An Environmental Upside to the Horrible Debt Deal?

With the debt-ceiling deal done, the details of who feels the most pain from the next ($1.6 trillion) round of cuts will be left up to a 12-person congressional "supercommittee," to be formed in the coming weeks. But you can bet that funding for dramatic action on climate change and toxic mercury pollution is not going to win out over funding for bedpans and missiles.

In fact, as others have pointed out, cutting trillions out of the federal budget is likely to mean massive cutbacks in the regulatory arm at the EPA, the gutting of clean-energy funding at the Department of Energy, and goodbye to any hopes of infrastructure spending for little projects like, say, a 21st-Century electricity transmission grid. Erich Pica, head of Friends of the Earth, pretty much summed it up: "The draconian cuts passed are likely to mean more people out of work, more people drinking poisoned water and breathing polluted air, and a slower transition to a clean energy economy."

All true. But maybe there's an upside, too.

For one thing, environmental and clean energy activists have no choice now but to reevaluate their strategy now the federal government is being strangled to death. Ever since the collapse of cap and trade legislation and the realization that President Obama is unlikely to ever utter the words "climate change" in public again, much less use the bully pulpit to prepare the nation for the catastrophic risks of inaction, the movement has been in a funk. Few people have been willing to call out the president, hoping instead that he would one day soon turn his attention to the fact that it's our addiction to fossil fuels, not government spending, that is really putting the future at risk.

That fantasy is over now. "The game has changed," one environmental strategist told me yesterday. Yes, there are important battles to be fought over federal clean air regulations and toxic coal ash disposal and mountaintop removal mining. And yes, the fact that Obama announced a doubling of vehicle efficiency standards by 2025 is a very big deal (next week, he is expected to announce the first-ever greenhouse gas emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty trucks). But don't expect more blockbuster deals in the immediate future, much less any throwdowns with Big Coal or Big Oil. From now on, action on clean energy and environmental issues is likely to be incremental. As Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress points out, the deficit deal means that federal spending on energy and environmental issues will be slashed for years to come.

So maybe this is the "fuck 'em" moment. Maybe this is the moment when enviros and clean-energy advocates stop being quite so polite and deferential. Maybe more people will climb trees located on mountaintop-removal sites in an effort to stop the blasting. Maybe more climate activists will think about the climate change not as an international problem to be resolved in an air-conditioned meeting hall, but as a guerilla war to be fought in the streets. (That's certainly how the Sierra Club is thinking about it with their Beyond Coal campaign, and it attracted the attention - in the form of $50 million - from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.) All the real action is in the states now anyway: the northeast has a carbon-trading system up and running, California is pushing hard to speed the adoption of electric cars, New Jersey is pioneering innovative ways to finance solar power, and many states are adopting increasingly aggressive renewable portfolio standards.

Yeah, it's a bleak time. And if the economy continues to tank, all bets are off. But for years, climate activists have been wondering what it would take to wake people up to how much is at stake in these climate and energy battles. Some thought an epic drought would do it. Or a series of freak hurricanes. Or the sudden calving of a massive ice sheet in Greenland. But the one thing nobody considered was a budget battle.

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