earth in a maze

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.

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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.

So why did the outside strategy fail? The first problem was one of timing. The climate campaigners decided to take advantage of the window of opportunity that opened with the election of 2008: a climate consensus in which the presidential candidates from both parties support climate action; Democrat control of both House and Senate; President-elect Obama’s stated commitment to climate action; and a marked pro-climate polling advantage among independent voters. Because such moments don’t last in politics, that meant moving as quickly and aggressively as possible.

Moving quickly did not mean ignoring the outside game, but it did mean the campaigners didn’t have time to build a traditional grassroots movement — as powerful as it would have been to have one. Skocpol argues that years of grassroots spadework at the state and local level should have preceded the national campaign, but from what I saw in the states at the time — and I was out there, along with large numbers of climate activists from all across the spectrum who were working tirelessly to do that kind of work, with limited success — conditions simply weren’t ripe for that kind of organizing on this issue. (In the years since, Bill McKibben has done a great job building into a potent, global grassroots force. EDF has helped a grassroots group called the Moms Clean Air Force take flight. There are plenty of other examples. These things take time.)

EDF’s strategy in 2009 wasn’t driven by a disdain for public involvement or a love of insider deals; it was based on a hardheaded view of what presented the best opportunity at the time. And as McKibben has written, it was worth trying. But I think McKibben himself is too quick to dismiss the 2009 strategy as a “behind the scenes” effort and nothing more. In reality, groups like the National Wildlife Federation, NRDC, EDF, and many others worked hard on public constituency-building efforts, including but by no means limited to USCAP. The idea, of course, is to overcome barriers to landmark legislation by finding influential allies with a stake in the preferred outcome. The campaigners forged alliances with a range of stakeholders — labor unions, clean energy advocates, faith groups, veterans, outdoor enthusiasts. None of these alliances proved as robust or influential as USCAP, and that was damaging. What’s more, many of the environmental groups that did have robust grassroots networks chose to stay on the sidelines because they weren’t energized by the substance of the bill, and that was also damaging. But it wasn’t preordained and it didn’t happen by design.

The climate campaigners understood from the outset that USCAP was necessary but not sufficient. They knew that increased partisanship and well-funded opponents were going to make this fight extremely difficult. Skocpol concludes that since these alliances failed to become significant, the climate campaign must have had no interest in them. This is mistaken. The campaigners worked hard and came up short. The real problem was execution, not strategy.

And as a political scientist, Skocpol surely knows that, like it or not, what she dismisses as “insider bargaining” is the way that major legislation gets hammered out in Washington. I agree with her that a more transparent process that brought the eyes of the American people into the room would have been very valuable, but here’s what she misses: The only player with the power to bring about that transparency was President Obama, and he chose not to engage in that manner. Skocpol downplays presidential leadership as a matter of “arm-twisting and sweet-talking.” In fact, the influence of a president — as owner of the bully pulpit, representative of the American people, and steward of the American economy — can be orders of magnitude more potent than she implies. Skocpol uses the successful campaign for health-care reform as a narrative foil but doesn’t acknowledge the degree to which the climate bill was a collateral casualty of Obama’s decision to push health care instead of climate, and of the anti-Obama groundswell. She is quite right in pointing to the rise of Tea Party Republicanism as a decisive factor, and quite right that climate campaigners didn’t have a plan for dealing with it. But I think she misses the role of money and brute-force Astroturf climate opposition. The summer of 2009 isn’t just when the Tea Party got into the game; it is when Big Oil, having sat out the battles in the House, joined the fight in earnest and blew the climate campaign away.

Skocpol expresses surprise that today, despite the failure of the climate bill and the bitterly partisan atmosphere in Washington, EDF still emphasizes the need for bipartisan cooperation as a basis for legislative action. We don’t expect landmark legislation to pass in the current Congress, but we are equally mindful that no piece of landmark environmental legislation has ever passed without bipartisan support. (As David Roberts points out in a typically astute response to Skocpol, we still need 60 votes in the Senate.) No, it won’t happen without a big fight. Yes, the environmental community needs to build broader and more vocal grassroots support, and it needs to forge a more powerful set of alliances — including business alliances. To win like Lincoln, we need an outside game and an inside game and a president leading the charge.

We agree with Skocpol that grassroots work in independent and Republican districts is essential. That’s why EDF has been working to drive measurable greenhouse gas reductions everywhere we can — to prove it’s possible — and why we have been working quietly in Midwestern states to restart the climate conversation in a way that engages people from all across the political spectrum. And when I talk to people in states like Indiana these days, what’s often on their minds is extreme weather. They see the way things are changing, they’re frightened by it, and many of them are connecting the dots between weird weather and climate change. Skocpol says extreme weather won’t by itself change the legislative dynamic, and that’s true. But it is helping to change the conversation, and that, in time, can lead our politics to a new place. When Republican and moderate Democratic officeholders finally understand that their base supporters are shifting on the climate issue, they’ll start to shift too.

It will take time before this hyper-partisan moment gives way, but one day it will — and we need to be ready when it does. At EDF, we know that bipartisan cooperation can happen because we have helped make it happen, time and again. Last year, lawmakers from both parties came together to pass the RESTORE Act — guaranteeing that 80 percent of the proceeds of the BP oil spill fines would go to wetlands restoration and economic recovery for the region. EDF, the National Audubon Society, and others worked with a coalition that included the restaurant industry, fishermen and oystermen, the shipping and construction industries, Democratic and Republican officeholders, and people all along the Gulf Coast. It worked. Compared to what’s needed to move climate legislation, this might seem like a modest coalition. But it was proof that even in these divisive times, it is possible to achieve bipartisan compromise that makes progress for people.

Skocpol is right about something else: We need to be wary and skeptical when dealing with the forces of power in the capital. But she appears to conclude that if we had simply understood those politics better, we then could have manufactured a movement of sufficient force to run over the inside forces of power, and that, as a result, climate legislation would have passed regardless of presidential priorities, in spite of economic meltdown and high unemployment, in spite of the anti-regulatory, anti-science backlash driving public opinion in the wrong direction. If only the enviros had gotten it right. What Skocpol really seems to be saying is that the climate campaign of 2008-2010 wasn’t worth attempting in the first place. With the benefit of hindsight, that may be an easy position for her to take. But we respectfully disagree, and we’re not about to give up.

Read more on Theda Skocpol’s report on the failure of cap-and-trade: summary by Philip Bump; responses from Bill McKibbenJoe Romm, Mark Hertsgaard, and Mike Tidwell; three (count ‘em: onetwothree) posts from David Roberts; and a followup post from Skocpol herself.

Also read David Roberts’ review of Eric Pooley’s book The Climate War.