Time To Get Tough, Environmentalists Say

With no climate change legislation coming out of the Senate, Sierra Club head Michael Brune says it's time to try a new strategy to fight global warming. Author Bill McKibben says it's time to get angry. Brune and McKibben discuss their ideas for curbing climate change.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Up first this hour: Has the environmental movement lost its mojo? The election of President Obama two years ago was supposed to be a turning point, when Congress and the White House would finally act on climate change legislation.

Here's the president speaking in 2008 to the Global Climate Summit, right after he was elected, saying that while a number of businesses were doing their part to fight global warming by investing in clean energy technologies...

President BARACK OBAMA: Too often, Washington has failed to show the same kind of leadership. That will change when I take office. My presidency will mark a new chapter in America's leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process.

FLATOW: He went on to explain how a new system of cap and trade of greenhouse gases would function, but things have not gone as planned. The House did pass a cap and trade bill, but the Senate decided this summer to not even consider it.

An article in the Washington Post called that failure to get a bill passed a, quote, "reckoning for the green movement, a signal that it had overestimated its influence."

In the midst of a record hot summer, with images of the Gulf oil spill splashed across the news, it seems like it would be easy for environmentalists to rally a couple hundred thousand people to get them to call their representatives to pressure Congress to act, especially when polls say that most people are concerned about global warming. But that didn't happen. Why is that?

Is it true? Have the greens run out of steam? Has the environmental movement lost the drive and the anger that propelled it in the '60s and '70s? Are we missing David Brower and Barry Commoner of today?

That's what we'll be talking about this hour. If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call, our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And if you're on Twitter, you can tweet us. Follow us, hit the SCIFRI, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and that'll get the tweet to us.

Let me introduce my guests. Bill McKibben is an environmentalist, educator and writer. He co-founded the group 350.org. His latest book is called "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Bill.

Mr. BILL McKIBBEN (Environmentalist; Co-founder and Global Organizer, 350.org; Author, "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"): Hello Ira, always a pleasure.

FLATOW: Also joining me is Michael Brune. He's executive director of the Sierra Club. His book is called "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal." Thanks for joining us today, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL BRUNE (Executive Director, Sierra Club; Author, "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal"): Thanks for having me on, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Bill, I want to read from your L.A. Times column, and it says: Environmentalists have tried the compromise route. It hasn't worked. Climate change - it's time to talk and act tough. Are you getting tough, and acting talking and acting tough and getting mad as hell?

Mr. McKIBBEN: I probably should have long ago. You know, I wrote the first book on all this stuff 21 long years ago. And I think that I expected for a long time that the politicians were going to do the right thing because we were facing, at some level, the end of the world as we've known it.

It's become clear over the last little while that that's not enough to move our political class to act. We have to figure out a way to make them understand they're facing the end of something even more important - their political careers. And so far, we haven't been able to do that.

The environmental movement, the sort of Washington environmental groups, gave it a hell of a good try in the last couple of years. They played the game exactly the way it was supposed to be played. They worked really hard on this very moderate, very tame cap and trade bill. It was all inside, you know.

And they didn't win. And the reason they didn't win is because the opposition is the most profitable industry that there's ever been, literally. People make more money, more huge profits discovering, refining and selling fossil fuel than any other thing humans have ever done.

It turns out that we're going to have to build a real movement, one that is all over this country and all over this world that is able to capture some moral urgency, some anger, and use it as the only currency we've got to stand up to the piles of money that the other side can throw at this.

FLATOW: Michael Brune, you're the new head of the Sierra Club, and you were interviewed in Yale Environment 360, saying that we need to rethink the best way to build momentum to fight climate change. Are you agreeing with Bill?

Mr. BRUNE: There's a lot that I agree about with Bill. I think he's a great leader, and he's done fantastic work. And I think that channeling some anger and urgency will definitely be helpful.

But I also think it's important to remember that there's a lot of momentum that we can build on. We certainly failed to get a bill passed through Congress, and we didn't even get a vote in the Senate. But it's also true that we have helped to stop 130 coal plants from being built in the last couple of years, and we're seeing actions happen from - in cities across the country who are making big investments in efficiency in solar and wind.

So that, in addition to some of the corporate policies we're seeing over the last couple months, show that there's a lot of progress being made, just very little of it is happening in Washington, D.C.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yeah, you know, Ira, Mike's really right. And among other things, the Sierra Club deserves enormous credit for this work that they've done to keep a lot of coal-fired power plants from being built.

There are good signs out there. We're you know, last year...

FLATOW: But there are still Bill, let me interrupt you.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: There was an AP story out a couple of weeks ago that says according to the U.S. Department of Energy records, there are 30 traditional coal plants that have been built since 2008 or are under construction. And these are still the old-fashioned...

Mr. McKIBBEN: They're still doing them.

FLATOW: So I'm not sure I understand where the progress is here.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Well, there were two years ago, there were 150 of these on the books. So 30 of them getting built is a bad sign, but it's 120 better than what we were facing, and that's largely thanks to the Sierra Club and its allies in making that happen.

But look, there's no way to get around the truth, which is at the moment, we're losing, and we're losing badly. This summer was brutal. All over the Northern Hemisphere, there are people overjoyed that this summer is coming to an end because it's been a summer like none we've had, in Russia, in Pakistan, in Greenland, along the U.S. East Coast.

We're seeing, for the first time, really, what global warming in its early stages feels like. And the fact that so far that hasn't been enough to generate any political action is a symptom, A, of how difficult this job is, we're talking about replacing the most important parts of our modern economy, and B, how powerful the opposition is.

And it won't be won with an inside game alone. The good news is that outside game, that movement, is doable. Last year, at 350.org, in October, we held what CNN called the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history. We had 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries.

Coming up on 10/10/10 in October, we're holding a global work party that looks like it'll be bigger still, working with people like the Sierra Club. And, you know, all over the world, people will be putting up solar panels or digging community gardens not because we think we can solve climate change one solar panel at a time the math doesn't work that way but because we want to send a very sharply political message to our leaders. And that message is: We're getting to work. What about you? If I can get up on the roof of this school and hammer in a solar panel, I damn well expect you to get up on the floor of the Senate and hammer out some legislation.

FLATOW: And what leverage do you have to convince them if they haven't been listening so far?

Mr. McKIBBEN: At the moment, not enough. That's what really happened in Washington. We had the best lobbyists that the green movement's ever had, and they worked incredibly hard. And when they walked into congressmen or senators' offices, as some level those politicians knew that they were bluffing. We didn't have the power to reward or punish them, and we won't have that power until we build a real movement.

I've got to tell you, frankly, Ira, I think the chance for much legislation passing Washington in the next two years is pretty slim, which means we'd better use that time to build the kind of movement large enough and robust enough that when our opportunity next presents itself, we can make change on the scale that we need, which unfortunately is a very large scale.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Michael, are you into the building movement idea?

Mr. BRUNE: Yeah, of course. I think that anything we can do to strengthen the movement is useful. But it's important to know, I think it's critical to know, that there is a lot of progress we can make in the short term. In fact, we can make more progress in cutting carbon by focusing on local efforts to shut down coal plants, for example, than we could have through any of the bills that were proposed in Congress.

FLATOW: And give me an idea how you shut down a local coal plant.

Mr. BRUNE: All right, so the biggest challenge we have over the next five years to fight climate change is to retire dirty coal plants and to replace them with clean energy.

Seventy percent of the coal plants in the United States today are older than 30 years. Many of them are 50, 60, 70 years old. They don't have modern pollution controls. They're belching out the same soot and smog and mercury and greenhouse gas emissions that they were in the middle of the last century.

In almost every instance, these utilities and these coal plants are going to be forced to clean up and to install modern pollution controls.

It'll be cheaper for those utilities in almost every instance to invest in clean energy, to retire those coal plants and replace them with clean energy, a combination of solar and wind and efficiency, conservation, and to keep the lights on, to keep the rates at the same rate or lower, employ more jobs.

And what we'll have is we at the Sierra Club, we estimate that we can, if we do our jobs well, we can retire up to a third of the U.S. coal fleet in the next five years. This will cut more carbon than any of the bills that were being proposed last year in the Senate. It'll improve public health. You know, we'll cut mercury. We'll cut soot and smog pollution. We'll experience rates of growth in the solar and wind industries the likes of which we've never seen.

And so when we come back around for a climate bill in two years, three years, something that's comprehensive, we'll have a movement of clean energy, clean energy winners solar companies, wind companies, efficiency operators - that are much larger and much stronger, and the coal and oil lobby, which has a stranglehold on this Congress, won't be quite as powerful, and they won't be quite as intimidating.

FLATOW: When you say if you do your job well, what is your job to do well?

Mr. BRUNE: Okay, so our job is to work at the state-by-state, plant-by-plant level to convince utilities to make deeper, stronger, more robust investments in clean energy and accelerate the rate at which these coal plants are being retired.

And then nationally what we can do, anybody who cares about climate change, if you care about clean energy, we can work together to convince the EPA to enact strong rules to make sure that utilities are being forced to clean up their pollution.

So for example....

FLATOW: Hang onto that because we have to go to a break, and I'll come, we'll talk some more about the details, okay? Stay with us. We're going to 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're going to come back. We're going to talk more about how to put more teeth into the environmental movement with Bill McKibben and Michael Brune. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the environmental movement with my guests: environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben, his latest book is called "Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club and author of "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal." Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

And when I rudely interrupted Michael, he was telling us how the Sierra Club and all of the rest of, I guess, concerned Americans can force the power companies to clean up their act.

Mr. BRUNE: Sure. Well, thanks, Ira. So the goal here is really to move beyond coal and to accelerate a clean energy transition.

An immediate step is to have the EPA protect public health by treating coal ash, the ash that is created after coal is burned, by treating this as a hazardous waste, which it is.

Living near a wet coal-ash storage pond, the place where the ash is actually, is held, creates the equivalent to smoking a pack a day of cigarettes. There's more than a million and a half kids who live in close proximity to these storage ponds, and so it's practically the equivalent of creating a million and a half new smokers.

The EPA is holding hearings around the country. There was one in Denver last night. There's one in Dallas that I'll be going to next week, all around the country, to evaluate whether or not coal ash should be treated as a hazardous waste, which it is, which it should be, or whether to continue business as usual and to allow for coal companies to basically shunt the costs of pollution on to rate-payers in the general public.

So there's an opportunity right now for people to send in comments to the EPA. We need half a million people at least to send in comments and to show up at these hearings to make sure that public health is protected.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Marshall(ph) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Hi, Marshall.

MARSHALL (Caller): Hey, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hey there.

MARSHALL: I just had a quick comment that while I appreciate everything that you're doing, and I'm a supporter, but what I see in this country is that most people are just sheep, and we're just zombies and that nothing, no big change is going to happen unless there's some giant disaster like a nationwide Katrina happens before we all open up our eyes and realize that something needs to change now.

I mean, we can do little steps and little increments, but I don't think anything big is going to happen to change anything unless people's lives or their livelihood is threatened.

If they can't go to the mall in peace, then maybe they'll think about doing something different.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. Bill, what do you think?

Mr. McKIBBEN: Yeah, well, you know, look. In a sense, the caller has a point. There are nature is likely to send us some messages over the next few years. We don't know when they'll come or what form they'll take, but this summer, we saw them in a lot of places.

While we're waiting for those, there's a lot we can do. Mike's talked about some of the things that we can do to shut down coal plants. There's a lot we can do build clean energy.

We've got this campaign underway at the moment that's kind of fun. We're taking the old solar panels, one of them from the roof of the Carter White House, it's been on the roof of a college, Unity College in Maine for 30 years, making hot water every day for the cafeteria. We're taking it back down next week to Washington with rallies along the way in Boston and New York, trying to give it back to the Obamas and say, look, put this up on the roof along with these bright, shiny, new ones that all these companies want to donate, time to get that symbol, anyway, back up there on the most prominent piece of real estate in the country.

You know, when the first lady planted that garden on the White House lawn a couple of years ago, seed sales around the country went up 30 percent. If we could get a little bit of that kind of action with solar panels, it would at least help - so far, no word from the White House one way or the other. They say it's complicated, but really, compared to a lot of the other things the president faces, I don't think it's all that complicated.

The Republicans can't filibuster the roof, you know, so hopefully we'll make some progress there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I recall - I was actually at the ceremony when those were installed at the White House. I remember being put up there...

Mr. McKIBBEN: It's so interesting because what Carter said at the time was, I mean, it's very poignant to look at the talk. You may remember this, he said. In the year 2000, these will either be up there on the roof generating power, or they'll be in a museum somewhere. And in fact, they are in a museum. One of the other panels is in the private museum of the Chinese solar baron Huang Ming, who's put 60 million of these arrays across rooftops in China.

We need to get back in the forefront of the industry that we once led and that we've now ceded to the rest of the world.

FLATOW: And I went to the website. It's called Globama(ph). Is that what the movement...

Mr. McKIBBEN: That's, Sunjevity(ph), that was the campaign a year ago, and now if you go to putsolaronit.org, or at 350.org, you'll see all the stops that are coming up on this tour. I'm sorry, go ahead, Mike.

Mr. BRUNE: Well, I just wanted to say one quick thing. I think one of the things that we found that inspires most people to take action is to realize that there is you know, this isn't just an eat-your-vegetables effort.

We don't we're not just saying that you have to get off dirty energy so that we can make the world - won't make the world worse than it is. That's not the most inspiring message sometimes, and one of the things that we love about Bill's project is that the reality to transitioning to clean energy brings great benefits, will create more jobs, will improve public health, will increase our competitiveness as a country.

It's not just something that we have to do, it's something that we get to do. It's an opportunity, not just an obligation. And so, you know, to answer Marshall's question again, I think one of the things that motivates people to take action is to realize that engaging in these activities, like what Bill's talking about, like the work that the Sierra Club is doing, is to remember that it's in our self-interest to do this, that we'll live better lives.

Mr. McKIBBEN: And given today's job report, you know, it's particularly that way. The good thing about a lot of this stuff is it has to happen here. No one's going to send their house to China to get it insulated, you know.

If we're going to do this work, we're going to have to do it ourselves, and it's pretty hard to think how else we're going to put as many people back to work as by making this transition off fossil fuel and onto clean energy.

FLATOW: Andrew(ph) in Cleveland. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking the call. I think that the movement isn't running out of steam. I think it has the same steam as it's always had. I think the problem is the green movement, as well as the Obama White House and definitely the Democrats in Congress, I think everybody is just grossly or misunderestimated, I almost used a Bushism they have grossly underestimated their opposition.

And it seems to me that it's always the same thing, that the green movement is the guy who's singing folk songs on the quad, and he's being drowned out by the rock concert at the student union.

And even on this very program, Ira, I remember a couple months ago, you had a gentleman who was representing the windmill project up in New England, in Nantucket. And he just, you know, just taking the callers that called in, he was battered by what seemed to me to be people who had their talking points ready to go because they knew he was going to be on that radio program.

And it just seems like, the impression I got from that program that day was, like, wow, they are so ready and willing to give up opposition on every front and on every level just to kill this.

And I am a supporter, but I believe that what we really need is we need a green Karl Rove. We need somebody who is willing to get in there and play the kind of politics that can fight FOX News.

FLATOW: Oh, you know, the old Barry Commoners. The old Paul Ehrlichs, the old I could go on and on on the environmentalists who took to the streets, got airtime in the '60s and '70s. And if they were mad as hell, they showed you they were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.

Mr. McKIBBEN: You know what? This is Bill. You know, one of the good things that's happened this year, and it's going to be really important, is Mike Brune, who's on this conversation with us, taking over the Sierra Club. The work he did at the Rainforest Action Network in the last couple of years means that he's just the kind of leader that the caller's describing.

And part of what we're going to have to do is just right, is get tougher. We've the environmental movement was...

FLATOW: Well, you know, Glenn - excuse me...

Mr. McKIBBEN: ...sized to do things like defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or something like that. We need...

FLATOW: Well, why, if Glenn Beck can get 50,000 people down to the Mall to talk about religion and recapturing the Martin Luther King spirit...

Mr. McKIBBEN: Because Glenn Beck has his own TV network. And the minute you give us our own TV network, we'll do, you know, something like it.

FLATOW: Why don't you demand your own TV network?

Mr. BRUNE: Or our own radio show on NPR.

FLATOW: There you go. I mean, I'm when people want to do something, they find the means. And I'm...

Mr. McKIBBEN: That's what we're trying to do, and we're beginning to really build the movement on that scale. We used to think that we were I think, what I thought for 20 years was if we would just explain to political leaders how bad the situation was, they would do something about it. That was a miscalculation. We're going to have to build the kind of movement that makes them do something.

Mr. BRUNE: Yeah, and the caller from Cleveland was exactly right, you know, in the sense that we are facing the in the efforts to create a clean energy transition, we're going up against some of the most profitable corporations, profitable industries in the history of the world.

And so big oil companies like BP and Chevron, or big coal companies like Massey Energy aren't simply going to roll over and say, you know what, that scientific study really is a good one, so therefore we're willing to shut down. It is true that an acoustic performer on a street corner doesn't quite - isn't quite enough. Personally, I like my music loud. And I think we do need to show a lot more force, both to fight coal plants, to phase out our consumption of oil as quickly as possible, but also to bring on the solutions that we need - solar and wind - in the quantities that are sufficient, so that we can begin to replace dirty energy with clean energy at a faster pace.

FLATOW: All right, we've ran out of time, gentlemen. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Bill McKibben's latest book is "Eaaarth" -that's with two - that's with three A's in a row - E-A-A-R-T-H - "Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. His book is called "Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal." Thank you both for joining us today.

Mr. BRUNE: Thank you.

Mr. McKIBBEN: Thank you, Ira. Have a good day.

FLATOW: Thank you. Have a good holiday.

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