So it goes in Washington, D.C., and America's 50 state capitals: Individual, even small-group change – this consumer buys a hybrid-electric car, that synagogue kicks its thermostat up a few degrees in summer – is vastly different from generating the kind of societal change advocated by the environmental movement.
That reality, coupled with the intricate web of state and federal regulations, parliamentary procedures and constitutional checks and balances, ensures that today's green activist faces not just one battle but dozens, and not just with private citizens but with competing groups. Lobbyists, agencies and legislatures all have a say in how the United States sets its environmental policy.
It's a wonder anything gets done at all. And yet, in their 30 some years of prominent political life, environmentalists have chalked up some impressive victories: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Clean Water Act of 1977 – and all of the amendments and enhancements to those bills right up to the current Congress.
More recently, they've also been stung with defeat: In 2001, President George W. Bush opted out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, an international treaty that mandates reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases. And since taking office, the Bush administration has "rolled back" some federal regulations, including those protecting some national forests from logging.
But as the U.S. Senate debates the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a flurry of action by environmentalists – aided in no small part by interfaith coalitions sponsored by prominent Jewish organizations – makes the next milestone, whatever form it will take, perhaps only weeks away.
No. 6 on the List
"The energy bill, particularly its climate provisions, is our No. 1 priority," proclaimed Hadar Susskind, the Washington representative for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, who is surprisingly backing a Republican legislative priority. Susskind made his comments on Monday by phone from his office on I Street while blocks away, senators began offering amendments to the legislation on the Senate floor.
On first glance, the energy bill would appear anathema to Susskind and his organization, as well as the National Resources Defense Council, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, the Northwest Interfaith Movement in Germantown (headed by Rabbi George Stern) and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Climate Change Campaign. Republicans have never appeared to seek out the environmental movement, but the energy bill sits at No. 6 on the party's list of Top 10 legislative priorities.
When the House of Representatives passed the bill in April, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a chunk of federally protected land the oil industry contends holds vast reserves of petroleum, fared poorly. If that provision of the energy bill passes the Senate as expected – the president made opening up the refuge a key feature of his first presidential campaign in 2000 – the land will soon see drilling, along with supporting road structures and pipelines, take hold.
Nevertheless, environmentalists as a whole look past the Alaskan refuge setback and point to one key feature of the debate on the energy bill: For the first time since Bush took office, the Senate is poised to pass legislation that addresses global warming. Three amendments aim to tackle the problem, each one identifying carbon-dioxide emissions as the culprit for an observable rise in global temperatures.
"The number of new studies that come out on a weekly basis are making clear that global warming is already manifesting itself on God's Earth," said Joy Bergey, project director for the Pennsylvania Interfaith Climate Change Campaign, which includes synagogues, churches and mosques in its coalition. "Business, too, sees the writing on the wall."
She explained that the business community, already faced with mandated reduction of emissions in the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in February, has put pressure on the White House and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill to come up with a global-warming plan in this country sooner rather than later.
"They know there's going to be carbon regulation," said Bergey. "So they want to know what the rules are going to be so they can plan for the next five to 10 years."
Among the three amendments, environmentalists favor the one forwarded by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) because of its "hard cap" mandate to reduce emissions to 2000 levels by the end of the decade.
The oil industry tends to favor Sen. Chuck Hagel's (R-Neb.) approach, which doesn't mandate reductions, but instead would fund the development of clean energy sources to lead to a future reduction in emissions.
New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman's amendment, the one receiving the most attention by the administration and leaders of both major parties, would slow emissions, staving off actual reductions until at least 2020. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Jewish Republican from Minnesota, co-authored the amendment, which also would require 10 percent of the nation's electricity to come from clean resources, such as wind.
Coleman touted the benefits to his home state, but also phrased his support for renewable energy in national-security terms: More renewable energy means less dependence on foreign oil.
"With Minnesota's wind-energy production the fastest-growing in the nation," said Coleman, "the extension of wind-energy tax credits [is an] important incentive for greater energy independence, environmental protection and economic development."
Susskind noted that while he prefers the McCain-Lieberman package, even that has problems. Most glaring among them is the inclusion of subsidies for nuclear power.
But even if only Hagel's amendment won passage, he added, it would be a step in the right direction.
"They all do less than what Kyoto would have done" – a reduction to about 7 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2012 – "but like anything in Washington, it's a process," said Susskind. "Clearly, the ball is rolling."
But the lobbyist tempered his pragmatism with a dire warning, still not 100 percent accepted by the scientific community – that humans are to blame for global warming, and that the future of the Earth hangs in the balance.
"We really try to emphasize that this is truly a global problem, and one that is intergenerational as well," said Susskind. "This is not like having a polluted lake that can be cleaned up at some point. If we don't lead on [global warming], much less live up to the minimum standards of the rest of the world, it's our children and grandchildren who will suffer from this."
While the world inside the Beltway tackles environmental issues, similar debates rage inside each of the 50 state legislatures. In Pennsylvania, Bergey is pushing the General Assembly to adopt the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which would require the state to "monitor pollution on an ongoing basis and to study the likely impacts of global warming on Pennsylvania." She hopes for hearings in Harrisburg this summer on the issue.
Pennsylvania, in general, has led Congress on the climate-change debate, having passed an alternative-energy bill last year that will ensure that 8 percent of the state's electricity comes from "clean" energy sources, like wind, within 15 years.
Speaking from her Harrisburg office, state Sen. Connie Williams (D-District 17) advocated for a new energy bill in Pennsylvania that would extend property-tax credits to homeowners who buy energy-efficient appliances.
Citing a recent study by the British Antarctic Survey and the U.S. Geological Survey that determined that over the last 50 years, 87 percent of 244 observed glaciers in Antarctica have retreated at an accelerated rate, Williams said something must be done to halt global warming. (The scientists reached no conclusion on whether the glacial melt was due to human-caused global warming or a cyclical rise in temperatures. Their findings were published in April in Science.)
Energy and Savings
Williams noted that consumers could also save some money while protecting the environment.
"The average family spends $140 a month on energy bills, but they could save about $400 annually just in property-tax reduction alone" if the energy tax-relief bill passed, she said. The state Senate Finance Committee sent the bill to the floor just last week.
At the Northwest Interfaith Movement, a coalition of congregations based in Germantown, Rabbi George Stern said that with pro-environment bills pending in Pennsylvania and on Capitol Hill, environmentalism has come a long way in three decades.
Thirty years ago, environmentalists focused largely on cleanup, from recycling at home to establishing federal agencies responsible for cleaning up the nation's waterways and air. Today, the debate tends to focus on long-term solutions to perceived global problems.
From a Jewish perspective, said Stern, that's a major accomplishment.
"It seems to me that on environmental issues, Judaism is pretty clear that we have to be protective of what we've got: the Earth," said the rabbi.
He then added a caveat: "Ultimately, change has to be societal. We can each recycle our trash, but if we don't find ways to encourage broad-based saving of fuel, the individual efforts we do will simply just make us feel good.
"You can start at home," he added. "But you have to move beyond that."