Time to step it up, kid.

ShutterstockTime to step it up, kid.

Watching the collapse of the effort to create a cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions in 2009-10 was profoundly depressing. Reading Theda Skocpol’s insightful history [PDF] isn’t much more fun — but it’s certainly useful, in a Santayana kind of way. Since this is a mistake we can’t afford to repeat (the planet is running out of spare presidential terms and congressional sessions), Skocpol performs a real service by helping figure out what went wrong.

The first thing to be said, I think, is that this behind-the-scenes route was worth a try. Given the stakes, you would think elite players, especially in the business community, would have been willing to make the relatively small and painless changes the cap-and-trade law envisioned. Such inside-the-Beltway lobbying is how most environmental change has come, at least since the decline of the ’70s-era movement that really powered the most important legislation.

But this was too big — there was too much money at stake. The climate issue, it turned out, didn’t fundamentally resemble acid rain after all. The fossil fuel companies, which had spent a lot of money helping erect the hard-right political edifice then near its height in D.C., saw that they didn’t have to give away anything. They could block even this small change for now, and continue to put away truly record profits.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If the inside-the-Beltway groups had been able to turn to a real grassroots activist movement, the outcome might have been different. But that movement didn’t really exist, and many of the big players had only disdain for its embryonic form — they liked talking with corporate honchos more than treehuggers. And so the lobbyists from the green groups were walking naked into the offices of senators, who recognized that they lacked the ability to inflict pain or offer reward. The result was the rout we saw.

Since then two things have changed that make progress more possible, I think.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

One is a public far more concerned with climate change. That’s what happens when 80 percent of counties experience a federal disaster, when the biggest drought in half a century sends food prices through the roof, when superstorm Sandy devastates the most important city on the planet. Polling data indicates a readiness for real action; few politicians would be punished by voters for taking climate seriously (though they still would be punished by donors). This is precisely what needs bolstering in Skocpol’s vision of an emergent center-left swell.

Two is a grassroots movement revived enough to be something of a force, pushing that center-left swell in the direction it must go. 350.org, for instance, began organizing months after the cap-and-trade debacle, and now works in 191 countries; we were able to organize the biggest civil disobedience action in 30 years in this country, which in turn helped at least slow the Keystone pipeline. This is no juggernaut, but it is growing steadily — at the moment 210 campuses have active fossil-fuel divestment movements, for instance. (One hopes Professor Skocpol will work hard to push the effort at Harvard. Those of us who fought to get her tenure there in the early ’80s would be grateful if she used the freedom it affords to make a difference beyond her fine scholarship.)

The best chance for these two tendencies to come together in effective climate legislation is, as she points out, something like a fee-and-dividend proposal, where most of the money collected goes to citizens. It’s certainly more just — if anyone owns the sky, it’s us, not Exxon. And it’s possible to imagine ratcheting it up fast enough to matter, since every time the fee rises, so does the size of the check that comes in the mail. Americans like checks — my Harvard bachelor’s degree in political science entitles me to say that, I think.

But that does lead me to the final point about Skocpol’s paper, one that bears remembering. Her interest is political science, not science, but it’s the latter that ultimately governs here. Political realism is nice, but physics is calling the dance.

So designing a policy that can get through Congress is at best half the battle. What makes this different from health care is that in that case getting half a loaf actually helped; in this case it’s much less clear. This is the first time-limited giant problem we’ve ever faced (unless you count, say, World War II, which also couldn’t be postponed very long). At this point, having delayed action for so long, the easy baby steps are no longer helpful. A small price on carbon won’t get us as far as it would have a decade or two ago.

In the end, the problem isn’t getting a bill through Congress. The problem is global warming. And it may be useful to begin any discussion of strategy with that in mind.

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