You Can’t Change the Climate from Inside Washington

If Obama wants to make good on his inaugural promise, he’ll need to remember the lessons he learned as a community organizer.


"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations…. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms." These words in Barack Obama’s second inaugural address thrilled many who have heretofore been peeved (if not outraged) at the president’s silence on what they consider the overriding challenge of our time: the fight to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and prod the United States into fundamentally new modes of energy use and production. "Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage" is how the nation’s leading liberal newspaper, the New York Times, headlined its front-page, above-the-fold story. A more cynical note was sounded by the Wall Street Journal in its page 7 offering, "Rhetoric Heats Up on Climate Change."

What does Obama’s new willingness to speak up about climate change really mean for the next two to four years? It does not mean that "cap-and-trade" legislation, or any other variant of carbon taxes or capping, is imminent. But it does suggest that Obama understands the stakes and wants to make a real impact. For that, he should be applauded: A president who speaks regularly about the dangers of climate change and the human causes contributing to global warming can inspire citizens, help people connect dots they would not otherwise connect, and could set the stage for a widely supported legislative push after 2014 or — more likely — 2016.

That said, if Obama and his allies in the environmental movement wish to pass meaningful legislation that might stand a chance of delivering on his slightly megalomaniacal claim during the 2008 campaign that the Obama presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," then they must learn from the mistakes of the past. Most of the action on climate-change legislation under Obama has centered in the effort to pass a cap-and-trade system in a drive driven by an alliance of big professional evironmental organizations and leading corporations. Neither the first-term Obama nor environmentalists pushing for comprehensive legislation have paid any heed to the president’s heritage as a grassroots organizer. Instead, all the focus has been on bargains with polluting corporations and attempts to woo a few votes from congressional Republicans — a strategy that badly failed in the Senate in 2010 when no Republicans were willing to vote for cap and trade, no matter how many concessions were offered.

The inside game has failed in part because climate reformers have not invested in building an outside game, a nationwide network of groups that reaches into localities and states. In my recently issued report, "Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight Against Global Warming," I argue that opponents of government action to limit carbon emissions have successfully spread public doubts and mobilized to pressure legislators, especially Republicans. Today, according to a recently issued CNN poll, fewer than half of Americans believe that global warming is a human-caused problem, a level of belief lower than in 2007. Those who either deny global warming or do not think it has human roots or solutions are largely self-described conservatives, who make up about half of the GOP’s voting base and represent some of its most determined elite advocates and funders. Republican opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions is entrenched from above and below — and many Democrats in Congress are irresolute on the issue if they come from states with powerful energy producers or electricity generated from coal-fired plants.

The congressional equation can only change if proponents of carbon limits stop trying to arrange secretive insider bargains and, instead, put forward a transparent proposal such as a carbon tax with revenues returned directly to citizens in annual dividend checks. But proposing such a goal would not be enough; nor would a lot of White House speeches. Several years of popular organizing would be needed to build alliances stretching into most states and congressional districts. Leaders and citizen activists would have to get involved. And not just the usual suspects in the environmental movement. A push for carbon taxes and dividends would need support from unions, women’s groups, and community associations.

The president will also need to mobilize his own grassroots army. The old Obama had the right idea. Early on, he hinted at support for some kind of carbon-capping system with dividends for regular citizens, but he stood back once the cap-and-trade push started in Congress. America’s first black president has repeatedly been linked to the legacies of Martin Luther King, but on the issue of climate change, Obama has failed to incorporate the lessons of King’s civil rights movement. If combating climate change is a decisive challenge — just as civil rights were in the 1960s — it is unforgivable that the Democratic Party and its activist allies have failed to organize on the issue and create the kind of widespread movement that can not only move public opinion but also deliver votes at the ballot box and pressure from the districts on Congress. During this last election campaign, Obama deployed one of the most formidable grassroots organizations in history. That organization — formerly Obama for America has now become Organizing for Action. It is high time it to be put it to good use.

A buildup to a big new legislative battle needs to start now, but the legislation itself is not going to pass right away. Many environmentalists do not understand this. The planet is in crisis, they say, and so obviously "we" must act at once, across partisan lines. This is a pretty vision, but alas, the oppositional leverage and mindset of today’s Republican Party cannot be wished away. The House of Representatives remains under GOP control, with a major bloc of ultra-conservatives who include deniers of climate science and fierce opponents of the sorts of taxes and regulations that would have to be included in any legislation to set economy-wide caps on greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama White House has never been willing to write and push legislation it knows cannot pass — and there’s no sign that will change in 2013 or 2014. Any immediate legislative steps will be incremental, pushed forward in the Senate rather than directly from the Oval Office. Already, credits for wind-power production have been renewed in the "fiscal cliff" deal, and more incentives for the production and use of green energy will come.  Maybe tax subsidies for dirty energy producers can be trimmed or eliminated.

Of course, presidents can get around Congress by issuing executive directives and supporting new regulations. Most professional environmentalists have an overriding faith in regulatory solutions and do not understand that regulation alone will soon falter unless it is sustained by congressional majorities. Nevertheless, right now, big environmental groups are poised to unleash an unremitting stream of reports, regulatory demands, and media-oriented protests. The president will be expected to nominate a strong new administrator to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmentalists are already proposing — indeed demanding — that the White House give full backing to the EPA’s use of the Clean Air Act to regulate coal-fired plants and set new energy standards in many spheres. The Keystone XL pipeline will also be a flashpoint. Now that the governor of Nebraska has signed off on a new route for the pipeline, the decision to approve or disapprove this project to maximize production from the Canadian tar sands has arrived on Obama’s doorstep. Environmental activists will not forgive the president if his administration gives Keystone the go-ahead. 

My own assessment of what actually will happen in U.S. global warming politics over the next several years is, regretfully, closer to the Wall Street Journal‘s cynicism than the New York Times‘ celebratory optimism. Big, professionally run environmental organizations feel comfortable pushing for regulatory solutions in Washington. They do not feel comfortable reaching out to build broad citizens’ coalitions across the country. Major groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are likely to go all-in on demands for EPA regulations and may not also invest in building broader coalitions to lay the basis, patiently, for a new congressional push some years from now. But if EPA regulations go too far, too fast, backlashes across the country could contribute to what may happen anyway: Democratic loss of control of the Senate in 2014. Many Democratic voters tend to stay home in midterm elections, and many key seats currently held by Democrats are up for grabs.

Most likely, America will not see new carbon regulating legislation during Obama’s time in office. Various bills may be introduced, but they will have no chance to reach the president’s desk unless Democrats retake all of Congress in 2014. Yet this remains a crucial period for choosing the right legislative goals and organizing strategies to prepare for the next opening.

Until now, political efforts on behalf of carbon-capping legislation have been run by the business-environmentalist partnership spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund. Using insider bargains, the EDF and its allies failed to get cap and trade legislation through Congress in 2009 and 2010, indeed they did not even come as close as they want us to think they did. Yet all signs indicate that the EDF and its allies remain determined to try the same insider strategy again — that they are laying in wait to push for the same cap and trade approach that spends money on industrial subsidies, not on dividends to citizens. How do I know? Well, as EDF publicist Eric Pooley recently said to Guardian reporter Suzanne Goldenberg, "Just because you lose the game doesn’t mean the game plan was wrong. Maybe the execution was wrong."

Now, I happen to be an avid and very well informed fan of the National Football League — and I can confidently inform Mr. Pooley, EDF, and others that excellent NFL teams never repeat the same game plan! Merely tweaking and repeating game plans is for losers (I could name examples, but I won’t). The best teams, the successful ones, ruthlessly ferret out and learn from their own mistakes. They don’t make up comforting fairy stories. Every week, they make corrections and devise a new game plan specifically tailored to exploit the weaknesses of their upcoming opponent. What is more, from one year to the next, successful NFL organizations make fundamental changes in the composition and strategies of their entire team.

U.S. groups that want to organize and strategize for the next chance to get Congress to legislate a carbon tax or economy-wide carbon caps stand to learn a lot from the NFL. But the lessons are the opposite of what groups like the EDF seem to have taken away from the cap-and-trade debacle of 2009-10. Repeating the same opaque, insider game plan will not work — because it is ill suited to fielding a big, strong team of allies equipped to divide and conquer the well-heeled and entrenched opponents of climate-change legislation. President Obama, of all people, should know this. After all, wasn’t he the guy who said you can’t change Washington from the inside?

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