John Buell

The Future of US Climate Politics

As the scientific consensus regarding global climate change becomes both more widespread and more dire, political prospects for limiting the damage seem more remote. This is a surprise and disappointment to many environmentalists, who had hoped that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 along with Democratic Congressional majorities would make sound legislation on climate change likely. Of course those hopes were not realized. Since the issue remains even more urgent, explanations of the reasons for inaction merit our close attention. At a Feb. 14 conference on “The Politics of America’s Fight Against Global Warming,” Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol presented an especially provocative reinterpretation of the failure of earlier legislative initiatives on global climate change. (For Details on the symposium see <>)

Skocpol’s analysis begins with a brief description of the mainstream climate change program, “cap and trade” and a rejection of the standard explanations for its demise. Cap and trade would have established a ceiling on total carbon emissions and then allowed businesses to buy and sell the right to emit specific amounts of carbon under the cap. The cap itself was to be gradually reduced. But cap and trade was more than just a policy agenda. It was a strategy. Its particular features were negotiated by a coalition of mainstream environmental organizations and business leaders, including major carbon emitters.

Members of the coalition made some fateful assumptions. They assumed that since business plays so prominent a role in the Republican Party, any agreement between big business leaders and environmentalists would attract enough Republican votes to get through Congress. Some Republican votes were necessary even in the Democratic Congress because several Democrats represented states where coal played a major economic role.

Conventional wisdom among pundits is that environmental legislation failed either because of the economic crisis or the lack of Presidential leadership. Skocpol challenges these facile assumptions. Even in dark times, Congress enacted major health care reform. The success of one and the failure of the other were rooted in the “dynamics of mobilization, countermobilization, and political coalition building.”

Health care reform, unlike cap and trade, depended in part not merely on presidential leadership or an elite consensus but on a strong, broad insider/outsider organization, Health Care for America Now (HCAN). This organization was a coalition of unions, health consumer groups, and healthcare providers. In addition, it inventoried and networked many local and national organizations and demanded of them adherence to a set of core reform principles accepted by most insider Democrats, including regulation of insurance companies and big subsidies to extend coverage.

But as Skocpol points out, HCAN had its own distinctive perspective and strategy. “[w]hile some DC health care proponents were negotiating with business stakeholders, HCAN targeted private insurance companies as “enemies” of reform, and called for a “public option” insurance plan like Medicare to be included as a choice for people buying new coverage with health reform subsidies. The strict standards of accountability for members of the coalition as well as for politicians nominally committed to reform were keys to getting legislation passed. Though the public option was eventually dropped — in part because of the fierce opposition of Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus — the mere articulation gave the organization leverage to insist on some core reforms. Thus HCAN can be characterized as “the left edge of the possible.” The legislation that emerged was far from perfect but does provide a framework on which improvements can be built.

Unfortunately with regard to climate change, while insiders thought they had a bargain emerging, the foundation for reform was being ripped away. Ultraconservatives may not understand climate science, but they better understood the fundamentals of our decentralized and impediment- filled legislative process. Right wing foundations and ultraconservative billionaires had been funding “climate science” studies designed to manufacture uncertainty. Key segments of the media picked up on and reinforced this sense of uncertainty. But most fundamentally, the emergence of the Tea Party created a fertile field for climate science denial. Its members were if anything even more opposed to carbon regulation than to health care reform. And they were willing to put their votes where their mouths were. Given the relatively low turnout in most primary elections, these activists knocked off several high profile Republican moderates. Though some of these Tea Party members subsequently lost in the general election, the message was clear: Vote for any climate change legislation and you invite a well financed primary challenge from the virulent right. A bipartisan compromise with the current Republican crop is thus impossible. “Today’s Republican leaders cater to extreme anti-tax and anti-environmental forces in their party.”

Mainstream environmentalists and moderate business leaders were unprepared for such a challenge. Part of the problem lay in their attitude to the electorate. The public, Skocpol argues, “is seen as a kind of background chorus that, hopefully, will sing on key.” Experts use focus groups and well- tuned phrases to get the public to make the right answer on vaguely worded questions. This hardly constitutes an answer to the strident charges of job loss being continually mounted by the other side.

Skocpol quite properly calls for a new climate politics, both along policy lines and strategy. She cites approvingly a “cap and dividend” proposal by Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would impose a carbon tax but then use the proceeds to return as checks to each family. Under the initial proposal each family would receive about $1,100. Since this sum would especially benefit low and moderate income families, its distributive thrust is progressive. In addition it offers something more specific and tangible than vague promises of green jobs, necessary as these also are. It thus could become the sort of initiative around which unions, social justice advocates, and environmentalists could organize and hold their own D.C. representatives to. Local environmental organizations could also encourage more affluent members to donate their rebates to various environmental causes. It thus offers some prospect of bridging the local/national chasm that has often bugged the environmental movement.

Skocpol is surely right that green technologies without accompanying curbs on carbon use and subsidies are unlikely to take off for many years. We cannot avert our eyes from this target. Yet given how pressing the need is, how long can and must we wait for Congressional action? Though Republican extremists would be likely to make gains in the generally low turnout off year elections, perhaps the increasing understanding of our environmental situation can evoke more grass roots organization to reshape Congress.

Operations like, with their emphasis on nonviolent civil disobedience are also crucial. Even without federal laws state initiatives can block or even close many noxious polluters. It may be possible today to extend the left edge of the possible and force Congress and environmental elites to meet their planetary responsibilities more fully and swiftly. The recent decision by the Sierra Club to embrace and support nonviolent civil disobedience is a positive step. As Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director points out in a recent interview for Grist, “Civil disobedience can highlight the urgency of a particular injustice and can increase the profile of a particular problem…. But I would also say: Rarely is it effective if we’re not also employing every other means of social change, whether it’s creative communications, engaging with artists and entertainers, or classic organizing, phone banking, doing stuff online. If we think the only thing missing is civil disobedience, then we’re probably kidding ourselves, because there’s a lot of straight-up hard work to be done to make sure that we’re effective.”

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2013

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