Clean Power Plan stay spurs enviros into action

The unexpected stay, plus attempts to block Obama from appointing a Supreme Court justice, energized greens.


It’s hard to overstate the high that environmentalists were feeling as this year began. President Obama had finally rejected the Keystone XL pipeline that they had fought against for years. New Environmental Protection Agency rules for reining in greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants had helped Obama lead the world to a new international climate change agreement in Paris in December. As icing on the cake, the Interior Department in January surprised environmentalists and announced a moratorium on leasing federal coal. “We had come off of the best six months ever,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs of the League of Conservation Voters.

Then last month, the Supreme Court delivered the movement an unexpected defeat by staying the Clean Power Plan. The blow showed environmentalists just how fragile their victories are, but it also re-energized their efforts to influence the coming elections. “When you contrast the incredible progress we’ve had and the stay, it does underscore that the stakes couldn’t be higher,” Sittenfeld adds.

The group’s rank-and-file supporters apparently understand those stakes. Online donations to the League of Conservation Voters started pouring in the evening the stay was announced. Within 24 hours, the organization had received $100,000 – making it one of the largest days for online contributions in the group’s history, Sittenfeld says.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs of the League of Conservation Voters.

Climate change has not yet emerged as a major issue in the presidential campaign. But that likely will change as the frontrunners shift from trying to win their parties’ nominations to attacking their likely opponents in the November general election. The contrast is stark. Climate policy is a top priority of the chairman of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta, who told High Country News last year that the issue was shaping up to be “massive” in this election. She has vowed to protect the Clean Power Plan, promote renewable power and even put a new fee on oil and coal to reflect their impact on climate change. GOP frontrunner Donald Trump by contrast has repeatedly said he’s not a “believer” in climate change, he’s called it a “hoax” and a “canard” that hurts industry, and has ridiculed those who take it seriously.

Climate change was not a major issue in previous elections, in part because the two parties were not as far apart as they are now, says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the NRDC Action Fund. For example, in 2008, GOP candidate John McCain and Obama both favored cap-and-trade legislation. This election, however, is different. Candidates are not just talking about possible future climate change initiatives. "There are specific policies on the line,” Goldston says, chief among them the Clean Power Plan, that have already been enacted by the Obama administration but that a GOP president likely would undo.

Leaders of environmental groups say their members were energized by both the stay of the Clean Power Plan and Republican senators’ determination to block Obama from appointing a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Scalia, who died last month. Especially galling to the groups’ supporters were statements within hours of Scalia’s death from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans, that the next president should pick Scalia’s replacement. “I hadn’t seen a level of outrage this high from our members in the last several years,” says Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director. Within 12 hours, the Sierra Club had gathered 50,000 signatures for a petition calling on senators to hold hearings on Obama’s nominee.

The Democratic National Committee released a video this week with members of Congress, most from Western states, talking about the heavy toll on their states of climate change in terms of record forest fires and more destructive droughts. They call on senators to “do your job.”

Though they still don't have nearly the financial impact on elections that industry does, environmental groups and their supporters are gaining influence. The League for Conservation Voters is the top donor for many Democratic members of Congress, and has collaborated with the NRDC Action Fund PAC on, a website that raises money for individual candidates. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, was a recipient in the 2012 elections, and says in a testimonial on the site that he couldn't have won without the support.

Heinrich’s biggest donor in 2012 was the League of Conservation Voters, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which shows the group and its members pitched in more than $150,000 that cycle.

Environmental groups haven’t spent much yet this time around. But already GiveGreen has raised $114,000 to support the reelection of Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, D, and $104,000 to elect Catherine Cortez Masto, D, to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is retiring. Environmental leaders frequently mention these two as high-stakes races. Environmentalists are especially keen on Democrats winning control of the Senate because of the Senate’s role in confirming Supreme Court nominees, including Scalia’s replacement. In addition to giving cash to campaigns, green groups will also urge their supporters to do old-fashioned electioneering, like going door-to-door to persuade people to vote.

Brune, himself, says he plans to spend some of his weekends knocking on doors. One of the two things that have scared him most in his career as an activist is the prospect of a Trump presidency and what it would mean for climate change. (The other, he says, is raising children in a world destabilized by climate change.) The way for environmentalists to help defeat Trump, if he becomes the nominee, Brune adds, is “by not underestimating him.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent.

Note: The official title of the NRDC Action Fund has been corrected.

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