Zack Colman, Politico, June 19, 2022
When Aaron Mair ascended to the board presidency of the Sierra Club, he brought a new mission to the century-old environmental group: Where once it devoted itself solely to conservation issues, now it would embrace a much broader range of social justice causes.
Mair came from the environmental justice movement, where communities of color battle against industrial pollution rarely seen in wealthier, whiter areas. The movement has DNA more akin to the civil rights movement than John Muir’s reason for founding the Sierra Club: conserving streams and forests.
One of Mair’s first actions in 2015 was joining with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the NAACP in demonstrations backing the Voting Rights Act.
Mair’s arrival accelerated then-executive director Michael Brune’s own progressive moves. Brune had taken over just a few years before from the Rainforest Action Network, a more activist, protest-oriented group. He took the Sierra Club in an overtly political direction, aligning it with the Democratic Party to create a “green line” of defense, as environmental groups called it, against Republican policies in Congress.
Under Mair and Brune, records show, the Sierra Club funneled its own funds into the groups Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice. In 2017, Brune threw the club’s support behind citizenship for children brought to the country illegally. In June 2021, Sierra Club backed reparations for Black Americans. It changed its definition of environment to the “environmental health of all communities, especially those communities that continue to endure deep trauma resulting from a legacy of colonialism, genocide, land theft, enslavement, racial terror, racial capitalism, structural discrimination, and exclusion.”
While many people within the Sierra Club saw this transformation as a predominantly white organization’s belated embrace of diversity and inclusion, others saw it as an abandonment of core principles. Either way, a group that was once a non-partisan advocate for clean air and clean water had become a full-fledged combatant in the nation’s culture wars.
“I don’t really know where it stands,” Guy Saperstein, a longtime Sierra Club member and donor, said in an interview. “Is reparations now part of the mission of the Sierra Club? I don’t know. I don’t know what the connection is and whether it should be.”
Now, the nation’s environmental movement is at a crucial juncture. President Joe Biden’s ambitious agenda – a rare opportunity to make meaningful strides in the fight against climate change – is before Congress. The White House is scrambling to enact key measures before a midterm election that could shift control of the House and Senate. But the Sierra Club and its Big Green brethren – Audubon, Greenpeace and others – are struggling to stitch together the necessary votes. They are now widely believed to be a tool of the Democrats alone, leaving little hope for Republican support in the Senate or leverage between the two parties. A looming Supreme Court decision that could gut executive branch actions to rein in climate change raises the stakes for congressional action before the midterms even higher.
At the Sierra Club, like other Big Greens, these tensions have taken a serious toll on morale, leaving many old-line supporters like Saperstein feeling alienated while a newer, more diverse workforce complains of a faltering commitment to equity and inclusion.
Both Mair and Brune were, in their own ways, victims of the tensions.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Brune wrote a blog post entitled “Pulling down our monuments” that characterized Muir as racist.
But Mair, who had left the presidency in 2017 but was still on the board, accused Brune of failing to consult him before posting the blog. He co-wrote an essay defending Muir’s reputation in August 2021, just two days before Brune resigned under fire. The board later considered censuring Mair and his co-author. Mair remains on the board.
Greenpeace USA is the latest major environmental organization riven with dissension. Interviews with 10 current and former staffers and documents obtained by POLITICO reveal an organization divided by tension between senior management and its younger workers over race and gender issues, culminating in a 2019 audit that blamed top-level management for creating a “culture of suffering and overworking” that was “guided by fear.”
Greenpeace USA chief people and culture officer Jerilyn Johnson said it hired the outside firm at request of staff following several high-level departures from its U.S. leadership team. It sought to address equity and retention, along with fostering a more supportive culture.
Some Greenpeace veterans say the need to keep its internal house in order has sapped energy for the battle for legislation to fight climate change.
“I have a lot of people ask me, ‘What happened to Greenpeace? Where’s Greenpeace? Where’s the campaigns? Where’s the expertise?,’” said Ivy Schlegel, who left a senior position after nearly 12 years with the organization last year. “I feel like we’re just watching Greenpeace crumble away.”
Yet most environmental activists who spoke with POLITICO saw these types of convulsions as necessary for creating a more effective pressure movement.
“They understand that you cannot win on major pieces of environmental or climate legislation without Black and brown and indigenous and other folks who come from vulnerable communities,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization with the National Wildlife Federation.
Pulling together coalitions of groups with disparate interests can indeed increase political potency, said Jamie Henn, a longtime environmental organizer. He helped orchestrate some of the movement’s most successful mass demonstrations as a co-founder of the group 350.org, reaching out to a labor organization, Service Employees International Union and the NAACP, for a 2014 climate protest that drew 400,000 people to New York City.
But Henn said it’s important to distinguish the grunt work of organizing from “performative solidarity.” He observed too many organizations distracted by “having internal debates about messaging and identity and your positions on different issues.”
Indeed, in this new phase of environmentalism, Big Green organizations are extending themselves into labor rights, immigration, housing and democracy reform. Some groups are aiming to stir millions of latent Democratic voters across the country; to defeat state-level voter suppression initiatives; to make the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico states; to end the Senate filibuster and erode structural imbalances favoring red-leaning states.
Not all donors are on board for the changes.
One former staffer at Earthjustice, which does environmental law work, who was granted anonymity to discuss confidential interactions, said some funders have told the group to stick to what it knows. That person recalled battles with a member of the board of directors when Earthjustice tried to navigate statements on police brutality, where the group sided with “defund the police” activists who wanted to divert police budgets to mental health funding and community resources. Staff drove the shifts from the inside, the person said.
“For the most part, people funding Earthjustice signed up to protect the polar bears, not defund the police,” the person added.
Earthjustice President Abigail Dillen said in a statement that “Systemic racism and social injustice are at the root of the environmental problems we are trying to address,” and that when “we speak out on injustice, and we are explicit with our donors and supporters about why that is mission critical.”
Scott Slesinger, who retired from the Natural Resources Defense Council as its legislative director in 2019, also said some donors pushed back there, as well.
“There’s a little hesitation by groups like NRDC to try to expand” the range of its advocacy, Slesinger said. “It took some education of the contributors that to reach our environmental goals the politics of the moment require us to expand. It was controversial when I left.”
The more familiar path for many donors involves reaching for the political center, and hoping to win over some moderate Republicans. For decades, the Big Green organizations were proudly non-partisan and openly cultivated centrist Republicans. It was a Republican president – Richard Nixon – who signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency.
The environmental movement realized the limits of their bipartisan strategy when cap-and-trade legislation failed in 2010. The bill, which had originated as a market-based Republican solution to demands for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, was opposed by what would become the Tea Party movement, whose hard-right views came to dominate the Republican Party. Many environmentalists point to Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol’s 2013 post-mortem on the failure of cap and trade as a seminal text of the modern environmental movement, and she faulted green groups for neglecting grassroots organizing.
“There wasn’t enough energy, there wasn’t enough. It was clear,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters. “The fight was playing out too much inside the Beltway. And I think there was a recognition that we needed to be ready next time. It was both the right thing to do and the necessary thing to do to be more inclusive.”
For years, the LCV’s annual environmental scorecard was the barometer for lawmakers’ green credentials. When cap-and-trade landed in Congress, that scorecard included just one vote on a bill outside of environmental issues – a piece of family-planning legislation. In 2010, it expanded slightly further to include a vote on building a border fence, citing environmental concerns. (It scored similar votes in 2011 and 2013.)
Then the changes came in droves. By 2014, LCV counted voting rights bills. By 2017, it included environmental justice bills in the wake of the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis. In 2018, immigration. Then Trump-appointed judges.
And in 2020, Floyd’s death opened conversations over racial justice, police brutality and systemic racism. Many saw connections to the environment: People of color and low-income individuals are more likely to live near industrial pollution and suffer from climate change’s effects on health and property.
That year, LCV put the movement’s modern strategy into practice. It scored bills on labor organizing, policing, D.C. statehood, Confederate monuments and even ensuring that the U.S. Postal Service could deliver mail-in ballots for the Biden-Trump presidential election.