Friday, June 3, 2011

Environmental funders reassess climate change tactics: First base starting to look pretty good now

Oops, wrong first base photo!
Shortly after joining the Michigan Environmental Council in 2006, I became aware of an obscure public notice in the Federal Register soliciting comments on a plan for the U.S. Coast Guard to begin live ammunition training exercises with .50 caliber machine guns in 34 areas of the Great Lakes.

I tipped some journalists to the story, lighting the fuse for a maelstrom of protest that forced the Coast Guard to re-evaluate its plans. For a couple months, I invested a fair amount of time into helping spread public awareness of a plan that heretofore had been very, VERY quietly pursued.

At one point, a longtime veteran of the environmental movement asked, “so, who’s funding you for this?” When I replied no one was, she appeared befuddled, and perhaps a little put off.  It had not occurred to me that my work priorities should be dictated by funders. The most important work should get the most attention, right? Not necessarily.

As  this interesting article from Politico points out, the donors who fund environmental work call the shots … to a certain extent. And they are not happy about the results they’ve gotten from the money they’ve poured into addressing climate change during the past several years.

Federal Cap and Trade legislation that would have begun to address the issue crashed and burned. Amid the wreckage, environmental groups are regrouping to try and accomplish change on a piece by piece basis – fighting for better building efficiency standards, and stopping new coal plants, and investing in public transportation.

If this seems like a half-assed way to deal with the planet’s most important issue, it is. But it’s what we have. As the aforementioned Politico article notes, the environmental community has neither sufficent power to punish do-nothing politicians, nor the clout to reward the good ones.

Without that power – or a groundswell of public demand for action – there is little hope of the sweeping change that many of us would like to see.

Does that mean we don’t need visionaries laying out idealistic plans? No. But it means most of us need to hunker down and work for incremental change if we’re going to have something to show for it at the end of the day.

As President Obama’s Advisor Rahm Emanuel told an environmental funder, “Your DNA and my DNA are so different. I’m about trying to get to first base. You’re about trying to hit it over the fence.”

First base might sound like a crappy place to be when you’re so far behind.

But it beats striking out. And it might get funded.


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