the voices of the genuine grassroots activists who represent the heart and soul of the climate movement. With nothing less than the future of the planet at stake, these groups must now be publicly challenged and held accountable for their actions.

The stage has been set for this necessary debate by publication of Johann Hari’s excellent commentary entitled “The Wrong Kind of Green“. In this piece, Hari provides important insight into some of the relevant history. He describes how in the 1980s and 1990s some of the larger environmental groups began to adopt a policy often called “corporate engagement”. The basic idea was that by participating in “partnerships” with corporations – some involving receipt of monetary contributions – there would be opportunity to exert positive influence.

It is not possible to look into the minds of those who promoted this shift. Perhaps there was a sincere hope that corporations would be moved toward more responsible behavior. Whatever the case, the critically important task at this time is not to evaluate possible motives but rather the real life consequences. To do so honestly, all self-interested blinders must be set aside.

The truth is that this policy has created a “slippery slope” leading to severely compromised stances – nowhere more apparent than in regard to the over-arching issue of climate. In 2007, a coalition was formed between corporations and environmental organizations called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP – whose purpose was to influence U.S. climate legislation. Some of the large groups that joined were Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Nature Conservancy, and National Wildlife Foundation. In January 2009, USCAP presented its proposals and these became the framework of the Waxman-Markey bill.

The physical context is that previously projected worst case scenarios are already being surpassed and humanity is running out of time. Ice is melting far more rapidly than expected, releasing the “albedo effect” where open water absorbs more heat and accelerates further melting. The normally quite cautious National Science Foundation is ringing alarm bells about the methane – a greenhouse gas over 30 times as powerful as CO2 – now venting from the Siberian seabeds. According to the NSF statement: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.” These are only two examples of “reinforcing feedbacks” that can significantly move the process closer to tipping points.

Within a context so dire that in reality a war-time level of mobilization is needed, what kind of legislation is being offered? First of all, the emission reduction targets themselves – apart from the theoretical strategies for achieving them – categorically ignore the science. The goals do not even aim at stabilization at 350 ppm (let alone the lower figures more likely to be necessary) and the time frame for enacting meaningful reductions is not even remotely close to the speed needed to prevent disaster.

Beyond the issue of targets is that of reduction strategies. USCAP would like to see a trillion dollar carbon market put into place, where traders can claim “pollution rights” to the sky and seek profits from the exchange of such “rights”. Such a system – which would determine whether life-supporting ecosystems survive or collapse – would be placed into the same manipulative hands on Wall Street that brought on the financial meltdown. As this commentary goes to press, several traders in the European carbon market (the world’s prototype) have been arrested in connection with a

), NRDC and EDF are sending their own people to promote it at carbon trade conferences.

The next immoral concession is to allow the industry to “buy” its way out of actually reducing emissions by supporting so-called “offsets” – such as forest preservation projects in the developing world. Sounding plausible in theory, offsets are actually riddled with verification issues and defects such as loggers simply moving elsewhere. But the bottomline “wrong” here is that any form of offsetting should never be looked at as an alternative to reducing emissions. It should only be seen as an additional action to take.

Then there is the unbelievable capitulation represented by the removal of EPA authority to regulate coal-burning. Now that the EPA has finally been empowered by the Supreme Court to act against a carbon-fueled ecocide, this ability has been effectively stripped from the House bill without a murmur from the USCAP “greens”. The result of all these concessions is a pathetically weak bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will not even begin to reduce emissions until 2018. Other studies indicate that if all available offsets are used, reductions could actually be postponed an astonishing 19 years until 2029.

The USCAP “greens” proclaim that their positions are being driven by “political expediency”. But there is a stunning “disconnect” which these groups have been reticent to address. How does one negotiate with a melting iceberg? Can the inexorable laws of physics be placed “on hold” while emission reductions are scuttled in a process of political “horse-trading”? What is the meaning of “expediency” when it leads to the collapse of society as we know it? John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseach, stated at the “4 Degrees and Beyond” conference at Oxford that “political reality must be grounded in physical reality or it is completely useless”.

The Sierra Club is experiencing what may be a positive change in leadership and to its credit has not adopted the policy of “corporate engagement” described, yet it has failed to truly mobilize its base against the dangerous shortcomings of the USCAP endorsed legislation. In 2008, the Sierra Club bestowed its highest honor – the John Muir Award – to climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. In presenting the award, Sierra Club President Allison Chin said: “He is truly a hero for preserving the environment”. How does the Sierra Club reconcile the honoring of this man for warning the world and then essentially ignore his core message that present climate legislation is based on false solutions that will waste precious time?

NRDC and EDF, on the other hand, have gone far beyond mere silence. While their websites claim a dedication to public service ( NRDC’s motto is “The Earth’s Best Defense”), they have been actively promoting the USCAP accomodation. If they had not lost sight of their original missions, they would have sought out members of Congress willing to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and used their resources (in 2008, NRDC had an operational budget of 87 million dollars) to throw weight behind them. Instead of emboldening this kind of voice, they have done the exact opposite by allowing industry to define what is “feasible”.

The real climate movement – the one with its backbone intact and composed of grassroots activists and principled groups like Friends of the Earth and Center for Biological Diversity – is already in a “David versus Goliath” situation as it tries to confront the most powerful lobby in the country. But that task has been made infinitely more difficult by these big budget groups using their money to isolate and “box in” the smaller ones.

We close this commentary with the following direct appeal to both the leadership and the members of these groups that have chosen the path of accommodation:

The verdict is in. Your experiment in “corporate engagement” has resulted in a disastrous failure that now threatens the planet. We fully expected the massive campaign from the fossil fuel industry to strip any substance from this legislation. But you have blindsided those of us who are fighting with all our hearts for the future of the earth. Your coffers have grown and now you are using this money to drown us out.

Your stance does not represent those in the grassroots movement, many of whom are young and see the disasters that are looming within their own lifetimes. In your comfortable offices, you do not speak for those willing to put themselves on the line and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the very forces you seek to accomodate. The rationale for your corporate “partnerships” was the issue of exerting influence. But the question begging to be asked is who influenced whom? Though your treasury is more full, what truly has been gained and what has been lost?

Your intentions may have been honorable, but the agenda of “defending earth” has been hijacked. Along the way, your vision became blurred and you lost sight of this mission. In this “experiment’, you are the ones who have been “had”. It now appears to have been a terrible Faustian bargain, and we are all paying the price. At the very moment of greatest need for an empowered public advocacy in the face of the most overwhelming threat in human history, your leadership is not to be found.

Your accommodation and your defense of abominably weak Congressional legislation has already had a destructive global impact. It was this legislation that set the bar intolerably low in Copenhagen and instigated a “race to the bottom”. The entire world-wide movement for climate sanity has become blocked by the denial, blindness, and paralysis embodied in U.S. climate policy. When you take this stance in the name of “defending the earth”, you are actually creating an insidious and dangerous deception.

For the sake of the planet, we appeal to your organizations to reclaim the integrity of your original visions. The position you presently advocate will squander the precious little time we have to implement true reductions before the irreversible tipping points are crossed. The stakes could not be higher. We ask that you join hands with the grassroots activists and groups and support the following eight points:

1) Officially recognize that we are truly in a global emergency and that irreversible tipping points are likely to be crossed if humanity does not act in time;

2) Officially recognize that this emergency is of such a magnitude that a war time level of mobilization is needed in order to effectively deal with it;

3) Stand squarely for the necessity that climate legislation be based on the setting of emission reduction targets and a time frame which are defined by the science;

4) Due to the severe ecosystem damage that will ensue in response to a 2 degree (celsius) rise, an overall goal of no more than one degree (celsius) rise must be sought;

5) Clearly renounce cap and trade and offsets as false solutions that will squander precious time;

6) Stand squarely against any attempt in Congress to strip EPA of its authority to regulate carbon;

7) Support a comprehensive approach to the crisis that combines elements of legislation, regulation, and public investment;

8) Support a legislative component based on a continually rising carbon fee with a 100% distribution of the proceeds to U.S. citizens, with the amount of the fee determined by an emission reduction schedule driven by science.

We also ask the members of these groups to withhold their organizational support until their leadership recognizes the necessity of these changes. On this defining issue of our time, may we strive to remove the barriers that divide us and work together.

Gary Houser is a public interest writer, documentary producer, and activist with Climate SOS seeking to raise awareness within the religious community (here) about the moral issues at stake and working to create a more empowered climate movement.

Cory Morningstar, in addition to being a mom, is an activist with Canadians for Action on Climate Change and has collated latest scientific findings here.

http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/04/20-1

‘No compromise’ faction attacks climate bill 104 | NRDC

OUTFLANKED

‘No compromise’ faction attacks climate bill

by Jonathan Hiskes

1 Oct 2009 5:08 PM

$2 trillion billCourtesy Climate SOSGlobal warming activists endorsed by the preeminent climatologist James Hansen are working to defeat the climate and energy bill in Congress, and they’re using some provocative stunts to spread their message.

Briefly:

  • Activists handed out fake $2 trillion bills at a rally for climate legislation in New York last week, criticizing the size of the global-warming emissions market they oppose. ($2 trillion is their estimate for the size of the emissions market they oppose.) The bills depict Al Gore holding a wrench and a compact-fluorescent light bulb and the words “Corporate Giveaways! Carbon Ponzi Schemes! FALSE SOLUTIONS!”
  • Others hung a 14-foot banner of the same bill from the Manhattan headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
  • “Cap’n Trade,” an actor in a pirate costume, unfurled a similar banner at a presentation by Connie Hedegaard, chairperson of the Dec. 2009 UN Climate Summit and Denmark’s minister for climate and energy.
  • Still others blocked a motorcade of UN delegates to drop a banner with the message “Cap + Trade is a Dead End.”

At least three groups worked together on last week’s events—Climate SOS, Rising Tide North America, and “Greenwash Guerrillas,” which pied Thomas Friedman last year. They all hold a “no compromise” philosophy on climate-change action, opposing carbon markets that allow polluters to buy and sell pollution credits and arguing that larger environmental groups such as NRDC have compromised too much in working with businesses and Democratic lawmakers.

“It’s an awkward position to be environmentalists working on climate change but opposing a climate bill,” said Climate SOS organizer Rachel Smolker, a Vermont ecologist and author. “Especially with a new administration that we want to support. But we felt we need to take a really strong position because this [bill] is so inadequate.”

The campaign is awkward for “establishment” green groups too. They’ve been preparing to battle fossil-fuel interests over the energy bill introduced in the Senate this week. Now they must figure out if and how to respond to this attack from the far left.

“It’s troubling,” said Daniel J. Weiss, director for climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. “No one believes that the clean energy bill that will come out of Congress will address the threat of global warming in a single step. But we have to start.”

“The real enemies are Big Oil and Big Coal and the right wing attack machine,” he said. “For them to mock [Gore] in the way they did shows that they don’t understand you need to attack your enemies and not your allies.”

Hansen’s involvement is especially troublesome. The director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies wasn’t involved in the New York stunts, but he endorsed Climate SOS’s recent tour against a climate bill. The $2 trillion bill includes his statement that a cap-and-trade program “would be worse for the environment than doing nothing.”

The opposition by Hansen and Climate SOS is unlikely to influence Washington policymakers, in Weiss’s opinion, but it’s got the potential to make everyday Americans think the situation is hopeless.

“If they hear from such a respected scientist as James Hansen that what Congress is doing won’t matter, then why would they bother to call their senators to say ‘Act on this’?” he said.

What does that even mean?

Banner at NRDCClimate SOS activists at NRDC’s headquartersCourtesy tanukiAside from the stunts last week, other moves by the “no-compromise” camp are downright perplexing. Last week Greenwash Guerrillas launched a website in response to Cleanenergyworks.us, a three-month-old diverse coalition supporting a comprehensive energy bill. The similar-sounding Cleanenergyworks.biz was a replica of the real Clean Energy Works site, with two notable changes: The phone number and email address for spokesperson Josh Dorner had been changed. His name was left the same. The site changed to a more innocuous version over the weekend and is currently down. (Have a screen grab? Send it in and we’ll post.)

Dorner had no interest in speaking about the site that took his name. “I don’t send too much of my day worrying about a website,” he said Thursday. “There are considerably more important tasks before us to get this bill across the Senate floor.”

NRDC spokesperson Michael Oko shared Dorner’s reluctance to give attention to the stunts. “There are a lot of different groups out there,” he said in regard to the banner hung at NRDC’s office. “Everybody has the right to express themselves.”

About the replica website Oko said, “Frankly, I was a little confused about what their intention was.”

Smolker of Climate SOS said the idea was “to provide a spoof, to reveal the emptiness of the claims Clean Energy Works provides. For them, it’s green jobs and clean energy and everything’s a smiley-face, you know? Our goal is to tell people to look deeper and take the smiley faces off.”

At EDFAt Environmental Defense Fund.Courtesy tanukiShe said she contributed ideas for the mock site, but individuals from Greenwash Guerrillas, who did not want to be identified, created the idea.

The 51-year-old Smolker has seen firsthand how environmental groups can evolve, professionalize, and grow in wealth and influence. Her father was one of the founders of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), another group targeted by Climate SOS last week. EDF met in her childhood home when it was still a “ragtag group,” as Climate SOS is now, she said. (Smolker, who works for Biofuel Watch, declined to give funding information for Climate SOS but said all members were volunteers.)

“We’ve played that compromise game for a long time,” she said. “There’s too much at stake right now.”

The old saw

The compromise question—whether to sacrifice what is ecologically necessary for what seems politically possible–has been around as long as the green movement itself. The naturalist-and-mystic John Muir and the politician-and-forester Gifford Pinchot clashed over the same tensions in the early 20th century.

As for Hansen’s “worse than nothing” remark, there has been plenty written about the failings of the House climate and energy bill—it gives away too much to dirty-energy backers, it even protects coal-plant pollution from further regulation. But there is historical precedent of legislation that is deeply flawed at first evolving into something effective and durable. The original Clean Air Act did not address the acid rain crisis, an omission not corrected until 1990. The original Social Security Act did not include domestic or agricultural workers, effectively excluding many Hispanic, black, and immigrant workers, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala notes.

“If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist,” writes Begala. “Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start.”

Most progressives, including many major green groups, would gladly embrace an imperfect climate bill as a start.

“Those who see the House clean energy bill as somehow tainted by deals, and therefore want a carbon tax, have to understand that no tax proposal would ever emerge from Congress as we know it without similar or worse deals being made,” said Weiss. “Unfortunately the moral high ground of ‘we must act for our children’ is necessary but not sufficient for our political process.”

Smolker said Climate SOS would continue on a different tack, insisting on an acceptable bill from the get-go. She expected the group would pause to take stock of the bill released in the Senate this week, then regroup.

Here’s Cap’n Trade delivering his message to Danish climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard:

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