Bad economy has been tough on environmental groups

Scott Tong Nov 21, 2011

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.

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