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Tuesday, January 22, 2013
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New Report on Climate Legislation

By Guest Author, Nathaniel Loewentheil, Yale Law School '13

 

The following is a guest post by Yale Law Student Nathaniel Loewentheil. Nathaniel recently authored a report for the Institution for Social and Policy Studies, which this post summarizes. You can find the full report here.

Two new reports out from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration add to the ponderous weight of evidence suggesting that our climate is changing more rapidly than we had anticipated – and with greater consequences.

This makes for reconciling two difficult truths: first, that climate change is already affecting all of our lives, and second, that our national political institutions are doing nothing to address it. They’re not now, and they won’t be for the next few years. The environmental movement is almost completely sidelined by a recalcitrant and increasingly conservative Republican Party and, we must admit, a public concerned more with daily economic necessities than long-term ecological challenges. When that movement will again be able to capture public attention is difficult to say.

In the meantime, the movement is biding its time and plotting strategy for the future. Before it looks forward, however, it must necessarily look back at the most recent climate campaign: the failed push for a cap-and-trade bill in 2009 and 2010.

In a new report out this week from Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, I  take a look at that climate campaign using historical trends in political parties, voting records, natural resource distribution and a variety of other indicators.

The report has two key findings. First, and unsurprisingly, there were a variety of forces that together blocked cap-and-trade legislation, from energy interests and political geography to polarization and the recession.

But, I believe, defeat was not inevitable.

To see this, all we have to do is look at the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The fact that a major healthcare reform bill got through Congress suggests that the climate movement might have succeeded, recession and the Tea Party notwithstanding.

Comparing the two campaigns, a key difference emerges. The healthcare campaign succeeded by combining a sophisticated insider strategy with large-scale organizing. The climate campaign, in sharp contrast, had an insider strategy only. Through the US Climate Action Partnership, organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resource Defense Council built an impressive coalition of NGOs and corporations and laid out the policy framework ultimately embedded in the Waxman-Markey bill. But the campaign didn’t build a grassroots network or attempt to win over public opinion. In this, it erred dramatically.

I also looked back at the history of environmental policymaking, from the Wilderness Act of 1964 up through the Superfund Act of the late 1980s. In case after case, the same lesson was clear: major environmental legislation can only succeed when an organized movement makes demands and the public voices its approval. Lacking both street power and endorsement by the polls, the climate campaign was doomed to a slow death in the Senate.

The bright side is that a careful analysis of the failure of the climate campaign provides a clear lesson for the future. The movement needs to begin investing in local and state organizations that can build a strong, enduring network of activists ready to spring into action the next time a realistic climate bill is on the table. Organizing, of course, is built around action – and now is a good moment to be running campaigns at the municipal and state level for energy efficiency measures and tax breaks for green technology.

But that’s not enough. The movement also needs to begin shifting public opinion. And to that end, we need a new generation of journalists who, like Rachel Carson, can capture the hearts of Americans, not just their minds.

Read the full report here.

Posted in: Environmental Law & GovernanceEnergy & Climate

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