The Climate Pragmatists: Romm and Krugman vs. Greenpeace

By Chris Mooney | May 18, 2009 9:39 am

In my last post, I signaled my disapproval of Greenpeace’s attack on the leading global warming bill before Congress. Now Joe Romm and Paul Krugman have piled on, Romm calling Greenpeace’s move “indefensible” and Krugman, after some philosophizing about political pragmatism, adding: “The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.”

Meanwhile, here’s President Obama on the Waxman-Markey legislation:

It’s a plan that will finally reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil and cap the carbon pollution that threatens our health and our climate.  Most important, it’s a plan that will trigger the creation of millions of new jobs for Americans, who will produce the wind turbines and solar panels and develop the alternative fuels to power the future.  Because this we know: the nation that leads in 21st century clean energy is the nation that will lead the 21st century global economy. America can and must be that nation – and this agreement is a major step toward this goal.

So yet again I ask, what is up with Greenpeace?

I’m sure the group thinks it is doing something constructive; but I deeply question whether, given our current political and legislative realities, not to mention our modern media system, that’s really the case. There’s a left-radical mindset, according to which it’s always honorable to be protesting something, and trying to extend the limits of the possible in the John Lennon/”Imagine” direction. Yet this mentality clashes strongly with the modern need to build coalitions, stay on message, and achieve realistic goals. And unfortunately, it also burns up political energy, particularly in the young and idealistic among us.

I’m emphasizing this not because I hate Greenpeace, but because of my strong conviction that my allies often need a yank into the modern political and media moment.

Comments (26)

Links to this Post

  1. On the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill » Mind of Dan | May 25, 2009
  1. Ben Garber

    Well, should everyone give up fighting for stronger climate legislation? The current version of the bill is not strong enough, and ignores what scientists say is necessary. Do you think the group should just give up? Should everyone shut up and accept political realities? Does it do nothing to cry fowl and demand adequate legislation?

  2. Jon

    It’s good to have articulate critics on the left, broadening the public conversation in a thoughtful way. But you can also make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is something a mature political endeavor knows how to avoid doing…

  3. Gaythia

    Us Democratic party activists have long had hang-ups with this purity issue. We are used to years of fighting the idealistic, but ultimately losing cause.

    We can’t quite adjust to the idea that in Obama we have elected someone who understands that to isolate the far right he needs to reach out to the middle. And by being a great communicator and making that effort to reach out, average Americans are actually listening to him and thinking about the ideas than he, and others around him, are proposing. And so, step by step progress can be made.

    My generation has been at this point before. There we were, young and idealistic back in the Carter administration, working on, and working with people working on, environmental and alternative energy research. And then? Reagan was elected.

    Think about what might of been!

    Let’s not lose the moment again.

  4. Erasmussimo

    I’d like to offer a speculation as to the thinking going on at Greenpeace. Perhaps they are making a common mistake that the best way to reach balance is to lean far to one side to counterbalance the people on the other side. “If we approve this bill, and the right-wingers fight it, then centrists will naturally shift towards the right to achieve political balance.”

    There is some logic behind this thinking, but it is corrosive to the political system. While it might help win a battle, it insures that everybody loses the war. If politics becomes just a balancing act between the extremists, we encourage everybody to take extreme and uncompromising positions. The conclusion I draw is that reasonable people must firmly reject this kind of political cynicism. I hold in higher esteem the political opponent who is willing to compromise in good faith than the political ally who espouses this kind of cynicism.

  5. Extremists, whether it’s Greenpeace or the current Republican party (exemplified by Steele’s comments about the tent is large and people with different views are welcome — but only if they follow the party line), don’t do compromise. At times this is a virtue, as some things, say lynching and disenfranchising people for being the ‘wrong’ color, are entirely wrong and there’s no compromise possible.

    But, such cases are very few and far between in politics. Most of the time, it’s a matter of half a loaf being far, far better than none. On climate, I am confident that at this point nobody knows what the best things to do are, nor the best ways to accomplish them. On the other hand, I’m also confident that quite a lot of people do know some pretty good things to try, and pretty good ways to go about the attempt. The eventual solutions — if we do reach any — will not, I’m sure, bear much resemblance to anything anybody has currently figured out. Not because the people trying are stupid, lazy, or don’t mean well, but because the systems involved are just that much more complex than anybody can really deal with. Imagine trying to design the US transit system of 2009, from 1909. Every element that currently exists, existed then.

    In that vein, Greenpeace (etc.) refusal to start the process because you aren’t going to get absolutely everything they want is suicidally foolish. The most likely outcome is that nothing happens, and that is the one thing which is a guaranteed disaster — by their own statements.

  6. Steve Bloom

    Folks here should bear in mind that from now on the bill is only going to get more watered down. As a tactical matter, it would be problematic if no one was taking the stance Greenpeace is.

    My take on the bill as it presently exists is that it hands Obama enough flexibility to make for a fairly effective implementation, although he will have to spend considerable political capital to do so. Amendments by House Republicans and in the Senate could easily remove that flexibility, though.

  7. james wheaton

    It makes me sick to my stomach to watch this willfully ignorant, corrupt politician at work. Barton brandishes his Texas roots often as if it’s a good thing, where in actuality it represents the anti-intellectual bent that is so inappropriate in an arena such as energy and climate change. He has no business wielding the power he has. How did that happen??? Is this a legacy of the last 10 years of Republican power? But I digress….

    This is a very tough nut to crack. Too many times I have seen (professionally, personally, and politically) a view which is probably right-on opposed by a view which is far off, and a compromise reached which is half way to far off. The author(s) of the original view, being pragmatic and honest, then too late feels betrayed and gullible and naive in the end, promising to administer the opponents own medicine next time. I think I see exactly this scenario with Waxman-Markey. It appears to me that the original version does a pretty decent job of addressing the concerns put forth by the climate science experts, at least for this country. I guess it needed to be more radical.

    Now watch as the bill devolves through every step of the process (this is only the first) into a shell of its former self. And despite being in the minority, the denier righties win.

    Greenpeace no doubt has seen this before, and they know full well the tactics of the anti-environmental movement (or non-movement), which Barton so ably represents. So I sympathise with their view point.

    But at the same time, I agree that a bill is better than none at all. Although it exposes for all to see the weaknesses of our system of government.

    The AGW issue has soured me to American democracy like I never dreamed it would. The world needs us to take the lead in solving this potential disastrous problem. But instead the most powerful and influential nation the earth has ever seen is incapable of leading the world out of this man-made catastrophe in the making. And it appears no other country or group of countries will be able to either.

    Increasingly I am of the opinion that, while trying to blunt the impacts of AGW, preparing our next generaion for the climate changes which are sure to come is what ought to be on the radar screen now, or very soon.

    Pretty defeatist I know, but somebody convince me otherwise…..

  8. Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Freud would probably call it “the narcissism of small differences.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism_of_small_differences

  9. Michael

    You’re quoting Obama is a real hoot. After months of intensive research I have become convinced that the Earth is not warming up–in fact, it’s cooling off. This carbon cap nonsense will spell the doom of many a political hack as the US experiences brownouts and blackouts due to a lack of energy production and crumbling infrastructure. This lunacy only has a faint chance of working if China and India and Russia also sign off on it, which they won’t because their politicians are smarter than ours in every way.

    The non-existant ‘consensus’ is falling apart rapidly, as it was a concensus of politically oriented organizations instead of real climate experts.

    Any bill which significantly raises energy costs in a recession will spell doom for the politicians who support it. I say good riddance.

  10. While my head tells me to agree with you, there is an emotional reaction that wants to side with Greenpeace. The political game is always filled with Paradox, beginning with the fact that the most far reaching environmental legislation came about under a Republican President.

    Yes, the practical side says that Waxman-Markey is the best that this Congress can do. But you still have to ask, as James Hansen does, whether this is not going to be a prescription for the ultimate failure of society. When compromise is always the goal, then everyone knows that they can whittle away at any legislation, reducing its effectiveness in the goal of getting it done. Everyone counts on that.

    So, we have Congress Critters from coal industry states / districts who will only vote for a greenhouse reduction bill that continues to use coal, remove mountain tops and clog waterways in the name of energy forever. Just look at how well Sen. Rockefeller and Congressman Rahall are positioned to ensure that King Coal is never challenged.

    So, maybe Greenpeace and others are concerned that, along with Waxman-Markey we continue to approve new mountain top removal permits… no matter what it does to the environment… we continue to pour money ($2 billion) into the Clean Coal oxymoron… the pattern continues and it has not changed as much as many hoped. The reality of the Obama administration did not match the rhetoric of the Obama campaign.

  11. Erasmussimo

    Michael writes,

    “After months of intensive research I have become convinced that the Earth is not warming up–in fact, it’s cooling off.”

    Intensive research? So tell me, what is your evaluation of IPCC AR4 Figure 6.10?

  12. james wheaton

    It doesn’t help that people like “Michael” are so widespread. He sounds like a Fox News Limbaugh Hannity Megadittohead koolaid drinker (and perhaps a troll). With a significant portion of the electorate of this kind of anti-science and willfully ignorant bent, and the power of states which live and die on the fossil fuel industry, I once again am convinced it is time to invest in forecasting the details of the inevitiable catastrophe and finding ways to endure it (not us of course, but our poor projeny).

    Michael – you contribute to the future misery of humankind.

  13. Chirs,
    I’m going to put myself in the camp of those who respectfully disagree with you. As noted above, and as both you and Sheril know, the bill as written will get watered down as it goes along. Green peace kows this as well, and so is taking a principled stand from the beginning against it, sinc ethey know it will do even less when enacted then it purports to do now. Hopefully MR. Obama will be willing to veto it under those circumstances.

  14. Gaythia

    Politicians frequently do water down bills beyond all recognition, and then vote for them or against them knowing full well that the bills will not do what was originally intended. The whole matter degenerates into political posturing.

    If we want to call politicians out on this negative behavior, and prevent it from occurring, I do not believe that it strengthens our case if we are in the position of having announced in advance that we weren’t going to support the bill anyway.

    If necessary, we can always withdraw our support later.

    Our first steps in the right direction do not have to be our last. But if we don’t figure out a way to start taking steps at all, we are never going to get anywhere.

  15. I am a member of the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks, literally ‘GreenLeft’), but also a molecular biologist. I have long been appalled by Greenpeace’s extremely dogmatic rejection of genetic engineering. They misrepresent data and tell outright lies – remember the Brent Spar case, where they managed to make Shell the good guys? So I am not surprised at all by Greenpeace’s position in this case.

  16. Rick

    “There’s a left-radical mindset, according to which it’s always honorable to be protesting something, and trying to extend the limits of the possible in the John Lennon/”Imagine” direction. ”

    If this were about the need to oppose something, or to follow some unrealistic pipedream, Greenpeace would not have supported the bill at the end of March like it did (http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/press-center/releases2/waxman-markey-bill-a-good-firs). Greenpeace recognized problems in the bill during that stage, but thought that it was directionally good enough.

    Since then, the bill has been watered down immensely. There must be a point where we all draw the line, and for Greenpeace, that line has been passed. Greenpeace is following the science of climate change. It is scary to me that we’ve gotten to a point where following science is considered radical.

    Obviously, some legislation is better than no legislation. But bad legislation can put off the creation of good legislation.

  17. Gaythia

    What is the best news source for tracking what is going on in the hearings on the Waxman-Markey legislation?

  18. Jon

    Washington monthly has a pretty good piece posted on Henry Waxman:

    His legislative campaigns unfold over spans of time beyond the patience of most lawmakers, and sometimes defy political gravity—in the 1980s, when anything smacking of Great Society liberalism was on the chopping block, Waxman managed to expand the Medicaid program twenty-four times. It is not unusual for him to spend a decade or longer advancing a single policy goal in tiny pieces, forging unusual alliances as he needs them, or simply outlasting his opponents.

    …the White House faces numerous competing priorities, and climate change legislation is not first among them. (This year, the big push will be for health care reform.) “I think Chairman Waxman is fighting an uphill battle,” says Steven Biel, U.S. climate campaign director for Greenpeace. “He’s in a position where he has to make up for a decade of not just lost policy opportunities, but of just not discussing in an informed, grown-up way the energy choices we face.”

    If that’s the bad news, the good news is that this is the kind of uphill battle that Waxman has long specialized in fighting. What Waxman and the 136 other Democrats who voted for him in his chairman race were doing, in effect, was betting that climate change is a Henry Waxman Issue: a policy shift that seems immensely unlikely at first but, ultimately, becomes almost inevitable. Those shifts do not always happen in a year. But they do happen. And the arc of Waxman’s career shows how.

  19. patsi

    With the millions being spent by the fossil fuel industry lobbying against Waxman’s bill it needs some push back in the other direction.

    Have you never heard of a negotiating position? Ever tried to get a payrise – do you accept what you’re offered first off, or do you go for as much as you can get? Unions go on strike to achieve as much as they can. And Greenpeace is doing the environmental equivalent of notice of strike action.

    If Greenpeace was to come out in support of a bill which, with its offset provisions, gives the fossil fuel industry the right to keep pumping C02 into the atmosphere for the next 20 years, who would be trying to make it stronger? Certainly none of the other environmental groups in the US who are all fawning over the bill, weak as it is.

    It’s called putting pressure on a government from a science-based, principled stance.

    This bill needs to be viewed by US journalists in an international context, because the international community is looking to the US to make a bold step in addressing climate change. It’s what Obama promised. But it’s not what is being delivered.

    The Waxman/Markey bill would amount to around a 4% cut in greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2020. Obama’s policy, slammed by many in the last round of negotiations in the lead-up to Copenhagen Climate Summit, is 0% by 2020.

    Yet Obama says he wants “science-based policy”.

    Chris: do you want to see international efforts succeed in keeping global temperature rise below two degrees C? Neither Waxman’s bill nor Obama’s policy will do anything to help achieve this. Right now they risk making the international situation far worse.

    Indeed, it will see countries like Australia, Canada, japan and New Zealand sitting back and refusing to increase their targets. No pressure on them to act now. Australian PM Kevin Rudd has already said his 25% by 2020 target is dependent on others doing the same. This will give him the excuse to keep ambitions as low as possible and walk away from that target.

    It could see the EU giving up on trying to get 30% cuts by 2020.

    Indeed, it may well not give developing countries the signal they are looking for for serious action from the developed world.

    Is this really the leadership we’ve been led to expect from Obama?

    Is watering down an already weak bill in the face of industry pressure really the sort of thing that the climate needs right now?

    You can’t change the science. That is clear. So it’s time to change the politics and Greenpeace is only right to try to do that – by being brave enough to stand up and state the obvious:

    the Emporer has no clothes.

  20. MadScientist

    @Ben Garber: The problem is that the people who claim they want something that works while condemning current proposals as “too little” tend to be the most ignorant people and have nothing at all to contribute. As I’ve mentioned before, they waste everyone’s time by preventing legislation which at least starts to move in the right direction. The world will not change overnight – it cannot (with the possible exception of intervention by a huge space rock).

    I have also mentioned that the target reduction in the current proposal is in fact quite a challenge and I do not expect it to be met. If it can be met, then great – further cuts in the decade which follows will not be so difficult. There is even a small possibility that things will work out much better than expected – but we need to get started, not waste time whining about “how good” any particular proposal needs to be. Of course if a proposed scheme is obviously not supported at all by science – such as proposals to plant trees to ‘offset’ CO2 emissions – then there is a legitimate reason to oppose it.

  21. Erasmussimo

    Patsi, you are arguing exactly the kind of cynical strategy that I decried earlier. If it’s OK to lean too far in one direction to counterbalance the people leaning too far in the other direction, then all politics reduces to simple power balances and reasoned compromise withers.

    What bothers me about your position is that it is profoundly antidemocratic. The undeniable fact is that there will ALWAYS be people who disagree with you on just about every belief you have. How can you co-exist with these people? Your approach is to fight for every tiny advantage and overpower those you disagree with. And that induces them to respond in kind. If the whole society goes down that path, then the body politic sunders into a thousand warring factions. The alternative, which I espouse, is to respect those you disagree with, sit down with them, and work out a compromise that neither side likes but both sides can live with. By definition, a compromise means that you don’t stand on principle. If you really want to decide things on principle, you’d better start stockpiling guns.

  22. Orson

    here’s President Obama on the Waxman-Markey legislation…

    In other words the policies that Jimmy carter tried and failed to achieve similar objectives with…..
    GOOD LUCK with that repeating history are doomed stuff! Since where has anyone learned that Carter was right despite or because of his failures?

    Must have missed that in my studies.

  23. patsi

    @ eraswhatshisname

    Antidemocratic? you have to be kidding. is the US holding the entire world to ransom democratic?

  24. I know that energy is a complex issue, but coal is critical not only in securing affordable, reliable and domestic energy, but also in creating steady jobs across the country.

    My team went to the Harriman Dispatching Center in Omaha, Neb., where 800 employees work around the clock to ensure the smooth operation of Union Pacific’s entire rail operation—which helps move coal to produce nearly half of the country’s electricity.

    They went behind the scenes of this operation for the 2009 Factuality Tour—take a look to see photos, videos and interviews from our stop in Omaha. I hope it will enlighten you about what it takes to produce America’s power.
    Factuality Tour

  25. Birdzilla

    Greenpeace are nothing but a bunch of annoying stupidheads too darn stupid to cound to two on their fingers

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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