Where it all went wrong on US climate policy

by | Jan 16, 2013

Remember back in 2006 and 2007 when it looked as though the US was about to get really serious on climate policy? You know, when not only Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Barack Obama but even John McCain supported legislation on cap and trade? Well, Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has just published a 140 page report (pdf) about what happened next and where it all went wrong, commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund. It’s very very good. David Roberts at Grist has the best summary I’ve seen if you’re too busy or lazy to read the whole thing: here are the key messages that he picks out from the report:

Enviros vastly overstated Obama’s agency throughout the process and his responsibility for the outcome. Skocpol exaggerates enviro cluelessness a bit here — I doubt all that many really think they would have won if Obama had just made a few more speeches — but she’s definitely on to something. An amazing amount of the commentary around the bill was devoted to criticizing Obama, or saying what Obama should do, or questioning Obama’s heart. Enviros were constantly “calling on” Obama to say or do this thing or the other. But Obama was not at the center of the action. The dynamics that mattered took place in Congress. Obama did not exactly distinguish himself as a climate champion, but he was a sideshow — he could not have changed the outcome.

On public opinion, cap-and-trade supporters were too concerned with breadth and too little concerned with intensity. An enormous amount of time and money went into national polls and national advertising. National polls tell enviros what they want to hear: In the abstract, majorities always support clean air and clean energy. Enviros mistook these poll results for constituencies. But poll results do not attend town halls or write members of Congress or exhort their fellow citizens through ideological media. Constituencies do that.

Failure to fight back in the summer of 2009 was a fateful mistake. Just after the Waxman-Markey bill passed the House, summer arrived, legislators went home, and enviros cracked a beer and put their feet up. Meanwhile, a well-funded, well-organized Tea Party invaded town halls, dominated talk radio and Fox News, and generally scared the bejesus out of Republican legislators. They bashed on “cap-and-tax” for months, with very little pushback. By the time the Senate returned to consider the bill, members had learned their lesson.

Most of all:

Enviros were slow to perceive and understand the accelerating radicalization of the Republican Party. The USCAP strategy was based on securing the support — or at least defusing the opposition — of key business constituencies. The presumption was that the GOP is the party of business and would follow the lead of key corporate constituents. It was further based on securing the support of key “maverick” Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. The presumption there was that their support would provide cover for other moderate Republicans to cross the line. Both presumptions were based on an outdated model of the Republican Party.

Here’s the really key bit of Roberts’ analysis:

Even today, much of the political and journalistic elite fails to grasp the reality of asymmetrical polarization. Fewer understood it in 2006. You can argue, as Skocpol does, that D.C. enviro groups were clueless, but if they were, they had lots of company.

Skocpol, in contrast to many who have written about cap-and-trade, gets it (perhaps because she wrote the book on the Tea Party). She understands that the root of the cap-and-trade fiasco lies not in the details of climate science or policy, but in larger political dynamics. Specifically: The radicalization of the conservative movement is the problem. It is no longer business interests that wield the most influence in the Republican Party, but a network of ideological billionaires and the think tanks, media outlets, and astroturf organizations they fund. They do not need broad public sentiment on their side. They just need Republicans in their thrall.

I wish I could inscribe this quote from Skocpol in the D.C. sky:

[T]he capacity of opponents to stymie carbon-capping legislation does not depend on general popularity or appeals to middle-of-the-road public opinion. It depends, instead, on leverage within the Republican Party, which in turn can use institutional levers in U.S. government to stymie or undermine governmental measures to fight global warming.

Conservative billionaires and activists, unlike enviros, understood that the key to power is using intense constituencies to leverage the institutional might of a political party. They didn’t primarily try to shift the public; they shifted the party. That explains why congressional Republicans have radicalized so much more, and more quickly, than average Republican voters. The far right has taken over.


Though the death of cap-and-trade was multi-causal and complicated, the principle explanation lies in the broader radicalization of the Republican Party. Climate hawks need to internalize this, to realize that, even if they personally don’t like to be on “a side,” don’t like to be “partisan,” don’t like to be “unreasonable,” their opponents have no such reservations. The far-right base sees itself as involved in a war for Western civilization and sees the Republican Party as its instrument. Any future effort to pass national climate change legislation will be about overcoming unified, implacable GOP opposition.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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