Expanded Coalitions Support U.S. Climate Bill

ACORN rallyIn an effort to broaden support for sweeping climate legislation, environmentalists are forming atypical alliances with other progressive social organizations.

Groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), MoveOn, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are part of a growing coalition of social welfare, labor, religious, and healthcare organizations joining forces with the traditional environmental lobby.

Major environmental groups say a nationwide grassroots effort is necessary to raise support for binding federal legislation to address climate change, especially during an economic recession when leaders are concerned that such reforms may adversely affect manufacturing industries and energy costs.

Climate legislation took a major step forward late last month when leaders of a House of Representatives energy committee convinced several moderate legislators to support the "American Clean Energy and Security Act." The bill promises to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels, through a national cap-and-trade system.

Climate campaigners are now devising strategies to "pass and strengthen" the bill, despite intense industry opposition. The legislation is expected to undergo a House vote sometime this summer. A more challenging fight will take place in the U.S. Senate, where complementary legislation must gain support from moderate legislators concerned about how their states' economies could be affected.

Several fossil fuel-dependent industries are opposing the measures or requesting less dramatic mandatory emission reductions. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that more than 880 companies and organizations have hired lobbyists to sway climate legislation in their favor during the past year. The count includes environmental groups and clean technology firms but consists mostly of electric utility, oil, natural gas, coal, and chemical companies.

The environmental community is responding with broadened coalitions that emphasize the public health, national security, economic, and environmental threats posed by global climate change.

Among the coalitions is the Climate Equity Alliance, formed in April to "promote policies both to help create quality ‘green jobs' and to train low- and moderate-income workers to fill them." Members include Green For All, ACORN, the NAACP, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Another example is the union between progressive organizations, known as the Unity '09 coalition. The groups, including Planned Parenthood, the online-based MoveOn, and the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza, are meeting privately to support President Barack Obama's agenda, especially the establishment of a national cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions and an overhaul of healthcare policies.

"There's more cross-sectorial collaboration now in the progressive movement than there has been in a long time," said Gillian Caldwell, campaign director of 1Sky, an alliance of 420 local and national organizations that support addressing climate change. "We're bonding together to bring the force of our constituencies behind the president's agenda."

Brian Kettenring,  ACORN's deputy director of national operations, said his group - the largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate- income people in the United States - was inspired to join the Climate Equity Alliance and work with groups such as the Sierra Club after seeing the vulnerability of cities such as New Orleans to rising sea levels and more intense climatic events. The group, which lobbies for affordable housing and improved education in urban areas, is also encouraged by the hope of "green jobs," environmentally sustainable employment opportunities.

"ACORN families understand that building a green economy that's sustainable and builds jobs for working families is good for them, good for the environment, and good for communities," Kettenring said.

ACORN's contribution will include direct lobbying of Congress. In the long term, Kettenring expects more ACORN chapters to become involved in green jobs initiatives, such as efforts to collect federal funding for weatherizing urban buildings.

The major environmental organizations, meanwhile, will continue to intensify their pressure on Congress, various groups said.

U.S. television sets will flash commercials this summer that stress the need for climate legislation and jobs in renewable energy. The Al Gore-led Alliance for Climate Protection, the League of Conservation Voters, and the joint environmental-labor union Blue Green Alliance are producing some of the advertisements.

"This is not unlike a presidential campaign," said Keven Kennedy, press secretary with the Alliance for Climate Protection. "We're clearly trying to educate everyday Americans in every region of the country.... We're trying to rapidly provide them with real facts and figures about the hundreds of thousands of jobs that will be created as a result of creating a clean energy economy."

The Alliance is among an army of environmentalists who will go door-to-door this summer to find more supporters. Environment America hopes to engage 1 million voters across 19 states in climate-focused conversations. 1Sky has recruited 1,700 volunteers who will cover 390 of the nation's 435 electoral districts across 47 states. The Sierra Club plans to collect 500,000 comments on climate-related regulatory initiatives.

"It's really a full-court press by everyone right now," said Josh Dorner, a Sierra Club spokesman.

While almost all major environmental groups agree that the current climate bill needs to be improved, some are denouncing the legislation as too weak to support.

Greenpeace USA, Friends of the Earth, and the Rainforest Action Network said the emissions reduction targets fall short of what scientists consider necessary to avoid the effects of catastrophic climate change. The bill's allocation of pollution permits also has been labeled as too friendly to industry. In the current version, industrial polluters would receive 85 percent of the permits for free, and 15 percent would be auctioned at the start of the cap-and-trade system.

"There was all together too little pressure brought to bear from [the environmental movement's] side of the political equation," said Damon Moglen, Greenpeace's global warming campaign director. "The result is obvious. Industry got the bill the way they wanted."

1Sky's Caldwell acknowledges that the environmental movement should not accept the legislation in its current form, but she said that opposing the bill altogether may ruin the prospects of the United States passing a climate bill before the next national election in 2010. If so, international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December would be less likely to result in an effective treaty, she said.

"People are already uncertain about whether Copenhagen will succeed with a global treaty in-hand. If the U.S. doesn't show up with strong legislation at the table, [the treaty's] prospects for success are much lower," Caldwell said. "If we don't come around with strong support to pass this bill, we will miss a strong opportunity to get this right."

While the environmental movement is divided on the best approach to tackle climate change, the groups agree that they must collectively raise U.S. voter support. If not, leaders in China, India, and the rest of the world may avoid taking serious action, and the global environment will likely suffer.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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