The Green Lobby is a “Special Interest,” Too

The Green Lobby is a “Special Interest,” Too


Want some 100-watt bulbs in your Christmas stocking? You might want to put off hoarding; the status of the endangered incandescent bulb, originally scheduled for extinction as of the New Year, is suddenly uncertain. Tucked inside the latest mess of Congressional activity that passes for legislation is a measure that delays the ban on importing or manufacturing traditional light bulbs until next September. Score one for consumer choice.

It is just the latest lump of coal delivered to the green lobby. Earlier this year President Obama infuriated backers by squashing EPA head Lisa Jackon’s efforts to impose aggressive new limits on ozone emissions. Environmentalists must be weeping into their recycled tissues -- these days, they have much to lament. People everywhere have become less convinced that the earth is heating up, or changing as is now the claim. They have become warier of the cost of damping down emissions – and more skeptical that others around the globe believe in shared sacrifice.

In an uncertain economy, growth and income trump environment.

Symptomatic of the times, the UN Climate Change talks in Durban, South Africa, failed to agree on a replacement for the soon-to-expire Kyoto program. Following this defeat, Canada decided to withdraw from that protocol, citing the threat of “punishing multi-billion dollar payments.” It turns out that in an uncertain economy, growth and income trump environment. Spending to prevent holes in the ozone layer has become discretionary -- like buying organic lettuce.

Resistance to environment-friendly initiatives has increased not only because of the soured economy, but also (ironically) because the green lobby has become an increasingly successful institution in its own right. Just as environmentalists blast “special interests” for setbacks in their crusade to clean up our air and water, many see a smaller but still-powerful array of “special interests” emerging to support a cleaner environment. Tree huggers chide coal and oil companies, chemical producers, automakers, developers and many other enterprises for putting self-interest above the good of the globe.  But what about the “special interests” fostering hysteria about global climate change? The money, jobs and prestige at risk if the public becomes skeptical that man-made pollutants threaten our way of life is staggering.

There are huge industries whose futures depend on a concerted attack on hydrocarbons. This includes the photovoltaic solar industry, that generated some $38.5 billion in revenues in 2009, as well as the wind turbine providers who garnered nearly $50 billion in revenues last year. We might throw in the companies making electric cars, developing lithium batteries, the nuclear power industry, which until the Fukushima disaster was riding a wave of enthusiasm for clean energy, those focused on efficiency measures, ethanol producers, superconductor outfits – the list goes on and on. Hundreds of tech start-ups are out raising money to pursuer environmentally friendly opportunities. Trying to board the federal government’s green gravy train is no longer a cottage industry- -- it's mansion-sized. 

The list includes the American Chestnut Foundation, which spent some $2 million last year to preserve the evidently threatened American Chestnut tree (who knew?)

Then there are the charities raising money to save the planet. Ratings firm Charity Navigator lists 225 organizations dedicated to environmental causes, of which 77 have revenues of more than $3.5 million per year. While the list includes smaller organizations like the American Chestnut Foundation which spent some $2 million last year to preserve the evidently threatened American Chestnut tree (who knew?), it also includes behemoths like the Environmental Defense Fund, which raised nearly $55 million in 2010, the Rainforest Alliance that took in $34 million, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which racked up more than $95 million in its last fiscal year and The Sierra Club Foundation which took in over $40 million. (This does not include the Sierra Club’s 501c(4) outfit).  Charity Navigator does not attempt to list or rate organizations that take in less than $1,000,000 per year, so your local group working to preserve open spaces or to clean up ponds – of which there are thousands in the U.S. – would not be included. 

There are also scores of lobbying firms that raise money for environmental causes. Registered lobbyists for green organizations shelled out more than $21 million in 2010.   In the 2008 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, environmental groups gave $4.5 million to federal candidates and party committees, nearly all of which went to Democrats. They note the interest group’s clout is likely understated since the Sierra Club, the biggest spender, has veered towards financing “issue ads” rather than making political contributions.

Though green advocates are still seriously outweighed by industry, after many years of building their message they now qualify as a competing “special interest.”  What is the public interest? It depends.  Faced with policy choices described as balancing air quality versus jobs, voters here and abroad have begun to side with employment. They increasingly question the direst warnings; they are confused that “global warming” morphed into “climate change” and wonder if that sleight of hand suggests a weakening story. The leak of emails indicating that renowned scientists tinkered with data to make their case – aka Climategate -- reinforces the skepticism. Not to mention here in the U.S. the obviously vacillating position of the Obama administration. Voters wonder, “If the environment is so fragile, why is the White House resisting the EU’s charges on carbon pollution from airplane flights? What happened to cap and trade?”

On occasion, in the midst of this war of influence, the public is the loser, which brings us back to CFL light bulbs. The truth is people don’t like fluorescent light – it is especially displeasing to aging boomers, who prefer the old-fashioned soft light given off by traditional bulbs. Despite government support and continued flogging by those geared up to produce the CFL product, consumers have balked. Unfortunately, members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association  have invested millions to make replacement bulbs capable of meeting the efficiency standards set in 2007; they will push hard for the phase-out of incandescent bulbs.

In other words – the public’s preference may be trumped by one of those danged “special interests.” So, maybe stuff your stocking with 100-watt bulbs after all.