The players: Business, labor, advocates, and the public
It was once accurate to speak of the business lobby in the U.S. as a monolithic and implacable opponent of government action to restrict carbon or disturb the dominance of dirty energy and carbon-intensive manufacturing. That’s no longer quite true. A number of things have changed. For one thing, the country has been absolutely bled of heavy manufacturing, which has shifted the dynamic in at least three ways:
- manufacturing states are desperate for an infusion of new industry, and clean energy is virtually the only candidate;
- what jobs are left are mostly service jobs (think installing solar panels) or white collar jobs (think developing smart-grid software), and green provides plenty of both;
- there simply aren’t as many dirty industry-owned legislators.
In addition, painstaking work by green groups over the years has managed to peel away some fairly significant corporate players — some of them bold and forward-looking, like the businesses in BICEP; some of them moderate and middling, like those in USCAP. Plenty of businesses now welcome the predictability that new rules would provide.
That said, the greening of the corporate sector has been wildly over-hyped by the media. The fact remains that for both economic and cultural reasons, the business sector would prefer not to have hippies telling it what to do. The official corporate lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce are still full-throated in their opposition. Big Coal and Big Auto still have a chokehold on many Southern and Midwestern legislators. Think tanks funded by fossil-intensive companies, like CEI and Heritage, still run highly effective propaganda campaigns. Even those businesses that do get behind carbon legislation or regulation will have their own interests top of mind; rent-seeking will abound.
Still, this time around, the simplistic “business vs. hippies” media narrative is going to bump up against high-profile business leaders testifying to the need for, and benefits of, carbon rules. All it takes is one or two “business divided over carbon bill” headlines and the meme is off and running.
At this point the alliance of Labor and Green is no longer a novelty; it’s a fact of life. For reasons noted above, manufacturing unions have recognized that the husk of dirty manufacturing in the U.S. is no longer worth defending against hippies. Instead they want to ally with hippies to push for industrial policy that will actively support green manufacturing jobs and green job training. This is what the deafening green-collar jobs hype is (mostly) about. The key unions to watch here are the Steel Workers and the Teamsters. SEIU is purportedly on board but hasn’t put much juice behind it. UNITE HERE and AFSCME — eh. I’ll probably write a separate post on this soon, so for now see the Apollo Alliance and the Blue-Green Alliance for more.
The big question, of course, is what kind of political muscle Labor has left, and whether they’ll put it behind this fight in earnest.
Thinkers and advocates
Advocacy for strong climate/energy action used to be confined to environmental NGOs and science nerds, neither of which exactly knocked it out of the park. Industry-funded conservative economists and think tanks defined the field of battle, with models and reports forecasting doom if the government “intervened” in markets already ridiculously tilted in favor of their corporate backers.
Things have changed. The science has become so strong that the entire world is (fitfully) mobilizing. Democrats, from the only party that took this stuff seriously at all, are ascendant. With the recent turn away from ice shelves and polar bears toward clean energy and green jobs, the coalition behind climate/energy action is much larger now, both in the civic sphere and intellectual circles. New groups have entered the fight — labor, minority groups, churches, social justice groups, poverty groups, urbanists, farmers, hunters. Mayors and governors across the nation and across parties are doing ground-level work, staking their political futures on green energy and jobs.
So there are lots of voices now. And greens finally have a think tank on their side too, the Center for American Progress, which happens to be the think tank closest to power. It consistently produces excellent work on the benefits of clean energy and danger of climate change. Other progressive economists are finally starting to attend to the issue in earnest, though there remains a dearth of coordinated pushback from economists who better account for the benefits of clean energy, efficiency, and innovation. The Chicken Littles still hold the default “economists say” position in the media (and Obama’s economic team won’t do much to help).
All that said, the do-nothings still have a simple, short, and widely shared list of talking points and an open pipeline to the media. The narrative on the climate realist side is more fragmented, partial, and at cross purposes. It hasn’t congealed. The many voices are not yet a chorus. This situation is fluid, though, and could change over the next few years.
The public’s take on climate/energy stuff is schizophrenic right now. There’s tons of support for clean energy, green jobs, and “energy independence.” Everyone wants to free the U.S. from its addiction to oil. Everyone wants to innovate and grow new industries. Everyone wants ponies. So green jobs bills and clean energy bills are going to be a fairly easy sell.
But the public has not historically, does not now, and (in my humble opinion) will not soon prioritize climate change as such — at least until serious disasters strike with some frequency, at which point it will be too late. It’s a big, vague, depressing problem, and there are always more pressing issues closer to home. Restricting greenhouse gas emissions is still extremely divisive — wildly unpopular among a large minority and supported tepidly by a slim majority. It taps into all the old Dirty Hippies vs. Serious Grownups narratives. It’s all about greens imposing their wooly-headed agenda on the public. It’s about the price of energy going up. It’s about slowing economic growth and reducing quality of life, all for abstract and distant future gain. It would be nice to change this deeply dysfunctional and misleading frame, but at this point I think that ship has sailed.
This is going to make a climate cap-and-trade bill an enormous political challenge, as the Lieberman-Warner fiasco well illustrated. It will be relentlessly demagogued to the masses as a heavy-handed Big Government move to raise gas and electric bills. Its defenders will, if past is prologue, respond with wan appeals to altruism. All signs point, in other words, to another “drill, baby, drill” episode — short, punchy propaganda vs. scattered and ineffectual strategy and messaging.
This argues, I suppose, for a focus on doing as much as possible outside of legislation, through regulation and investment. But more on that later.