David & GoliathWho’s the giant in this scenario?In his Climate Shift report, Matt Nisbet purports to compare the lobbying efforts of climate-bill supporters and opponents. He finds that, in 2009, the former spent $394 million and the latter $259 million. In other words, greens and their allies outspent their opponents. “The narrative [that] this is David versus Goliath does not match the numbers on the ground,” says Nisbet.

As a bunchload of people have pointed out, the way Nisbet gets these numbers is kind of dodgy. The full lobbying budgets of all participants in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership are counted toward the total, which is, a moment’s thought will indicate, crazypants. GE and BP spent all their lobbying money pushing for cap-and-trade? The idea of such single-minded green determination from America’s corporations is amusing — not to say a bit wistful — but back on Planet Earth, GE and BP had plenty else to lobby about. The climate lobbying done by the corporate world, what there was of it, was effectively defensive, insuring that if a bill was going to pass it would protect their interests.

[UPDATE: Sorry, the paragraph above isn’t entirely accurate. The $394/$259 comparison (section one of Nisbet’s spending analysis) is an attempt to isolate spending on climate and energy by both sides; it doesn’t include total lobbying budgets. Because green groups and other tax-exempt orgs face restrictions on their spending, section two compares the total lobbying budgets of the networks on either side. The larger points below still stand: direct 2009 spending is a distortingly narrow frame for assessing relative power, and there is no sense in which the network of biz groups supporting cap-and-trade can be said to be “pro-climate” in the same way the opposing network is devoted to blocking climate progress.]

But let’s put the manhandled numbers aside. Bryan Walsh of Time says critics of the report are being the “negative-image” of climate skeptics, niggling with details in order to reject a larger conclusion they don’t like. And indeed, I don’t like Nisbet’s larger conclusion. I think it’s wrong! So let’s talk about that.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Imagine, if you will, a spectrum: On one end, there are those who see politics as a battle of interests, a raw contest of “power politics” waged with the weapons of money and influence. “Post-truth politics,” one might call it. On the other end, there are those who see politics as a battle of ideas, wherein the cleverest messaging and policy proposals attract the most reasonable people and public support, and win. Obviously there’s a mix of the two, and one can come down anywhere in between on the spectrum.

In Nisbet’s telling, the green movement has devoted itself to power politics when it’s actually involved in a battle of ideas, and it’s losing. It needs new ideas, new policies, new messages, not just more organizing and spending and lobbying. Cap-and-trade was always doomed because it’s the wrong idea at the wrong time. That’s why Nisbet tries to show that supporters of the climate bill were as powerful as opponents. If he can show that the sides were evenly matched in the battle of interests, then the only thing that can explain the loss is bad ideas.

Lots of wonks, pundits, and journos are inclined to agree with this conclusion, which is why there’s this bizarre phenomenon of people saying, “Sure, the numbers that support the point are problematic, but the point stands.” But I don’t think the point does stand.

Over the years, I’ve drifted steadily toward the battle-of-interests side of the spectrum. It brings me no joy. Like my brethren on the left, I love ideas. I love debating and persuading. I would love to think that we could win more political battles by talking better, since talking better is something I’m good at and I have no particular appetite or aptitude for power politics. But wanting it to be about ideas doesn’t make it so. And looking back, it seems to me the worst mistakes made by the left in pursuit of a climate bill — and I’ll happily concede there were many — were precisely failures of power politics.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So it’s important to understand the balance of interests. Specifically, it’s important to understand that Nisbet’s larger point — that advocates for climate policy are as powerful as their foes — is nonsense. And it’s nonsense to think that a comparison of 2009 lobbying budgets would show otherwise, even if it were based on non-crazypants numbers.

The primary barriers faced by advocates of a shift away from fossil fuels are structural. Cheap fossil fuels have shaped America’s infrastructure, industry, politics, land use, consumer habits, and self-image for over a century. They’re woven into the fabric of U.S. history, commerce, and governance. Relationships among fossil-fuel execs, lobbyists, and politicians date back generations. Even if advocates for change can argue convincingly that there will be winners from the shift to a low-carbon economy — more winners than losers, even — the fact remains that many of the future losers currently wield enormous influence and the future winners don’t yet exist, are not yet organized, do not yet have a history of cultural affiliation and financial common interest with politicians.

To make matters worse, the U.S. economy suffers income inequality greater than Egypt’s, Yemen’s, or Tunisia’s and the U.S. political system is weighted heavily toward the interests of the wealthy. The U.S. Senate overrepresents rural interests by design and, particularly given the now-routine abuse of the filibuster, has granted absolute veto power to a tiny sliver of Americans. The Citizens United decision has given corporations free reign to spend without limits or disclosure. Up and down the line, U.S. politics is riddled with veto points where a motivated minority can grind change to a halt.

That is not a level playing field. It is status quo bias run amok, a field tilted sharply tilted against progress. That is the background against which lobbying on a particular bill in a particular year must be assessed. Fossil-fuel forces could have spent any amount of money; there was no limit to what was available and legal. And yet they only had to spend $259 million! Hell, they probably didn’t even need to spend that much — it was just insurance. They were sitting atop a mountain of structural advantages, watching their opponents spend every available penny to struggle their way up the slope.

The U.S. conservative movement, dedicated above all else to defending the status quo interests of the wealthy, has existing networks that can be activated against any major Democratic policy proposal. Any proposal at all. To their base and their corporate donors alike, everything Dems do is one undifferentiated blob of big government spending, burdensome regulation, and incipient tyranny. They don’t have to distinguish cap-and-trade — they don’t want to! — they just have to file it under Tax. They don’t have to distinguish green R&D, they just have to file it under Spending. The messages and coalitions don’t have to be crafted and assembled; they’re right there, ready to go. They move against efforts at progress like a school of fish, as one.

Against this unified front of opposition came a diverse, fractured left. It may be, as Nisbet says, that green philanthropists and NGOs (finally) had a coherent strategy. But that is just one of the left’s constituencies. The climate bill was battered from the left base, which almost overnight became carbon tax and cap-and-dividend obsessives. It was battered from the right and center by the Breakthrough crowd and various others who thought it should have confined itself to narrow, less controversial bits and pieces. From the left intelligentsia and commentariat (and from Obama), it largely received benign neglect or notional, inch-deep support. From mainstream journalists it received a torrent of stale conventional wisdom exaggerating costs and ignoring benefits.

Again: not a level playing field. It may have been the green establishment’s attempt at power politics, but it wasn’t a very good attempt. And it never will be a good attempt until the effort goes beyond environmental groups. After all, if it’s absurd to think of climate change as just another pollution problem, then it’s equally absurd to think that it should be left in the hands of anti-pollution groups. You can bitch about the failure of anti-pollution groups to transfigure themselves into something bigger and different on the fly, or you can acknowledge that the problem is pervasive — economic, industrial, cultural — and so the effort to address it must be just as pervasive. No special-interest lobby, no matter how clever its messaging, no matter how next-paradigm-y its policy proposals, can possibly hope to overcome a century’s worth of inertia and the power of one of the world’s most profitable industries.

It’s a battle of interests that’s being lost. It may be that greens need new policies and messages — probably so! — but to locate that as the primary need, the key to the lock, is just to will away the forest because a single tree is easier to grasp. (Or, alternatively, a single hippie is easier to punch.) Ideas are wonderful. And I’m all for new ones, the shinier and more clever the better. But ideas alone aren’t going to win this fight.