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How Environmental Defense Lives Up to Its Name

What a different just a few years can make. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time not long ago when Congress appeared to be on the verge of a bipartisan agreement to regulate global warming pollution.

Republicans John McCain, John Warner, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty all supported efforts to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Gingrich and Pawlenty went so far as to appear in commercials with the Environmental Defense Fund supporting climate regulation. And now? "It was a mistake, it was stupid, it was wrong," Pawlenty says.

The radical shift in the political climate means that big NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club now must fight merely to preserve the status quo in Congress.

Fred KruppEnvironmental groups are playing defense rather than offense in Washington, said Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, during a panel today on climate policy that opened FORTUNE's Brainstorm Green conference.

He noted that House Republicans have voted to block funding not just for EPA's efforts regulate carbon pollution (efforts that are required by a Supreme Court decision) but also for EPA efforts to control, on public health ground, mercury pollution from cement factories.

On climate issues, Fred said: "It's hard to have a meaningful exchange of viewers, a serious conversation in Washington."

That's a big, big problem because, as he noted, every major piece of environmental legislation in the U.S has been enacted with bipartisan support. Fred himself was a leading advocate for the late 1980s cap-and-trade system -- to regulate sulfur dioxide pollution -- that was put into place by President George Bush and his EPA chief, Bill Reilly.

I moderated the panel on climate policy that included Fred, Jim Rogers, the ceo of Duke Energy, Connie Hedegaard, the E.U. commissioner for climate and Michael Shellenberger, the president of the Breakthrough Institute. It was, unfortunately, a little grim. All of the panelists agreed that despite nearly 20 years of talk at the highest levels of government and business about global warming, global carbon emissions continue to grow. They're up by 40%, roughly, since 1990. Neither China nor the U.S has agreed to put a cap on emissions or tax fossil fuels.

What's the best path forward, I asked? No one had a simple or single answer. Shellenberger argued for a shift away from making fossil fuels more expensive towards policies that will make clean energy cheaper, by investing government funds in clean energy R&D, both through government grants and military procurement. His Breakthrough Institute has thought and written a lot about how to make this happen, but it's likely to require more, not less, government spending, which is a hard sell in today's Congress.

Connie Hedegaard
Hedegaard noted that the E.U. is going forward with cap-and-trade -- a regulatory scheme in which governments set a declining cap for carbon emissions, and then auction or give away permits to pollute, which can then be traded among companies -- and that its market could soon be linked to others. She was on her way to a meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown of California to talk about linking California's cap-and-trade regime to the one in Europe and to another under development in China. "Is cap-and-trade too complicated?" she asked. "It might be for the Americans. it's not for the Chinese."

Rogers lamented the fact that, at least for the moment, the nuclear accident in Japan will slow down the development of new nuclear plants in the U.S. He said nuclear is a safer energy source than coal, without even taking climate change risks into effect. "Nuclear is clearly part of the climate solution," he said.

The session flew by quickly, and I neglected to thank all four panelist for the time, energy and brainpower they have all devoted to trying to do something about the climate threat. I wish that together we'd come up with better answers to the question of "where do we go from here" but it occurs to me now that that was too broad a question.

A better question might have been, how do we make the environment a bipartisan issue again? Or, how can "greens" engage with Republicans around climate? Because until that happens, environmentalists will continue to play defense in DC. I had a brief chat about this at Brainstorm Green with the rarest of creatures, a moderate Republican -- Theodore Roosevelt IV -- and I hope to address that questions soon.

Background image CC-licensed by Julian Beckton; photos courtesy of EDF.

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