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Bad economy has been tough on environmental groups

William McPherson attends a rally organized by the Sierra Club against the BP Deepwater Horizon platform disaster off the coast of Louisiana, in New Orleans on May 8, 2010.

Kai Ryssdal: The latest round of U.N. climate talks are set to start in a week in Durban, South Africa. General concensus is that nothing's going to happen.

And the lack of progress at that level mirrors what seems to be a rough patch for some environmental groups: Funding problems, layoffs and leadership changes, including at the grandaddy of 'em all -- The Sierra Club.

From the Marketplace Sustainabilty Desk, Scott Tong reports.


Scott Tong: Carl Pope has stepped down after nearly two decades running the Sierra Club. Some on the inside are cheering his departure. Sure, he helped kill 125 coal plants, and he filed a key Supreme Court lawsuit on climate change. But he made enemies by reaching out big business.

Jigar Shah runs The Carbon War Room and he's a board member at Greenpeace.

Jigar Shah: Carl presided over a time when corporations really started taking green as a force for green, you know, for profits to the bottom line very seriously.

For instance, paring back a company's supply chain cuts fossil fuel use, and saves money. Both sides benefit from working together. But to some, Sierra Club got too close to Clorox, sticking its logo on supposedly green cleaning products.

Shah: Carl thought lending their brand would be important to actually giving the millions of people who respect the Sierra Club the comfort that Clorox really had moved in the right direction. I would not have supported that decision.

But he respects it. The engage-or-not debates continue, even as more companies like Wal-Mart and private-equity titan KKR, team up with enviro groups. It comes a time when nonprofits struggle to raise money the old fashioned way -- through donations.

Eileen Claussen is with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. She blames:

Eileen Claussen: Policy fatigue, donor fatigue and the economy. And I do think foundation funding for work in the climate and energy areas is a lot less than it was when there was a real push to try to get national legislation.

For example, Claussen's own group was once supported by Pew Charitable Trusts, but the money ran out. She's filled the gap, in part, with funding from companies like Hewlett Packard and Shell Oil.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.
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I remember reading articles in Sierra over fifteen years ago that favored “market-based” solutions to our environmental problems, such as installing highway sensors that automatically deduct toll fees from motorists for highway usage in areas where traffic congestion and associated emissions are high. Private companies, of course, would install and maintain the systems. Wall Street, it seems, has permeated all aspects of our politics and lives.

Under Pope, the Club's motto could as well have been "Think globally, and do nothing."

When "addressing" population and immigration, the approach was actually to avoid doing any such thing, with the excuse that "We need to look at things in a global context, blather-blather-blather." It's as if Pope thought the people of Ivory Coast and the Malagasy Republic were breathlessly waiting to learn the Club's take on things.

In reality, the Club has a **bit** of influence in the U.S. and Canada, but they've pissed a lot of that away by slavishly attaching themselves to the Democratic Party, thus allowing them to be taken for granted by the Dems and given up on by the Repubs. (Yet, for example, Repubs had been importantly involved in passing the 1964 Wilderness Act.)

Far more egregious than Carl Pope’s steering the Sierra Club “too close to Clorox, sticking its logo on supposedly green cleaning products” was his orchestrated smear of members who sought an honest discussion about the connection between population, immigration and the environmental. For that his legacy cannot be bleached clean.

It's about time. Unfortunately, US population will double within the lifetimes of children born today - because of mass immigration - which will result in twice the environmental impact. Yet the Sierra Club accepted $100 million from wealthy donor David Gelbaum who said, "I did tell Carl Pope in 1994 or 1995 that if they ever came out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me." [www.susps.org]

It's time for pseudo-environmental organizations to get serious about the environmental legacy they are leaving to future generations - of all races.

Fred Elbel

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