Sierra Club's Carl Pope: Kerry-Graham effort 'changes the landscape' for climate bill

There are some things, like building a reprocessing plant or totally ruining the safety process for public protection, that we couldn’t live with. That doesn’t seem to be where people are headed. People seem to be headed to a level of financial support for the next generation of nuclear plants that I think is a waste of public money. But on the other hand there are other things in the bill that are going to save a huge amount of money. So I probably would accept the whole package.

Q: Would the same hold true for offshore [drilling]?

Carl Pope: You say, well, where are you talking about. And you say well some people talk about off Virginia, but the Navy doesn’t like that. That same problem [exists] off southern California. Then there’s a fight about revenue sharing. I think OCS is fairly complicated.

If you tried to go after the Arctic [National] Wildlife Refuge that would be a complete no-go zone for us, there are probably some others. But do we believe that the exact boundaries of the previous congressional moratorium have to be the final boundaries? Probably not.

Q: On a related issue, as I have looked at the Clean Energy Works campaign and the general messaging on climate, it has been very, very heavy on the jobs and economic message. As a sort of secondary message it seems to be about avoiding a planetary catastrophe. What do you think of this sales pitch for the climate bill that is so heavily on economic rather than ecological grounds?

Carl Pope: There was a very interesting poll that Stan Greenberg did back in 2008. The public sees this issue through a different frame than policy insiders.

The public doesn’t see a problem called global warming, and a problem called the collapse of American manufacturing, and a problem called the trade deficit, and a problem called air pollution, and a problem called dependence on Persian Gulf oil. The public sees a single problem – overdependence on outmoded fossil fuels, and they see all of these other things as symptoms of a common problem. Clean energy to the public is a goal, it is the goal, and it solves a bunch of problems, rather than saying there are a bunch of different problems, and oh, we are going to do clean energy.

We are messaging around the solution, and I think that is absolutely appropriate, because the solution in the public’s mind is a direct response to the problem. The problem is our over-dependence on fossil fuels.

Q: To what extent do you think that the unemployment figures hitting 10.2 percent in October, and projected to stay high for some time, how do you think that is affecting the debate? Even though a cap-and-trade program would not kick-in for some number of years, do you think that is making it more difficult to get to the 60-vote threshold on Capitol Hill?

Carl Pope: That is not what I am hearing. There are lots of concerns but the fact is that done right a climate bill will have short-term bonus benefits for employment, and I think the people in Congress who are actually open to listening to anything understand that.

Q: How important in the Sierra Club’s view is this level of a near-term [emissions reduction] target or a 2020 target -- in your mind does it have to be 20 percent? Is 17 acceptable? Is 14 acceptable? Do you guys have a firm stance in mind on that?

Carl Pope: First of all 20 is pathetically under-ambitious. If I thought it was hard to get to 20, I would be open to looking at it. But it is not hard to get 20. If we are really going to change our economy, we are going to do much better than 20. If you have a cap-and-trade system and you set the target too low, you screw up the system. So I am actually more worried about too low a target because of what it will do to the cap-and-trade system.

Q: Let’s say a final piece of legislation on the Hill was below 20 percent, be it 17 or 14. Is that something that would cause your organization to re-think its support for the legislation?

Carl Pope: It would depend on the rest of the bill. Let’s say we had a bill that was actually going to get us 25 percent and promised us 20 percent or 15 percent . . . we want to make sure the bill actually gets us 20 percent, and it might do that by having a cap that was 20 percent or it might do that by having mechanisms that will get us further than that. We look at the whole package.