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Controversial Study Probes Reasons for Climate Bill Failure

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Who’s to blame for the death of cap-and-trade? And what can environmentalists learn from it?

By Erin Weaver

Missed Opportunities in Carbon Reductions


This graph illustrates the potential for steep carbon reductions that could have resulted from a 2009 cap-and-trade bill. “Business as usual” in politics will mean a continued failure to pass climate legislation, a new report argues.

Source: World Resources Institute

A new report analyzes the failure to get carbon restrictions passed in the U.S. during President Obama’s first term in office. Laying much of the blame at the feet of environmental groups for not understanding their opposition, the analysis suggests future strategies for developing successful climate legislation.

Naming the Problem,” penned by Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol, Ph.D., for Harvard’s February 2013 Symposium on the Politics of America’s Fight Against Global Warming, excoriates environmentalists for what Skocpol calls their “rationalizations” about the defeat of cap-and-trade legislation (which would have placed restrictions on carbon emissions while allowing companies to buy and sell carbon shares). Common explanations shift the blame either to the recession or to President Obama’s lack of leadership on the matter. In reality, says Skocpol, cap and trade was defeated largely by its own supporters’ disregard of increasing polarization on the issue.

A brief history of climate politics

After Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, a record 41% of Gallup Poll respondents said they worried “a great deal” about climate change. Even some Republican senators expressed support for the creation of emissions caps and an open market for trading emissions allowances. That’s when things began to change, says Skocpol: coverage presenting climate change as a “hoax” increased, and by 2009, climate-change skepticism had become a tenet of the emerging Tea Party, which railed against the placing emissions limits on businesses. The election of Tea Party conservatives to the House of Representatives in 2010, says Skocpol, informed moderate Republicans that a compromise was “unacceptable to ultra-conservative funders and vigilant primary voters”—and a Gallup Poll that year found that 48% of respondents thought the seriousness of global warming was “generally exaggerated.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) brought business leaders, various experts, and large environmental groups together to advance cap-and-trade legislation. USCAP, Skocpol says, failed to recognize the shift in public opinion and the risk that the climate bill would be perceived as an insider deal between big business and big government. Their approach, says Skocpol, was based on “a mistaken assumption about how U.S. politics works.” Businesspeople do not hold nearly as much power in the Republican party as do partisan ideologues, from billionaire elites to local Tea Party activists, she argues—and those ideologues carried the day on cap and trade.

The blame game

Skocpol’s report has generated a great deal of debate; much of the negative reaction has focused on the division of blame for the legislation’s failure. Some observers, including Joe Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress, accuse Skocpol of letting President Obama off the hook. Romm scoffs at the notion that USCAP should take the fall: “It is absurd to claim that the head of a medium-sized environmental group is more persuasive, indeed a more important leader, than the most powerful person in the free world,” he wrote in a blog post. Although the Senate’s requirement of a 60-vote supermajority was an insurmountable hurdle, he argues, with the president’s involvement the bill could have been passed through “reconciliation” with a simple majority of 51 Senate votes—as happened with the American Care Act.

Skocpol told EBN she was startled by this focus on blame, as she felt it was not the key theme of her report; however, she says the White House “saw its role as facilitating consultations and quiet bargains” and concludes that, regardless of blame, the White House is unlikely to make climate change a top priority anytime soon. In response to Romm, Skocpol reiterated that “extremist Republicans are to blame for frustrating carbon caps,” and she told EBN her report was an attempt to understand the background of the events of 2009–10 and draw lessons for future attempts at emissions legislation.

“Very mobilized”

Skocpol says local Tea Party groups directly influence about half of the country’s Republican officeholders, emphasizing that the right has been “very mobilized in that way…both organized locally and with big-money funders.”

Moving forward, she says, advocates of legislation limiting emissions will have to abandon what she sees as their “either/or” approach and pursue both grassroots and Beltway organizing because members of Congress need to be convinced that their constituents demand action. Since the Tea Party shifted moderate Republicans to more extreme positions, Skocpol says progressives need a grassroots movement to shift Democrats further left—and potentially convince President Obama to make climate change a top priority. She gives the example of a “cap-and-dividend” program—designed to mitigate retail price hikes from cap-and-trade—as a means of appealing to average citizens who would benefit from the revenue fund established by such a measure. Skocpol concludes that such a broad popular movement is necessary in the face of the Senate’s 60-vote requirement because “we can’t just try the same thing again.”

Activist Bill McKibben has written in response to Skocpol that Hurricane Sandy and other recent events are reviving public concern over climate change. Immediately following Sandy, a Rasmussen poll found that 38% of Americans considered global warming a “very serious” problem; if that trend continues, it could provide a basis for just the grassroots mobilization Skocpol advocates.

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February 7, 2013