In Defense of Unlikely Partnerships

Jigar Shah's blog post about The Climate War made me sad. Not because he missed the point of my book or had unkind things to say about people I admire — the man is entitled to his opinion. The piece saddened me because it gave voice to an incredibly damaging green stereotype: the notion that we enviros are ideological purists more interested in being right than being successful, and that we can’t work with anyone who doesn’t meet our high standards.

I'd thought Shah knew better. After all, he runs an NGO that works with industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions–and he and I have even discussed the need to reach out to corporations if we're going to turn the carbon tide. (I call it the Willie Sutton rule: If you want to cut pollution, you have to talk to polluters.) That's certainly the approach of Environmental Defense Fund, which Shah disparages in his post. EDF has always embraced the power of unlikely partnerships, including the one with Duke Energy that so annoys Shah.

Shah criticizes EDF and its president, Fred Krupp, for working with Duke CEO Jim Rogers in the fight to pass climate legislation, and "for not holding Rogers to a high enough standard before giving him a seal of approval." Shah writes that Krupp was "charmed" by Rogers and blind to Duke's environmental record. To make that demonstrably inaccurate argument, Shah ignores all of the times EDF has gone into battle against Duke. Here are just a few:

  • EDF sued Duke Energy to force it to install pollution scrubbers on old power plants when it refurbished them. EDF took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won in a 9-0 ruling handed down in 2007. The case, Environmental Defense, et al. v. Duke Energy Corp, is a landmark of environmental law. Shah doesn't mention it.
  • When Duke proposed to build two massive new coal units in North Carolina, EDF and its partners challenged the need for the plants before the North Carolina Utilities Commission pointing to cleaner and more cost-effective alternatives. We secured a landmark decision in which the Commission denied Duke's request for one of the two units.  
  • EDF and its allies sued Duke again over its plan to build the Cliffside Unit 6 power plant, the remaining coal unit, without first determining whether the plant would meet Clean Air Act standards. EDF won again, and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld this victory.
  • When Duke sued to block federal clean air standards requiring far-reaching pollution reductions from eastern coal plants, EDF stepped in. And we successfully reversed the court decision halting the implementation of these vital clean air protections while EPA took corrective action. 
  • Shah writes that Duke fought a proposed renewable portfolio standard in North Carolina and backed off “under heavy pressure.” He doesn’t mention that much of that pressure came from EDF, which was a leader in passing the renewable standard.

EDF, in other words, is more than willing to stand up to polluters–but it will also sit down with them if there's a chance to make progress on key goals. That's why, in the middle of these courtroom battles, Krupp and Rogers began working together to pass comprehensive climate legislation. Duke joined EDF in a coalition called the United States Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP. In The Climate War, I describe their uneasy alliance–squaring off during tough negotiations over the contours of the bill, collaborating on ad campaigns and opinion pieces, jawboning senators and congressmen in a multi-year effort to cap carbon. Along the way, Duke even resigned from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the National Association of Manufacturers because those two groups were devoted to killing climate legislation.

Shah doesn't acknowledge that Rogers' support was crucial to passing climate legislation in the House, and he never mentions the real opponents of the bill or the myriad social and political forces that were allied against us. He claims that Rogers was “only involved in climate legislation efforts to make sure that new laws enrich his shareholders."

That's a simplistic view of a complicated figure. And if Shah is waiting for power bosses like Rogers to support legislation out of the goodness of their hearts, he's going to be waiting a long time. Altruism is not going to get this done. The whole point of climate legislation is to give polluters a reason to clean up — to create incentives for doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing. Fred Krupp never held any illusions that Rogers or other the members of USCAP were trying for sainthood. These companies fought for climate legislation because they saw it as vital to their long-term economic well-being. That’s the point.

Of course Duke's environmental record is mixed. My book lays out those facts in great detail. For Shah, that’s reason enough to shun Rogers. The title of his piece asks whether enviros should work with their “enemies”– and since Duke is not always on our side, he believes that makes it an enemy. That approach –“you’re either with us or you’re against us”– has failed us too often. It’s time we retired it for good. Environmentalists should not be an elite fraternity that refuses to consort with those who are less enlightened.

The people at EDF understand that. They deal with the world as it is, not as they wish it to be. That's why, when I decided to leave journalism and join the environmental movement, EDF is where I chose to hang my hat. I've been here less than a month, and in that time we've launched tough actions against American Electric Power, which is trying to delay new air pollution standards, and United and Continental airlines, which have been greenwashing while opposing common sense rules to reduce pollution. We're calling out corporations who delay progress while cooperating with those willing to clean up. We're interested in working with anyone who wants to march down the path to a clean energy future. But we never have, and never will, demand that they march in lockstep.

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