The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is not pulling off its new look. The group wants to lose the "climate denier" label, following a damaging rash of corporate member defections kicked off last September by Google. Chairman Eric Schmidt referenced ALEC's climate denial positions as one of the reasons why Google dropped its membership, and the tech giant was soon followed by Yahoo!, Facebook, Yelp, and software company SAP. Even oil companies like BP and Occidental Petroleum dropped ALEC recently.
Companies are cutting ties with ALEC because the organization attempts to stymie and block solutions to climate change at every turn. ALEC encourages its state legislative members to oppose everything from state renewable energy standards to carbon taxes. Right now they are working hard in state legislatures to block EPA's Clean Power Plan, a proposal to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants for the first time ever.
ALEC could easily ditch the "denier" moniker with a declaration that we need to take action on climate change, and with a simple, accurate statement like "climate change is real and human activity significantly contributes to it." In January, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) put forward similar language to his colleagues and received 50 votes, including 5 Republicans: Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Mark Kirk (R-IL).
Instead, ALEC has chosen an unlikely strategy, reported in Sunday's Washington Post, of sending cease-and-desist letters to public interest groups that point out ALEC's record on climate. On top of that, ALEC makes false claims about other groups to improve its image - for example, ALEC is still trying to pretend that NRDC agrees with ALEC on energy policy (NRDC does not agree with ALEC). Similarly, ALEC asserts that it is fostering "dialogue on all sides with respect to climate change" and claimed Environmental Defense Fund is a core participant (EDF is not a participant - and the so-called "dialogue" is likely one-sided).
If you're wondering "Hey, what exactly is ALEC's record on climate?" here is a brand-new coalition website detailing ALEC's denial activities, and a fact sheet from Common Cause. I also want to take a moment to explore ALEC's misunderstanding about the term "climate denial." A writer for the Guardian described a spectrum of "Five Stages of Denial." Taking ALEC's own policy statements at face value, ALEC has evolved past "Stage 1: Deny climate change exists" and "Stage 2: Deny humans are the cause." ALEC is somewhere around "Stage 3: Deny human-caused climate change is a problem." The PR hacks at ALEC consistently point to an old model policy that states: "Human activity has and will continue to alter the atmosphere of the planet...Such activity may lead to demonstrable changes in climate." However, ALEC spokespeople fail to highlight the next few lines, probably because they sound an awful lot like Stage 3 Climate Denial:
"Such activity may lead to deleterious, neutral, or possibly beneficial climatic changes. Further, a great deal of scientific uncertainty surrounds the nature of these prospective changes."
Simply getting past stages 1 and 2 does not give ALEC license to lose the denial label. Not to mention, it doesn't help ALEC's case that it still fraternizes with second-stage denialists like the Heartland Institute, welcoming them to ALEC conferences to misinform educate state legislators with incredible false claims like:
"There is no scientific consensus on the human role in climate change...Carbon dioxide has not caused weather to become more extreme, polar ice and sea ice to melt, or sea level rise to accelerate. These were all false alarms."
But let's not focus too much on denier taxonomy. What ALEC pretends to say or not say about climate science is not the concern - the real problem is ALEC's full-throated opposition to any type of solution that cuts carbon pollution or fosters clean energy. The good news is that ALEC's attempts to block EPA's Clean Power Plan and to hold back climate solutions have largely been fizzling. To date, ALEC-inspired bills to block or delay the Clean Power Plan have been defeated in Colorado, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, and Virginia. ALEC has failed in twice as many states as it has succeeded so far. We expect that trend to continue, as roughly a dozen states have CPP attack bills languishing in committees.
If ALEC really wants to change its image, it won't work to send cease-and-desist letters citing its own mealy-mouthed position that climate change might be happening and it might be a good thing. Nor will it help to falsely associate itself with environmental groups like NRDC and EDF. ALEC would actually have to admit that climate change is an urgent problem, and then put forward some serious proposals to cut carbon pollution. When it is ready to do that, I hope ALEC gives NRDC a call to participate in a real dialogue.
Image credit: Andrew Breiner, ThinkProgress