Environmentalists who want to solve the climate crisis need to stop using institutional barriers and opponents’ unfair tactics as an excuse for failure, and instead build a grassroots movement that can overcome both. Such a grassroots movement must put forth exciting, attractive policies to fight climate chaos, rather than limp, pre-compromised proposals nobody can work up enthusiasm for.

David Roberts, probably as close to an official voice as Grist magazine has, blames the climate bill failure on five obstacles: 1) The broken Senate, especially the filibuster, 2) The economy, 3) Republican obstructionism, 4) Centrist Democrats, 5) Obama. Brad Plumer at the New Republic chimes in with what is pretty much a me too.

Matt Yglesias is less specific, but argues: “In terms of what political advocacy organizations can be reasonably expected to achieve, the climate change groups have been extremely effective. But a whole set of other problems related to the economy have dragged their program down.”

In short, the odds were against passing a climate bill. The failure wasn’t the corporate environmentalists fault. Of all the mainstream environmentalists, Bill McKibben almost gets it, gets it halfway:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

For many years, the lobbying fight for climate legislation on Capitol Hill has been led by a collection of the most corporate and moderate environmental groups, outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund. We owe them a great debt, and not just for their hard work. We owe them a debt because they did everything the way you’re supposed to: they wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly, and compromised at every turn.

By the time they were done, they had a bill that only capped carbon emissions from electric utilities (not factories or cars) and was so laden with gifts for industry that if you listened closely you could actually hear the oinking. They bent over backwards like Soviet gymnasts. Senator John Kerry, the legislator they worked most closely with, issued this rallying cry as the final negotiations began: “We believe we have compromised significantly, and we’re prepared to compromise further.”

And even that was not enough. They were left out to dry by everyone — not just Reid, not just the Republicans. Even President Obama wouldn’t lend a hand, investing not a penny of his political capital in the fight.

The result: total defeat, no moral victories.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

McKibben deserves credit for finally noticing what was tried didn’t work. No really, he does. Some on his part of the political spectrum think deal making and compromise is all there is to politics. The deal making just has to be done better next time.

At the same time, it was really foolish to depend on deal making in today’s political climate. Blaming defeat on institutional barriers and unreasonable opponents invites an answer from an early scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean” where Will Turner complains that Pirate Captain Jack Sparrow has cheated in a sword fight. And Jack Sparrow calmly replies “Pirate.” If you complain that Republicans, and right wing Democrats, and big corporations care more about short term profits than the fate of civilization, they could rightfully reply “Conservative.”

Cap-and-trade itself is an example of the failure of deal making with conservatives on the climate issue. When the Clinton administration took office in 1993 it offered a market based approach to fossil fuel pollution, a BTU tax. A variant on a carbon tax, a BTU tax would have taxed heat value rather than emissions. This would have lowered the impact on coal compared to oil and natural gas, but would have raised the price of all fossil fuel in the long run. Since the revenue would have displaced corporate income taxes, it would have overwhelming benefitted the rich. In short, it was a perfect conservative policy to tackle fossil fuel pollution, and one that many conservatives had loudly advocated for. But when actually offered the chance, Republicans, and conservative Democrats, and corporate campaign donors overwhelmingly opposed it, and used it as a campaign issue to defeat Democrats.

This story has a second chapter. The international Kyoto protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was negotiated in 1997. Originally it was expected that the new protocol would simply strengthen and add teeth to existing convention, with national targets for the rich nations, penalties for failing to meet those national targets, and funding for voluntary action by poor nations. There was some talk of a carbon tax to reinforce these other features. But, on behalf of the Clinton administration, Al Gore parachuted into the negotiations, and (with the help of the EDF and other conservative environmental organizations) persuaded other nations that there was no way the U.S. would sign on to any treaty with national targets if there were penalties for non-compliance. Instead he sold an elaborate trading scheme as a way to get the U.S. on board What is more, the horrible Clean Development Mechanism counterfeit offset provisions of the treaty were also included as a way to get the U.S. on board, in spite of the fact that just prior to this, the U.S. Senate had rejected any Kyoto style treaty 95 to 0! Unsurprisingly the concessions Gore won did not result in U.S. ratification.

The mainstream environmental movement begins to look rather like Charlie Brown, eternally letting Lucy hold the football so he can kick it, eternally surprised when Lucy pulls the football away, and he tumbles down into the dirt and grass.

And it is not as though that was the last case where the football was pulled away. McCain ultimately opposed the McCain-Lieberman bill. To take a non-environmental example, Democrats weakened the stimulus bill to attract the support of Republicans who ultimately voted against it. So when Lindsey-Graham turned against the climate bill he helped draft, it should have been no surprise.

The conservative movement has a long history of opposing anything that would make life better in the USA. Conservatives opposed women getting the right to vote after WWI. They opposed the creation of Social Security, the minimum wage and all the other programs that help mitigate the effects of the Great Depression. Conservatives opposed anti-lynch laws, they opposed the civil rights laws that ended Jim Crow. They opposed environmental protection. I think the position of conservatives can best be understood through analogy to a 1981 John Carpenter film.

Escape from New York was set in a future New York City (in distant 1988!) which had been turned into a giant maximum security prison. Reactions to its cartoon violence, cynicism, B-movie sensibility and badly concealed idealism vary from love to hate to mockery. But I suspect that when the modern conservative movement sees the metropolis where Snake Plissken’s adventure is set, they see the world they aspire to create. A world where you have nothing you don’t buy or take by violence? Check. A world ruled by roving violent gangs, like Blackwater mercenaries in Iraq? Check. A world where women are property? Check.

Conservatives lie routinely, and when they make deals their word is garbage. That may not apply to ordinary people who take conservative positions, but among conservative leadership, whether politicians, political consultants, or pundits and media figures there are almost no exceptions.

What did “mainstream” environmentalists think they would achieve through negotiations with people whose goal, whether they know it or not, is to create hell on earth? Heck on earth? So when Bill McKibben says:

So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working.

It hasn’t come close to working since 19 freaking 97. I’m sincerely grateful that McKibben has sounded the alarm for so long, and done his best to build a grassroots movement around this issue. By the time 2009 came around, what on earth made him think a strategy that already had a 13 year record of failure would work now?

Part of the problem is the definition of “nice”. Offsets are not “nice” for people who would be driven out of their homes to make way for carbon plantations. Carbon trading is not nice for people who continue to breathe deadly toxins from coal plants that are not shut down because cheaper reductions are available somewhere else. And it is not nice to support timid, go-slow action as we move closer to irreversible climate catastrophe.

There is a history of the environmental movement taking this approach that goes far deeper than climate change. Some of the history has even been linked before on Grist, but is worth considering again in the context of the failure of the climate bill. Johann Hari’s The Wrong Kind of Green in the Nation magazine describes failures by The Nature Conservancy, The Sierra Club, The Natural Resources Defense Council, Conservation International. The bottom line, quite literally, is that funding by and relationships with dirty corporations have changed environmental groups far more than those relationships have changed the big polluters. Gary Houser and Cory Morningstar describe the organization where these transformed environmental groups forged a strategy of unilateral compromise, U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). Act for Climate Justice lists a few highlights from the NRDC over the year. Brian Tokar traces this back to the first Earth Day, including the errors of many leftists of the time who dismissed environmental issues as insufficiently radical, a distraction. Dennis Hayes, the surviving co-founder of Earth Day is today is widely recognized as a man of deep integrity, something that does not apply to everyone who criticized him at the time. (Cough*DavidHorowitz*Cough).

So what is the next step? Well obviously to reject an approach centered around backroom deal making and build a grassroots movement. Instead, in the words of Bill McKibben:

If we’re going to get any of this done, we’re going to need a movement, the one thing we haven’t had. For 20 years environmentalists have operated on the notion that we’d get action if we simply had scientists explain to politicians and CEOs that our current ways were ending the Holocene, the current geological epoch. That turns out, quite conclusively, not to work. We need to be able to explain that their current ways will end something they actually care about, i.e. their careers. And since we’ll never have the cash to compete with Exxon, we better work in the currencies we can muster: bodies, spirit, passion.

Now even the mainstream environmental magazine Grist, which on climate issues is closer to EDF than it is to Sea Shepards says the missing piece is a mass movement. But at least one major paid voice on Grist also takes the position that a good mass movement builder can sell any policy, that policy content has nothing to do with popular appeal. “A shift in messaging does not (necessarily) require a shift in policy. These are the days of post-truth politics.” I think Bill McKibben has the better argument: “But no one will come out to fight for watered down and weak legislation.”

Some climate activists may be good enough rhetoricians to generate mild support for something on the lines of ACES or Kerry/Lieberman. But there is nobody who could actually generate enthusiasm for it. And those who come closest would not because they could not work up enthusiasm themselves. An argument a lot of people who want to separate rhetoric from policy make is that no policy that would actually tackle the climate crisis could win over the Tea Party. That misses the point. The question is how to stir up enough enthusiasm in people who already care about the climate crisis, so they will get up and convince others. It is not that attractive policy by itself will win their active support. It is that limp policy will kill any chance of stimulating excitement, enthusiasm and motion.

Thus, even though good policy is only a tiny part of movement building, it is still an important part. So what would the policy for a grass roots movement look like? Many people, including Charles Komanoff and Bill McKibben think a fee-and-dividend approach is the best way to go.

The way Komanoff puts it:

… fossil fuel extractors and importers pay the U.S. Treasury fees pegged to the carbon content of the coal, oil and gas they take from the ground or bring into U.S. ports, and the Treasury distributes the revenues to all Americans via equal monthly dividends (“green checks”), or by tax-shifting from regressive taxes such as payroll taxes …

This is certainly better than cap-and-trade. There are no versions of carbon tax that are comparable to offsets that actually increase carbon emissions. But from a policy standpoint a price-centric approach is still a weak and ineffective approach to winning large scale reductions in emissions. One reason is that all sorts of indirect subsidies that don’t show up in conventional “green scissors” analysis help drive fossil fuel use, much of it infrastructure subsidies. One example: the Victoria institute estimates that we spend $4,400 per year per car just subsidizing parking(pdf) for automobiles. That does not include other infrastructure subsidies to automobiles: required developer built streets, city streets, setbacks (minimum distances between buildings and streets), single use zoning, low and medium density requirements. All these rules make driving more desirable; all make walking, biking and use of transit less desirable. It would take one heck of a carbon tax just to zero out infrastructure and regulatory subsidies to automobiles, let alone start paying any of the costs of climate change and other ways fossil fuels damage health. Even worse, we prosecute negligent homicide and manslaughter much less severely (and often not at all) when deaths are caused by ignoring environmental or worker safety regulations than when they are caused by speeding or drunk driving. Corporate executives can neglect worker and environmental safety to the point of causing death with little personal risk. A carbon price won’t change the way that lack of personal accountability affects behavior.

The best policy to phase out emissions: Put in bike lanes, sidewalks, transit to make automobile use less necessary. Encourage transformation of existing communities into more sustainable places. Require new buildings to be built with lower
carbon footprints, and subsidize and require existing buildings to lower their carbon footprints as well. Put in place transport and building and industrial efficiency standards. Put in place really strong renewable energy standards, and put in place infrastructure and subsidies that will help encourage that transition. And, yes, start enforcing personal criminal liability for corporate managers, executives and officers.

The evidence is that this is overwhelmingly more popular with the public than any form of emission pricing, even fee-and-dividend. If fee-and-dividend was really better policy, it might be worth a shot, but ultimately the evidence is overwhelming that public investment and non-price regulation like renewable energy standards are more critical.

Now some fee-and-dividend supporters insist that since they support all three, their prioritizing price makes no difference. But political energy is limited, and what is prioritized affects political behavior. A movement that concentrates on fee-and-dividend will make fee-and-dividend its priority, and when it comes time to compromise (and compromise always happens in politics) it will weaken public investment and non-price regulation to win a carbon price. And once a price mechanism becomes the center of a political movement it will be difficult to change this. We need to do this the other way around. Public investment and non-price regulation should be the focus for grassroots political action. Emissions pricing should be seen as reinforcement. Price mechanisms should be the last priority, not the first. If something has to be traded away it should be price mechanisms, not renewable or efficiency standards, not public investment.

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