If you want to know how high-stakes an issue is in the nation’s capital, take a look at how many people are working to influence federal policy on it.


By that measure, climate-change legislation is one of the hottest games in Washington. In fact, climate-change lobbying is a booming growth industry even as the nation’s struggling economy is shedding jobs right and left.


The number of lobbyists has soared in recent years, and the makeup of the groups trying to affect climate-change policy has broadened and changed. A study released in late February by the Center for Public Integrity analyzes the boom in climate-change lobbying and raises questions about what the explosion in activity and money might mean as the Obama administration and key members of Congress try to get meaningful legislation passed quickly.


Five years ago, the study says, about 150 businesses and interest groups were lobbying on climate change. Most of those were major industries that would be most affected by serious efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels: electric utilities, coal and oil companies, and industries dealing in such things as autos, steel and cement. On the opposing side were nine environmental groups.


By 2008, the report finds, things had changed dramatically. The number of groups hiring lobbyists to deal with climate change had grown to about 770, and the number of lobbyists working on the issue had more than tripled, to roughly 2,340. In other words, there are more than four climate-change lobbyists for every member on Congress.


Those lobbyists represent interests ranging far beyond the energy, heavy industry and environmental groups that dominated in 2003.


Those familiar interests are better represented than ever, of course. Industry lobbyists still outnumber those for environmental, health and alternative energy by about 8-to-1, the report said. It also said that while environmental lobbyists are fewer in number, they have quite a bit of influence.


Health lobbyists, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have weighed in alongside environmental groups, and together their numbers have more than tripled over the last five years, from fewer than 50 to about 185.


Lobbyists for alternative energy were almost nonexistent in 2003; now there are more than 130, the report says.


A major new segment is lobbyists representing those who want to be players in the market-based cap-and-trade system favored by the Obama administration. Banks, insurance companies and investment firms want a say in the rules, and they want to make a profit off the buying and selling of permits for emissions.


Local governments and public agencies have sent their lobbyists to Washington to try to snag a share of new money for mass transit while working to see that there are few regulations about how it is spent.


Unions are well represented; one of their main priorities is to protect American jobs from moving offshore because carbon restrictions increase energy costs in the United States.


The report said that who the energy lobbyists are today is as significant as how many there are. Washington’s heavy hitters are tackling climate-change policy. The report said high-profile lobbyists include “a who’s who of ex-members of Congress” such as Dick Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who’s a former House majority leader; and Robert Livingston, the Louisiana Republican who served as the House appropriations committee chairman. The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have emerged as leaders against action to reverse climate change.


But the report also noted that the divisions are no longer as clear-cut – industry vs. environmentalists – as they seemed a few years ago. Many industries and groups are fighting action, but others, such as General Electric, which makes equipment for some alternative energy sources, back a cap-and-trade plan. So do many companies in the financial sector that want in on the action.


The recently created American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is a good example of the complexity of climate-change lobbying, the report says. That group says it wants to curb emissions and keep energy prices down by focusing on the use of “clean coal.” Its real agenda, the report says, is to get federal money to develop a technology to scrub carbon out of coal – since no such technology exists.


There are divisions as well among environmental groups, with some maintaining that the cap-and-trade proposals under discussion don’t go far enough to curb emissions.


The report grapples with the question of whether this climate-change lobbying explosion is good or bad. Some environmental advocates think it’s a good sign that climate change has finally become a major issue, getting the attention of the nation’s movers and shakers. Others fear that the intense lobbying could result in too many compromises and weak legislation, or even a failure to enact any meaningful legislation. In fact, the report said, while some lobbyists want to influence what is done, others are more intent on making sure nothing is done.


James Hansen of NASA, a leading climate scientist, has called for President Obama to outmaneuver the lobbying onslaught by supporting an outright tax on fossil fuels at the source rather than a complicated cap-and-trade scheme, the report said.


Hansen and others fear, the report said, that while lobbyists cause delays, the nation and the world may run out of time to act. It quoted a letter Hansen recently sent to Obama: “The danger is that special interests will dilute and torque government policies, causing the climate to pass tipping points, with grave consequences for all life on the planet.”


Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.

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