Jonathan Cohn, writing at his new must-read blog, has a fascinating piece on the policy implications of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The gist of his argument is that the public push for clean energy policy — in the form of marches on Washington and calls to Congress — is more subdued than should be expected in the wake of such a devastating environmental catastrophe, and that this dynamic is largely responsible for the Senate’s slim chances of moving comprehensive legislation this year.

While I think this argument has some merit, Cohn leaves out several key considerations.

First, I disagree with Cohn’s characterization of last weekend’s Hands Across the Sand offshore drilling protests. Using turnout estimates of 400 and 450 from two of the 814 protest locations in the United States, he concludes “[t]hat probably means a few thousand people participated nationwide.” He continues, “That’s a perfectly respectable figure in normal times. But with the nation’s worst environmental catastrophe — an oil spill, of all things — in progress? Under those circumstances, the numbers seem a little disappointing.”

Those numbers do seem disappointing, but only because they are not accurate. While nationwide numbers have not yet been released, a few minutes of Googling reveals considerably higher turnout numbers. In St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, over 5,000 people turned out for Saturday’s event. Even at an extremely conservative estimate of an average of 50 people per event, the 814 events nationwide would have had over 40,000 people in attendance. Sierra Club pegs the total at tens of thousands. Either way, these numbers are quite impressive for a volunteer-led event that was planned in a matter of weeks, by my standards at least. Dave Rauschkolb, the organizer of Hands Across the Sand, isn’t overly concerned with the raw numbers. To him, the real impact is on a more human level. “Every photograph, every video, every footprint in the sand tells the story of how much Americans care about their coastal heritage,” he told me by phone Wednesday evening.

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Moving on, Cohn continues:

We have no shortage of committed environmentalists in this country. But two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig first exploded, where are the marches on Washington? Where are the phone calls lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards? Congressional staffers I’ve contacted tell me constituent contact on climate change has increased in the last few weeks, but only incrementally.

A few points on this. There was a massive rally in Washington just days before Deepwater Horizon exploded, on Earth Day, with 100,000 in attendance. Huge events like this take considerable time to plan, and while they can make a splash, it isn’t clear that large-scale, concentrated protests like these are the best way to move votes in the Senate. Hands in the Sand had events in all 50 states and seems to have generated significant media coverage at most of them. Might this have had a bigger impact on the Senate than a D.C. protest that likely would have been ignored by local media outlets?

In terms of generating phone calls to Congress, environmental groups have been doing this quite well for years without managing to pass climate legislation. In the weeks leading up to the vote on Senator Murkowski’s resolution to weaken the Clean Air Act, for example, environmental groups generated tens of thousands of calls to Senate offices. Many of the callers also expressed their support for climate change legislation. Now, I’m not trying to imply that these calls don’t make a difference (they certainly do), but blaming the Senate’s failure to address climate change on a lack of constituent phone calls seems like a stretch.

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The other important point on generating phone calls to Congress is that these types of things are most effective when they are timed properly. That is, environmental organizations can only ask their members to call Congress so many times during a given year, so they may as well do so when Congress is actually debating clean energy legislation. To that end, I wouldn’t be surprised to see environmental groups collectively generate hundreds of thousands of calls after July recess, as the Senate actually begins to debate the issue in earnest. These efforts are already beginning to ramp up, with a coalition of groups committing $11 million just yesterday to a series of hard hitting TV spots. With some swing-vote Senators, and some who are up for re-election this cycle or the next, this will have a real impact. But for those who made up their mind on the issue a long time ago, no amount of constituent calls is going to change their mind. Using the ballot box to force their early retirement is the only option.

On Cohn’s larger question — “The outrage, where is it?” — I’d argue that it is already apparent in recent public opinion polling on clean energy legislation:

  • A 5/25-6/1 Benenson Strategy Group Poll [PDF] found that 63 percent of likely voters support clean energy legislation.
  • A 6/17-6/21 WSJ/NBC poll found that 63 percent of Americans support clean energy legislation, ‘even if it means an increase in the cost of energy.’
  • A 6/16-6/20 NYT/CBS poll found that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe U.S. energy policy needs either ‘fundamental changes’ or ‘to be completely rebuilt.’

Public opinion on offshore drilling has also shifted dramatically in recent weeks:

  • A 6/17-6/21 WSJ/NBC poll found that 48 percent of Americans are skeptical of Congressional candidates who support continued offshore drilling off U.S. coasts. Not increased drilling, mind you, continued drilling.
  • A 6/8-6/9 Fox News poll found that support for increased offshore drilling had dropped an incredible 26 percent in just two months.
  • Half a dozen polls conducted in May found that support for increased offshore drilling had dropped between 9 and 17 percent.

To bolster his argument that a lack of grassroots pressure is somehow responsible for the Senate’s failure to act, Cohn cites Andy Stern’s role in the healthcare fight:

During the health care fight, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, frequently delivered a message to liberals frustrated with Democratic Party leaders: “Be the wind at their backs.” It’s fine to make demands of the leadership, he agreed. But progressives who wanted bolder action in Washington had to create a political environment where bolder action was actually possible.

Again, I think the polling above shows that such a political environment already exists. The American people are ready for clean energy legislation. It is the politicians, specifically 45-50 painfully out-of-touch Senators, who are not. So if a lack of grassroots pressure isn’t a key factor in the Senate’s inability to address climate change, what other factors are at play? Here are a few:

  • The Senate is a highly disfunctional legislative body that is for the most part incapable of solving large problems. The 60-vote threshold for cloture was designed at a time when most Senators valued good public policy over partisan warfare. That is no longer the case. While the Senate may be able to pass limited climate change legislation this summer, a truly comprehensive solution isn’t likely to clear that body until the filibuster has been seriously reformed.

  • Opponents of clean energy reform spend millions of dollars each election cycle supporting candidates who do their bidding and running ads against candidates who don’t. I’m referring, of course, to the Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry, the oil and gas industry, and their ilk. While Senators pay some attention to constituent calls, many of them pay more attention to calls from industry front-groups whose profits depend on the status quo. Again, I don’t think the Senate will pass truly comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation until the role of corporate money in our political process is limited considerably.

  • Similarly, some of the same forces have engaged in a long-term multi-million dollar effort to discredit climate science. This campaign is intended to influence both legislators and the general public. Due to the vast sums of money they’ve spent, and their absolute lack of shame in terms of the tactics they employ, they’ve succeeded in convincing many Republicans that the science behind climate change is questionable.

  • Cohn gets at my next point, but I don’t think he gives it the credit it deserves. In the near-term, President Obama alone could do more to move votes on this issue than anything or anyone else. As Cohn writes, “None of this is to say Obama, in particular, couldn’t do more to rally supporters. Count me among those persuaded that, by waiting as long as he did for a big speech on climate change, he missed a political opportunity to focus public attention on the issue.” I think this is right, but I’d add that the president has also done plenty to move the issue in the wrong direction. His decision to expand offshore drilling, announced just weeks before the disaster in the Gulf began, indicated to the American people that he may not take clean energy all that seriously. His repeated insistence that coal, nuclear power, and natural gas are part of a ‘clean energy future’ has played a huge role in depressing the enthusiasm of the environmentalist base that propelled him into office. This Orwellian attempt to redefine dirty energy as clean energy is both bad policy and bad politics. Coming at a time when the public is ready to transition to a clean energy economy, it will ultimately be seen as a stain on Obama’s legacy.

So while I agree that additional grassroots pressure will help move the Senate in the right direction on this issue, I don’t think the lack of such pressure deserves the bulk of the blame for where we are now.

I’d be curious to hear what others think. Is a lack of grassroots engagement the key factor in the Senate’s failure to address climate change? Are there other key factors at play here beyond those I’ve mentioned? What else can be done to persuade recalcitrant Senators to address this critical issue? If folks have concrete ideas on what we can do to convince key Senators to act, I’m all ears.

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