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VIEWPOINT: Naomi Klein’s Criticism Of Environmental Groups Missed The Mark

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"VIEWPOINT: Naomi Klein’s Criticism Of Environmental Groups Missed The Mark"

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Naomi Klein

CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Karita

Author Naomi Klein is promoting her forthcoming book with the time-honored tactic of saying something so outrageous that media can’t help but report it — and those who come under attack feel pressed to respond. As Salon describes it, Klein’s best pitch is this: Green groups are more damaging than climate change deniers. It’s tempting to just let an assertion like that fall apart under its own weight, but Klein is high profile enough that it’s necessary to correct some of her more egregious inaccuracies.

This is not to say that Klein gets everything wrong. For instance, she says that the groundswell of grassroots environmental activity is a source of great hope for the movement. That’s absolutely right, and the reason my organization, Environmental Defense Fund, has spent decades educating, advocating, and organizing.

But while environmental activists will be the central force for any meaningful response to climate change, we can’t change the world on our own. Finding a solution to climate change will require a broad circle of allies calling for action, and that most certainly must include businesses small and large. Here’s where we part ways with Naomi Klein, who rejects the strategy of building coalitions with business — and is opposed to all market-based environmental solutions — because she sees climate action as a way to reform or replace capitalism itself. EDF is about environmental results. When faced with the choice of making real progress in our fight against climate change or waging ideological warfare, we will always choose the former.

We were the first environmental group to hire economists because we understand the surest way to get most people to do the right thing for the planet is to realign economic incentives so they are rewarded for doing the right thing. We partner with corporations when we see opportunities (but we don’t take their donations because that would undermine our independence and integrity). The results of our corporate partnerships speak for themselves. In 1991, we helped McDonald’s phase out foam “clamshell” sandwich containers. In 2004, EDF and FedEx launched the first “street-ready” hybrid trucks ever built. Today, hybrids are in hundreds of corporate fleets, from UPS to Coca-Cola to the U.S. Postal Service. And since 2008, EDF’s Climate Corps program has placed hundreds of MBAs at some of the biggest corporations in the world to both increase energy efficiency today and train them as business leaders of tomorrow. To date, our Climate Corps fellows have identified $1.2 billion in potential energy savings, with greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road.

People who disagree with this approach say, basically, how can you work with corporations when they are the very entities that pollute our air, land and water? To which we say: We work with them because they are the very entities that pollute our air, land and water. In other words, that’s one of the places where there’s progress to be made.

Klein, like some other critics on the left, reserves her deepest scorn for the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), an influential coalition of corporations and environmental NGOs, including EDF, that came together in support of mandatory limits on carbon pollution. In 2009, USCAP helped win passage of comprehensive climate and energy legislation in the House of Representatives. Thanks to the Great Recession, extreme partisanship and half a dozen other factors, the Senate never took up the bill, and it died. USCAP wasn’t perfect but it deserves respect for what it accomplished and groups like it have a role to play. Business voices must be part of the broad coalition we need to drive climate action. Remember, the road to sixty votes in the Senate runs through some fairly conservative states — meaning we need more, not fewer, non-traditional allies.

Klein is absolutely right that we must all hold corporations accountable. EDF has accomplished great things with our corporate partners, but we’re more than willing to take on those same organizations when necessary. For example, in 2007 EDF worked with Duke Energy in USCAP. Simultaneously, EDF took Duke Energy all the way to the Supreme Court for violating the Clean Air Act — and we won, forcing the company to clean up some of its dirtiest power plants. We’ve pressured utilities not to build dirty coal plants, shamed polluters for lobbying for weak environmental rules, and encouraged action at the grassroots level.

Klein also doesn’t like natural gas. Like EDF and every other major environmental group, she thinks the world needs to accelerate the transition to clean, renewable energy. But whether we wish it were so or not, natural gas is being used today. And until the clean, renewable energy future arrives, we have a responsibility to protect ecosystems and communities from the impacts of hydraulic fracturing today — that’s why we’re fighting for strong rules and tough enforcement. We also have a responsibility to ensure natural gas delivers maximum climate benefit, so we’re working to measure and reduce methane leakage. Carbon emissions from U.S. electricity generation are also declining, and that’s in large part due to the nation’s transition to natural gas and away from coal. Indeed, the nation’s power sector is emitting the lowest levels of carbon emissions in nearly 20 years.

Effective activism from allies like the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, the rise of shale gas, and smart regulations that EDF and others have fought for, have all helped us start to turn the corner on emissions in the U.S. The next big step will be new EPA carbon standards for new and existing power plants, which account for about 40% of U.S. climate pollution — the single biggest source of the problem. Right now there are absolutely no limits in place on climate pollution from these plants. That is going to change, but not without a fight. EDF will be there.

Klein makes the fairly obvious observation that carbon emission rules in the international community have a long way to go. But she dismisses powerful tools and ignores important progress being made here. Her rejection of the European Union Emissions Trading System, for example, ignores the fact that independent studies at the regional and national levels confirm that since it started in 2005, the EU’s cap-and-trade system has driven significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, even during periods of economic growth.

Another tool Klein rejects is using carbon markets to pay for reducing deforestation. EDF shares her concern for indigenous peoples’ rights, and has long advocated for recognition and protection of indigenous land rights, in Brazil and the Amazon in particular. Contrary to her claim, the real threat to indigenous lands and livelihoods in Brazil and elsewhere is uncontrolled deforestation for cattle pasture, soybeans and oil palm, not carbon offsets. Brazil’s deforestation control program has resulted in more indigenous territories and better law enforcement, while Indonesia’s constitutional court has for the first time recognized community land rights, in part because the government wants to access carbon finance for reducing deforestation.

Great ideas can sprout up anywhere across the spectrum of the environmental community. At EDF, we don’t expect everyone to embrace our particular approach, and we respect those who choose a different path. There’s power in the diversity of our movement. After all, a winning team doesn’t ask all of its players to play the same position. That’s worth remembering as we work toward our common goal.

Now I’ve got to get back to ruining the environment and blocking climate progress. I wouldn’t want the Koch Brothers to retake the lead.

Eric Pooley is Senior Vice-President of Environmental Defense Fund and author of The Climate War.

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