Dave Roberts: The Way Through Climate Politics

January 17, 2013


The big discussion topic this week has been Theda Skocpol’s analysis of why carbon legislation has so far failed.  The not-universally-accepted analysis is that big green groups got it wrong for a number of reasons, including too much dependence on political and financial insiders to craft a solution, and political spin to sell it.

The Washington Post interviewed Skocpol this week:

Brad Plumer: You spend a lot of time dissecting the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the big collaboration between greens and businesses to push for a cap-and-trade bill that could win support from Republicans. It wasn’t a crazy strategy—cap-and-trade had picked up a fair bit of bipartisan support between 2003 and 2007. So why did it ultimately fail?

Theda Skocpol: The whole USCAP strategy was based on this very reasonable idea that you’d get Republicans in Congress to go along with Democrats. But by the time we get to 2009, Republicans just weren’t going to be there. And I don’t think environmentalists were able to see the shifting ground at the time.

BP: But was there really that big a shift among Republicans? I mean, even in the 2008 campaign, John McCain was in favor of cap-and-trade.

TS: One of the things that really surprised me in my research came from pulling together scores from the [League of Conservation Voters]. And you see a clear pull on politicians from grassroots conservative opinion around 2006 and 2007. Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican identified voters around this time. That created new pressures on Republican officeholders and candidates. And I don’t think most people noticed that at the time.

Even John McCain. I have this figure that shows him moving up on LCV scores for most of the last decade [i.e., casting more pro-environmental votes] and then pulling back suddenly to the lowest level starting in 2007.

Dave Roberts of Grist has a take on it.


For one thing, Dems no longer have 60 senators, and likely won’t any time soon, so Democratic unity is no longer enough to get past a filibuster. For another thing, Dem unity on carbon caps simply isn’t possible. Energy is a regional issue. There are Dems from big coal and oil states who will never agree to carbon caps.

So capping carbon requires some Republicans. But Republicans have gone full nihilist on environmental protections, so no Republican will vote for carbon caps. That’s the current state of affairs.

Will cap-and-dividend really serve to spark that kind of mass movement? Here I fear Skocpol suspends her critical skills and indulges in a bit of fancy.

The premise of cap-and-dividend is that the government will steadily ratchet up the price of everything you buy — gas, food, plastic gewgaws, everything with carbon energy in the supply chain — and in exchange, cut you a check that makes up the difference. Will that appeal to the American public?

Skocpol joins with a number of other green wonks in assuming it will, because it makes so much darn sense. But you know what they say about assumptions. What little public opinion research there is on the question seems to indicate that the promise of dividends does not, in fact, Change Everything. The public simply doesn’t trust that government will cut checks as promised. And they generally prefer the money to be spent on clean energy or energy efficiency.

Much more research on the public’s attitude toward cap-and-dividend is needed, to be sure. But as it stands, there is virtually no evidence that adding dividends serves as some sort magic key to unlock public support for climate legislation. Certainly not enough evidence to bet the entire climate movement on it.

So if I’m skeptical of Skocpol’s answer, what’s mine? What is the road forward for climate hawks? Well, I’d begin by accepting that some problems simply have no solution. Right now, national climate legislation is one of those problems. It cannot pass until the GOP extremist fever is broken or the fundamental balance of power between fossil fuels and low-carbon energy changes. Both those outcomes are inevitable in the long run, but there’s no particular reason to think they’ll happen any time soon.

So the dream of comprehensive national legislation must be put aside for now. I certainly wouldn’t oppose a long-term push for cap-and-dividend under the banner of a New Social Security. Pressing the moral case is important. So is pushing the bounds of the possible. But I fear that Skocpol’s vision of cap-and-dividend sparking a shift in national politics is forlorn. The promise of government checks simply isn’t enough to create Tea Party levels of intensity and activism.

What is enough? I don’t presume to have a full answer to that question, but my sense is that creating constituencies will involve ground-level work at the local and state level. We need people engaged and invested now — the gauzy promise of future benefits is not enough. The reason Germany’s pioneering clean-energy efforts are so persistent in the face of resistance is that they have broad public support, and they have broad public support because ordinary Germans directly experience the benefits they produce.

A German-style national program of feed-in tariffs is unlikely, but 29 U.S. states have some form of renewable energy standard [PDF]. Climate hawks could begin by defending those programs and pushing more states to adopt them. The right knows that the real battles are at the state level now, which is why they are going after those standards as we speak.

It’s not just renewable energy standards. There are myriad local and state efforts underway on everything from energy research to efficiency standards to community aggregation to smart grids to everything in between. Every one of those programs is creating constituencies, person by person. They should be expanded and deepened. The more people who have a tangible stake in sustainability — economic or social — the more of a constituency there will be for national legislation when it becomes possible again.

4 Responses to “Dave Roberts: The Way Through Climate Politics”

  1. Jean Mcmahon Says:

    The media is the problem Citizens are unable to properly inform themselves..who wants to hear all the bad news about Global Warming and that WE did it? Solar does not stand a chance against the media control the fossil fuel/nuclear industry has….People see thousands of ads for cars/trucks/new furniture 24/7 the media has us brainwashed it will take a LOT of media and truth to UN Brain wash us

  2. jimbills Says:

    Unfortunately, the problem is deeply systemic. Sometimes I think Republicans understand this fact on a deeper level than Democrats, and it’s why they’re so hell-bent on refusing any change. They’re concerned that any change opens the door to massive change. And really, they have reason to be worried about that, because little change in an exponentially growing system equals no change at all. Only massive change will work.

    I know Germany is seen as a success story, and it deserves that. It has managed a drop in emissions because of a greatly increased renewables sector (and by replacing all the old coal plants in East Germany). But the drop is still just a few percentage points. Add time and continued emissions, and the gain is gone:

    I know I’m being a Debbie Downer, but if we expect to avoid even 500 ppm this century, we have to look at this. An ever-growing economy requires ever-growing energy consumption, and we have to not only replace fossil fuel use in the existing economy but create new sources of renewable energy to meet the growth. Saying that’s a massive task is a massive understatement.

    But politically, the refusal to compromise even a bit by the Republicans is idiotic. If the Republicans gave a little on some minor issue regarding AGW, say a limited cap-and-trade, they’d actually create a greater stalemate than currently exists. The public always goes back to sleep when they think a problem has been ‘solved’. Even if by some miracle AGW legislation was enacted on the national level, we’d almost certainly water it down so thoroughly that it would translate into just small advances followed by years of bickering and even deeper political stalemate.

    An example: we’ll never have major health insurance reform again for 20-30+ years if ‘Obamacare’ sticks (and it appears it will). The left is completely focused on defending a bill that does little but reinforce the current system we have.

    I am all for ANY change, however small, but if we only enact small changes I personally think we’re on this boat until it crashes into a rocky shore. I regard small changes as potential life jackets, and that’s certainly good, but we’ll still be bobbing about in a violent surf.

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