I’ve got a letter this week in the venerable New Yorker. Nicholas Lemann wrote an article there a few weeks ago about the first Earth Day and the state of the environmental movement today. It was, in a word, uninformed. I had a few bones to pick, so I wrote a letter.
I’m delighted, of course, that the good editors at the New Yorker saw fit to print my note. I am in excellent company, along with Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Robert A. Low, a former top NYC environmental official.
They made some salient points as correctives to Lemann’s article as did I. The edited letter from me points out the really quite vigorous state of environmental activism in the US today, not to mention in the world beyond, and its effectiveness. Here’s the letter I sent originally:
Nicholas Lemann’s perceptions regarding the history of the modern environmental movement and the failure to achieve comprehensive federal legislation to address climate change are off the mark. Earth Day, for one thing, was not the head of Zeus from which sprang the Athena of all the American landmark environmental legislation. There was significant law long in place before these, and discussions about and drafts of the specific laws that we know today, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, for instance, were well in train before Earth Day. Congress created the foundational National Environmental Policy Act in 1969. Earth Day was part of a felicitous continuum.
The failure of climate legislation in 2010 was not remotely so much a consequence of environmental groups’ inability to organize effectively, nor of the White House’s reluctance to get their hands dirty, as too many environmentalists who should know better charge, but of the extraordinary capacity of the United States Senate to allow itself to be led by special interests, in this case the Tea Party and the fossil fuel companies, represented in the Senate by a good number of Democrats it must be said. (The Tea Party, it should also be remembered, has been substantially funded by the Koch Brothers, whose interests are very much in hydrocarbons.) Cap-and-trade died as a result of the general intransigence of the Republican Caucus, of the gutlessness of fearful Republican Senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who had earlier supported it, and the dead weight of the Democrats beholden to oil and coal and coal-dependent utilities.
Finally, organizing by environmental groups has not become moribund. Indeed there has been an astonishing, broad-based grassroots movement growing for some time. Examples include the Sierra Club’s highly effective “Beyond Coal” campaign and the work of 350.org and others that managed to turn out 40,000 people on a frigid day in February in Washington to demand the President deny permits for the tar-sands carrying Keystone XL pipeline project. There were supporting rallies that day in 18 cities from Boston to Los Angeles. The environmental movement comprises thousands of groups worldwide that have been militating for years, quite successfully in many cases, for serious, economy-wide constraints on greenhouse gases. The EU (the world’s largest economy), California (ninth), Australia and New Zealand, the Northeast US states, Tokyo and others all have substantial programs to put a “price on carbon.”