Thought US healthcare opposition was bad? Just wait for the climate bill

Thought the populist right wing opposition to healthcare reform was bad? Just wait til you see what’s in store on climate change…

A leaked memo sent by an oil industry group reveals a plan to create astroturf rallies at which industry employees posing as “citizens” will urge Congress to oppose climate change legislation. The memo — sent by the American Petroleum Institute and obtained by Greenpeace, which sent it to reporters — urges oil companies to recruit their employees for events that will “put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy,” and will urge senators to “avoid the mistakes embodied in the House climate bill.”

API [says] that the campaign is being funded by a coalition of corporate and conservative groups that includes the anti-health-care-reform group 60 Plus, FreedomWorks, and Grover Norquist’s Americans For Tax Reform.

That’s from TPM, who also have a copy of the full text of the API memo. Be in no doubt as to the potential impact of this kind of lobbying: news is just breaking in the US that the White House is “ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance as part of a new health care system”.

The “grassroots” opposition to healthcare reform in the US is a fascinating case study which climate nerds should study obsessively – noting not only that (a) battles of this kind are not won with facts, but also that (b) it’s not simply a case of corporate astroturf lobbying.

See for example the FT’s Ed Luce at a rowdy town hall meeting in Pennsylvania last week:

Something peculiar is happening at the grassroots level in America. Initially dismissed by Democrats as artificial “Astro Turf” protests – because they were allegedly organised by groups opposed to universal healthcare coverage, such as Conservatives for Patients Rights – hundreds of ordinary voters are now being turned away at local meetings.

Many belong to organisations that oppose abortion or assisted suicide, which many inaccurately believe are sponsored by the healthcare bill taking shape in the House of Representatives. But others are ordinary citizens – almost always white, blue-collar workers – who are suffering from the recession and feel deep anger towards the federal government in general. Their opposition is often misinformed. But not all of it is organised.

“I have worked for 35 years to get my healthcare coverage and I don’t want the government meddling with it,” says Geri Pollick, a retiree in a floppy summer hat holding aloft a banner telling President Barack Obama to keep his hands off Medicare, the government programme for those over 65. Ms Pollick is among hundreds denied access to the small community centre in spite of having arrived hours before the meeting. “They want to turn us into Canada when thousands are coming over here from Canada just to survive,” she added.

When it was pointed out that Canadians have a significantly higher life expectancy than Americans, Ms Pollick replied: “That can’t be true. That’s not what I’ve heard.”

As Luce noted elsewhere in Saturday’s paper, the issue for the White House is that “to its surprise, the Obama administration is faced with a full-scale culture war over healthcare which has very little to do with arguments and everything to do with identity”.  C.f. the argument that David and I made last summer in Towards a Theory of Influence, an essay the Foreign Office commissioned from us for a book on public diplomacy:

A new ‘game’ is about to begin [on climate change], one that has the opposite dynamic to chess. With every step that is taken towards an endgame (painful cuts in emissions; proposals for international agreement; new types of regulation, market mechanism, or tax), the number of pieces on the board will grow, not shrink. Swarming behaviour will become increasingly evident, as factions of all kinds are suddenly, and with unpredictable effect, galvanized into a passionate attempt to protect their interests.

(See also our report Climate Change: the State of the Debate.)