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Why the climate bill failed: It’s not that simple

earth in a maze
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Ever since federal climate legislation crashed and burned in 2010, people have been analyzing what went wrong — and that’s all to the good. There’s plenty to be learned from this sad story, and I’ve been one of many people engaged in the effort. As the climate campaign unfolded I wrote a book about it called The Climate War, and later I left the sidelines to join the Environmental Defense Fund because I wanted to do everything I could to help turn that failure into success. At EDF I joined a group of people who were thinking deeply about these issues and who restructured our climate work in response.

So I was eager to read the new report [PDF] by Theda Skocpol, a scholar who drew from my reporting, among other sources. Skocpol concludes that environmentalists failed to anticipate or effectively respond to the rise of Tea Party-fueled opposition to climate action. I completely agree with that criticism. But I part ways with Skocpol on some of her larger points.

Skocpol asserts that strategic missteps by environmentalists — not the Great Recession, nor President Obama’s decision to drive health care instead of climate legislation, nor the ferocious and well-funded disinformation campaigns of the professional deniers — were to blame for the climate bill’s failure. In particular, she points to the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a coalition of corporations and environmental NGOs that advocated on behalf of climate legislation. She writes that USCAP “was designed and conducted in an insider-grand bargaining political style” and that EDF, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the other environmental groups who participated in it dismissed the value of grassroots engagement and “placed all their chips on cooperation with some industrial sectors and business chieftains.” In short, she argues that USCAP (and the model of corporate/NGO cooperation it represents) was the heart of the problem.

Skocpol is wrong about that, and it’s important to understand why. It would be a perverse tragedy if the single most effective element of the climate campaign were blamed for its failure.

Any successful legislative effort must be built upon a combination of inside strategy and outside push (see Lincoln). The climate campaigners understood this, and tried to execute a combined inside/outside strategy in 2008-2010. USCAP was just one component of that strategy — not, as Skocpol would have it, the strategy in full.

Skocpol’s thinking here suffers from a particular kind of hindsight bias, one that assumes that because things work out in a certain way, they must have been intended to work out that way from the beginning. In reality, USCAP was never intended to be the sole force behind climate action. It broke corporate America’s de facto veto over climate legislation — a huge achievement — and was the biggest reason the climate bill passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but it was never going to be powerful enough to drive the bill through the Senate in 2010. It was meant to be part of a coalition, but the coalition did not come together as planned.

USCAP wasn’t designed to be the only horse pulling the climate cart. Yes, we needed more horses. But Skocpol's response is, in effect, to shoot the horse that pulled hardest.

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How Inhofe turns balloon animals into 'news'

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Rahm Emanuel persuaded Obama to play it cool on climate bill. Post-spill, will the game plan change?

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