Naomi Klein is Right to Worry About Climate Change, Wrong About EDF

By Eric Pooley, EDF Senior Vice President for Strategy and Communications

Published: 10/24/2014

In her new book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein lays out her view that climate change should be used as a catalyst for broad social reform. She also offers a harsh critique of those who choose other strategies, including Environmental Defense Fund.

Ms. Klein and EDF agree that climate change is a grave threat. And we agree that it represents a profound market failure, because the social cost of carbon pollution is generally not factored into the price of doing business. But we disagree on whether we need to radically restructure the entire economic system (her view) or correct the failures of the market and harness its power (ours).

She launched her publicity campaign by saying environmental groups were “more damaging” than the climate deniers, then tempered that by saying we were merely as “deluded.” But the heart of her critique is that we sometimes work with corporations to solve problems, and often promote market-based solutions to reduce pollution. Both are true of EDF, but her book leaves out a great deal of important information, with the result that those strategies look sinister when in fact they are open, straightforward and effective.

She talks about our alliances with some companies, which we undertake when we think they will help the environment, without mentioning the many times we pressure, protest, and sue companies, or go toe to toe with their lobbyists. For instance, we did join with Duke Energy and others to push Congress to pass limits on carbon pollution — but at the same time we sued Duke Energy all the way to the Supreme Court and won, forcing them to clean up some of their dirtiest coal plants. Shortly after, when American Electric Power was trying to gut clean air protections in Capitol Hill, we leafleted, marched on their corporate headquarters, and rented a billboard across the street from it, asking how many lives AEP was willing to sacrifice by fighting clean air rules. In other words, we cooperate when that’s effective – and fight when it’s not.

Ms. Klein is right that we think market-based approaches are often the best solution to the toughest environmental problems. That doesn’t mean “leaving our collective fate to the market,” as she has said, it means fixing market failures, such as the current failure to include the social cost of carbon in the price of fossil fuels. When we get incentives right, we harness the power of the marketplace to drive environmental progress.

That’s apparently something Ms. Klein agrees with. As she said in a recent interview, “I’m not saying that markets have no role in combatting climate change. I think the right market incentives can play a huge role — we can point to all kinds of companies doing great stuff … There will have to be a strong role for the public sector, a strong role for regulations and, yes, incentives.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

Ms. Klein sometimes cherry-picks her evidence in misleading ways. For example, my book The Climate War describes how, in the 1980s, a few EDF staffers who didn’t understand our emerging approach worried we were changing our model from “Sue the Bastards” to “Make Markets for the Bastards.” As my book (and the historical record) makes clear, those people were mistaken — and many of them came around to agree that if we correct market failures, we can harness the power of the marketplace to drive positive behavior. That’s an approach that Ms. Klein has said she agrees with as well.

Ms. Klein also concedes that the market-based solution to acid rain pollution, which EDF helped design, actually “worked.” The fact is, our approach reduced sulfur dioxide pollution much faster and cheaper than anyone predicted — ambient concentrations have dropped 76% since 1990 — helping us turn back one of the most destructive environmental challenges of the day. And the same type of market-based approach is now working to cut carbon emissions in California, nine northeastern states, seven industrial areas in China, and Europe — where, after a rocky start, climate pollution is now being cut reliably year after year.

There also instances where market-based approaches do not work. In the case of toxic mercury, which pollutes locally, we have strongly opposed market-based approaches because they can lead to mercury hot spots. We’re for whatever works best for the environment. (That’s why our slogan is “Finding the Ways That Work”.)

Ms. Klein also accuses EDF of promoting natural gas and cozying up to industry. It’s a nice bookend to the criticism we get from another environmental gadfly, the Breakthrough Institute, which has attacked us for opposing natural gas. In reality, our focus is on protecting public health and the environment from existing natural gas operations while we push to accelerate the truly zero-carbon alternatives that must power our future. Two inescapable facts of the real world are that natural gas production exists in the United States(so let’s protect people from the unacceptable impacts associated with it) and that natural gas cannot be our long-term answer (it’s potentially better than coal, but still a carbon-based fuel). So, yes, we work with energy companies that are willing to improve operations and push for change, but at the same time we fight for strong mandatory regulation at the federal and state level. And we’re simultaneously breaking down market and regulatory barriers in order to speed the transition to renewable energy.

Fighting each day for climate action — and often facing off against powerful special interests — means we set high standards for ourselves. We don’t accept funding from the companies we work with, or from their corporate foundations. Like most non-profits, we do accept funding from private individuals and private foundations. We hold no investments in fossil fuel companies. And we bear no ill will toward Naomi Klein. To achieve our environmental goals, it will take a broad range of voices working together — the kind of diverse coalition we saw at the People’s Climate March in New York City, which EDF co-sponsored with more than a thousand other groups. I was proud to march that day with EDF members, staff, and hundreds of thousands of others from across the climate community.

As Ms. Klein continues her book tour, we will be launching our plan to turn the corner toward climate stability by cutting billions of tons of climate pollution from the air annually by 2020, and driving even more dramatic reductions after that. Working with a broad range of allies, we believe that with a series of ambitious but pragmatic steps — including, yes, harnessing the power of the marketplace to drive emissions reductions — we can overcome the defining environmental challenge of our time.