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A National Conversation on Conservation: Environmentalists Hope the Time is Now
Published on Friday, October 14, 2005 by San Francisco Chronicle
A National Conversation on Conservation:
Environmentalists Hope the Time is Now
by Joe Garofoli
 

It took $3-a-gallon gasoline, the promise of record home heating bills this winter and the White House rolling out a conservation campaign featuring a cartoon pig to give environmentalists something they've been craving for years:

A chance to start a national conversation about America's energy problems.


A recent post-Katrina analysis of the attitudes of 1,000 registered voters by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's firm found that 73 percent strongly supported higher fuel-efficiency standards, tax credits for hybrid cars and more efforts to develop renewable energy.

The problem for the green movement is that signs of public willingness to listen to environmentalists' message haven't translated into political changes in Washington, D.C.

"There is no doubt this is a moment," said David Willet, national spokesman for the Sierra Club. "This is definitely a time when we'd like to push some of the issues we've been talking about for a long time.

"But we're still playing a lot of defense here (in Washington)."

Playing defense is especially frustrating now for environmentalists. They feel that the energy crunch and images of the post-Katrina shambles along the Gulf Coast give them kitchen-table talking points about issues that long have sounded to red-state Americans like carping from wonky Chicken Littles: climate change, wetlands destruction, overdependence on petroleum and inappropriate coastal development.

Some environmentalists did take heart from the fact that an energy bill they had opposed as overly friendly to industry cleared the House last week only after GOP leaders twisted the arms of recalcitrant Republicans.

"It only passed by two votes," Willet said. "There were obviously a lot of people that are feeling differently about what the right direction is for America's energy future."

The challenge for environmentalists, though, is that Republicans and their supporters see the same cultural factors as a "moment" as well. And they have a different set of solutions -- and the votes to implement them.

"Some people think the government works better than the market, as if Washington should simply write a law and shove every driver into a car that gets 50 miles per gallon whether they like it or not," said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. "This is the we-know-what's-good-for-you-so-take-your-medicine-and-shut-up policy, and it doesn't work."

Given Republican control of the Congress and the White House, change is unlikely to happen soon in Washington, said Kevin Curtis, a senior vice president of the National Environmental Trust.

"We (Democrats) still don't have the votes," Curtis said. "It's not the fault of the environmental movement."

But El Cerrito resident Michael Shellenberger thinks it is. He shocked the green movement last year with the critique he co-wrote with Oakland resident Ted Nordhaus, titled "The Death of Environmentalism," which argued that environmentalists were too focused on policy minutiae to capture people's imagination.

Instead of rehashing the same proposals doomed to fail in a Republican Congress, Shellenberger would rather see Democrats offer "something big and bold now" -- even if it's a political loser in the short term.

"We -- Democrats and environmentalists -- just keep waiting for Republicans to fall down, but we don't offer any alternative solution," Shellenberger said. "We can't just play defense."

One idea that Nordhaus and Shellenberger helped create has been dubbed "health care for hybrids." It would involve the federal government picking up part of the cost of retirees' benefits for U.S. automakers, a financial burden that car companies say is preventing them from investing more in technology that could improve gas mileage.

Roughly $1,500 of the price of a new General Motors car is devoted to paying the company's health care costs, company spokesman Christopher Preuss said. An additional $3,000 goes to pension costs. (Toyota spokesman Xavier Dominicis said the Japanese carmaker's costs are substantially below that but declined to release specific figures.)

In exchange for the government's help, automakers would invest half the savings in gas-electric hybrid vehicles, and Congress would raise fuel-efficiency standards 3 percent a year for the next 15 years. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., hopes to craft a bill on the plan by the end of the year, a spokesman said. The plan would be paid for by closing shelter loopholes for wealthy taxpayers.

Others think new ideas will come from outside Washington as Americans show signs that they're changing their energy-guzzling lifestyles.

In September, sales of full-size SUVs were down 51 percent from the year before, J.D. Power and Associates said. Ford Motor Co., which has been targeted by activist groups such as Jumpstart Ford of San Francisco for lagging behind Japanese carmakers in production of hybrid cars, said two weeks ago that it would be able to make 250,000 hybrids by 2010. Toyota said it wants to sell 600,000 hybrids in the United States by then.

"What Ford is doing is a start," said Jennifer Krill, director of the Zero Emissions Campaign for the Rainforest Action Network, based in San Francisco. "Changes are going to have to come from corporate accountability campaigns, because they're not coming from the government."

But Preuss said environmental groups' efforts to link hybrid production to the overall health of the auto industry are "too simplistic." Hybrids make up roughly 1 percent of the market.

Cultural acceptance of environmental ideas could be gaining ground outside auto showrooms. Last week, the green movement got a boost from the White House when the Bush administration rolled out its Energy Hog mascot to launch its energy conservation campaign.

Some environmentalists could hardly believe a conservation plan was coming from the same administration whose energy policy is influenced by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said in 2001 that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis all by itself for sound, comprehensive energy policy."

"All those issues we've been talking about for years are happening," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "There's been this massive shift in the thinking about climate change. Whether people totally believe the science or not, it's no longer just an abstract issue."

Polls point to other signs that voters may be ready for new ideas about energy.

A recent post-Katrina analysis of the attitudes of 1,000 registered voters by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg's firm found that 73 percent strongly supported higher fuel-efficiency standards, tax credits for hybrid cars and more efforts to develop renewable energy.

Translating such sentiments into action could be a challenge, however. While 79 percent of respondents last month to a Duke University survey of 800 registered voters said they supported stronger environmental standards, only 22 percent said green concerns had played a major role in determining whom they vote for.

Why: Eighty-seven percent of the Duke survey respondents believed it was "at least somewhat likely" that stronger national environmental standards will mean higher taxes, and 56 percent thought it would hurt the economy.

Even though the landscape might be changing, Greenberg believes environmentalists need to make a stronger appeal if they want to seize their green moment now.

"We are still working on the broad themes and narratives for this moment," the pollster said, "when the country is looking for a new direction."

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle

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