Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) decision to withdraw from discussions with his Senate colleagues regarding climate legislation has been greeted by some well-meaning environmentalists as a reason to bash President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for their alleged lack of commitment to climate legislation. I think this is a mistake. Instead, the environmental community should examine its own limitations in trying to make sense out of this situation.
Graham blasted what he described as “a decision by the Obama administration and Senate Democratic leadership to move immigration instead of energy.” Instead of reflexively agreeing with Graham and thereby placing themselves at odds with supporters of immigration reform, environmentalists should reflect upon the reasons why immigration reform is at this moment a far more politically compelling issue than climate for Senate Democrats to tackle.
There is actually a social movement associated with immigration issues. Perhaps even two movements — one on each side. I don’t think those of us focused on climate issues have anything similar that we can point to.
Four years ago, when there was a huge wave of pro-immigration rallies, I was in Columbia, S.C. There was a rally of at least 5,000 people, overwhelmingly Mexicans and Central Americans, outside the state capitol. As a New Yorker who grew up believing that New York is the center of the immigrant universe, I was quite impressed by two things. First, there are lots of immigrants everywhere now. Second, people who have a lot to lose by demonstrating in public were willing to do so in one of the most conservative states in the Union.
Immigration reform divides Republicans and helps Democrats energize their political base. Big businesses that depend on cheap immigrant labor have a very different orientation from that of the Lou Dobbs crowd. So Republican efforts to pander to the anti-immigrant portion of their party come with significant risks.
Not so for the Democrats, especially in the Senate. There are likely to be competitive Senate races in any number of states this November in which Latinos form substantial portions of the electorate. Nevada is one of those states, and even a politician who is often as principled as Reid is driven in large part by self-preservation.
But it’s not just Nevada. Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, and Illinois all have large Latino populations and races that may be close. The immigration issue will energize a portion of the Democratic base in each of those states.
Is there a single state with a contested race in which the Senate Democrats will truly be helped by a climate bill? I can’t think of one.
So the Obama/Reid political calculation that immigration should go before climate makes sense for them. The vast majority of politicians — and I have no reason to think Obama and Reid are exceptions to this rule — operate in the world of practical politics. By developing a vibrant movement that is backed up by electoral power, immigration-reform supporters have given leading Democrats a reason to believe that action on immigration reform will be politically helpful to them. We haven’t done the same on climate.
Environmentalists who complain about this misunderstand the nature of politics. Moreover, they are morally wrong.
All four of my grandparents were immigrants. I would like to make sure that people looking for a better life in the 21st century have the same opportunity to flee poverty and oppression that my grandparents had. I hope my environmental colleagues feel the same way.
So complaining would be futile. We would be asking practical politicians such as Obama and Reid to place a higher priority on a policy that may be politically dangerous for them than on one that aids their political prospects. There may be many reasons why doing something worthwhile on climate is a political problem for many politicians, but one reason is the fact that we have not developed a true movement that could support them if they go down that road.
Finally, with no movement capable of forcing a robust response to the climate crisis, the only way Sens. Graham, John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) could have gotten the Senate to pass a bill would have been to appease the special interests at the root of the problem. All indications were that the proposed bill would have propped up the coal and power industries with billions of dollars while forcing low and middle-income Americans to pay higher energy costs. The bill also would have stripped EPA and state governments of much their legal authority to implement innovative climate solutions. In short, I’m not sure we’re missing much.
If we really believe that addressing climate change requires a massive social change, it is naive to believe that we can make that change in the absence of a massive social movement. The beginnings of that movement are visible. We see it in the tremendously successful efforts to stop development of coal plants and in the enthusiasm for green jobs in many communities throughout the country. But this movement has not yet been built.
Those of us working to address climate change can learn some important lessons from supporters of immigration reform. We should take this opportunity to learn those lessons, rather than merely express our frustration.