EDF Chief Holds Out Hope for Climate Bill After Years of Setbacks

EDF Chief Holds Out Hope for Climate Bill After Years of Setbacks

Fred Krupp is like a Timex watch. He takes a licking but keeps on ticking.

Those of you old enough to remember the commercials when Timex tortured its seemingly indestructible watches, using high divers, water skiers, dishwashers, jackhammers, and the propeller of an outboard motor, know what I mean.

Except that the instruments of torture that Krupp has endured as he has labored, literally for decades, to get climate change legislation through Congress include coal-state senators, Republican obstructionists, Washington trade associations, a largely indifferent press corps, and left-wing green groups that accuse the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which he leads, of selling out to big business.

If nothing else, you've got to admire his persistence.

It can't be easy to calmly discuss the need for cap-and-trade legislation and the challenge of getting 60 votes in the Senate while oil is fouling the Gulf of Mexico, global temperatures are rising and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are reaching dangerous levels.

Yet that's Krupp -- calm, rational, pragmatic and seemingly undeterred by the fact that there appears to be only an outside chance that climate-change legislation will be passed this year, that next year looks a whole lot worse and that the congressional clock is ticking down.

Last Thursday, EDF invited reporters to the Washington offices of the Glover Park Group to hear Krupp and Steve Cochran, the group's chief lobbyist, make a last-ditch plea for a scaled-back bill, one with an emissions cap that initially covers only the utility industry.

They conceded for the first time publicly that EDF won't get the economy-wide cap that it really wants and also, for the first time, gently criticized  President Obama and urged him to back up his climate-change rhetoric with action.

First, the EDF crew admitted that for now we're not going to get a cap on carbon emissions that covers most polluters, even though that's what the science of climate change says is needed and that's what the green groups and the business-backed U.S. Climate Action Partnership have been seeking for the past three years.

"A comprehensive, economy-wide cap and trade system is not going to be passed by the Senate," Krupp said. A cap that covers the coal-spewing utility industry would impact about 40 percent of the U.S.'s carbon output.

Second, he said, the only way we're going to get even an admittedly insufficient bill will be if President Obama and the White House staff support one and put their shoulders behind it. This, regrettably, the administration has yet to do.

"We need the president to lead," Krupp said. "For all the good things he's done, which we acknowledge, he's got to roll up his sleeves and put together a bill."

If the president and his staff get deeply involved -- as they eventually did with the stimulus package, health-care legislation and financial industry regulation -- a climate bill is "absolutely doable," Krupp said.

Neither of those things can have been easy to say -- the first is admitting a sort of defeat, the second is admitting disappointment in a key ally.

Indeed, even while calling upon Obama to act, Krupp and Cochran went out of their way to praise him.

"This is the first time in history we've ever had a president who cared so deeply about climate change, and he has done an awful lot, more than any president has done before," Krupp said. They cited strong EPA mileage standards for cars, money for cleantech in the stimulus package and last month's Oval Office speech on energy and climate.

"But the truth is we need him to do one more thing," Krupp continued. "We need him and his staff to directly engage in the politics and policy to actually produce a bill."

"If he doesn't do that, without his leadership, then everything he has done so far will lead to nothing."

While EDF has proven willing to compromise, the group won't support legislation without a carbon cap. After reading this thought-provoking argument from my friend Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute, I asked whether EDF could accept a package of bipartisan measures that include renewable portfolio standards, energy efficiency rules, a broad electric-car initiative, money to stimulate clean energy research and "cash for dirty-coal-plant clunkers" program, absent a cap.

No, they replied, because if the U.S. doesn't limit its CO2 emissions, it will be impossible to persuade other big countries like China to follow. Besides, an EDF analysis (PDF) of the energy-only Bingaman-Murkowski bill that came out of a Senate committee and included some of those measures showed that it would actually permit emissions to increase over the next decade or so.

"What we absolutely will insist on is an enforceable, declining limit on carbon pollution coming from these big smokestacks," Krupp said.

For all the setbacks of the past couple of years, and even last week -- several reporters mentioned that the White House now seems to be shifting its focus to immigration -- Krupp won't allow himself to believe that the long crusade to stop global warming will fail.

Repeating a mantra of all the green groups, he said climate-change legislation is inevitable.

"There are a lot of reasons in this world to be cynical," he said.  "But are you so cynical as to believe that human beings are going to pollute the planet to the point where we can't survive anymore?"

Well, no, but it's getting harder all the time to see how we -- not just Congress, but China, India, Russia and the rest of the world -- are going to act quickly and firmly enough to do what needs to be done to curb global warming.

Krupp and those Timex watches may be indestructible but human life on this earth, alas, is not.

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Image courtesy of Environmental Defense Fund.