What went wrong in climate legislation in 2009/2010

What went wrong in climate legislation in 2009/2010

This week I came across a very interesting report. Theda Skocpol (a totally badass Political Science professor at Harvard) took a look at the reasons why liberals were successful in passing Obamacare but not with Cap & Trade for carbon emissions. It’s quite a read at 133 pages, and I figured my post this week could take a look. However, in my research for this post, I ended going down the rabbit hole of debates on Grist about this article- somehow I missed all this discussion last year when the paper came out. So instead of thoroughly summarizing the article, I’ll mostly touch upon the ensuing discussion.

The report itself can be broken down into a few parts:

  1. What the green movement thought went wrong with Cap & Trade in 2009/2010
  2. What actually went wrong
  3. What the Obamacare proponents did right
  4. Where the movement should go from here

To very quickly summarize, according to Skocpol:

  • Liberals thought having business on board and hammering out a deal in private would work, but in fact they did not realize that they needed a grassroots effort to keep pushing the legislators from outside the Beltway.
  • After the fact, much blame from liberals has been laid at Obama’s feet for prioritizing healthcare over environmental efforts.
  • Instead, they should be learning from their healthcare colleagues: while you need the usual sausage-making to be done within the Beltway, there needs to be pressure from constituents to keep nervous legislators steady in support.
  • At the end of the paper, she lays out the suggestion that Cap and Dividend legislation is the way to go- a way for broad grassroots support avoiding the back room ‘deals with the devil’.

The account of the fight is quite gripping, and Skocpol’s arguments are very convincing. However, in looking through the responses to the paper, it is clear that there is more to the story. In particular, you should read David Robert’s breakdown of the paper and its arguments to get the full story- if there is one link you should follow from this post, Robert’s analysis is it. I actually do not suggest you read the 133 page report unless you really, really liked The West Wing!

A few responses:

Bill McKibben doesn’t say too much  He agrees with most of Skocpol’s arguments and her harsh criticism of the blaming after the fact, but does defend some of the green movement’s choices. He argues that, at the time, it was far more plausible that the insider strategy could work. It does make sense that he likes the grassroots approach – he suggests that the 350.org organization he’s running could be very useful the next time climate change legislation is on deck.

Joseph Romm strongly disagrees with Skocpol’s conclusions. He points out that the administration allowed the ‘reconciliation’ process in the senate for the health care bill, but not for Cap and Trade. To be fair, this was a huge difference and shows the priority given to health care at the expense of climate change legislation:

Now, you may hold the opinion that reconciliation was not possible for the climate bill, but it was certainly more possible than cap-and-dividend — or more possible than rapidly setting up a grassroots movement, another key omission by the environmental community according to Skocpol and the Yale analysis.


Finally, the most complete and seemingly clear-eyed view is written by David Robert. Robert appreciates the paper, but disagrees strongly with the dividend idea.

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.


This is his ultimate take-away, and the 500-lb gorilla in the room that should probably be tackled before trying to pursue almost any other political agenda:

Why did cap-and-trade fail? Because of filibuster abuse. That’s the simplest and most directly causal answer. Enviros had business and public opinion on their side. They had majorities in both houses of Congress on their side. That’s a lot! And it ought to be enough. But the bill failed because, unlike every other democratic institution in the damn world, including state legislatures, juries, and the judge’s panel on American Idol, the U.S. Senate now requires a supermajority. And that’s in an institution that is already corrupt, in which rural and fossil interests are already overrepresented, in which money is ubiquitous. It’s just an impossible bar to clear.


He also points out that, while the power of the Tea Party in the Republican rank-and-file was obvious to Skocpol, it was far from clear to everyone else in the world, even Republicans in congress! As he reminds us, Skocpol has literally written the book on the Tea Party and therefore is a little more aware than even your average political science professor.

Finally, Theda Skocpol responds, reiterating her points and re-emphasizing that the climate groups can not ignore the financial hardships of normal people.

So what do I think about this?

Well, I think it is incredibly important to look back at this, as disheartening as it is. It seems like 2009/2010 was the last chance in 10 years to get a law passed, and it’s frustrating to see what could have been done differently. It does seem like the green movement is pretty divorced from regular people, and the cost of mitigating climate change does seem to be borne by low-income Americans, even if it is a positive bet in the long run for everyone.

One aspect that I don’t think Skocpol looks at is that, in the health care debate, there was a more extreme liberal position that Republican legislators and the public could compare the bill against: the public option.

It was clear from at least the public liberal grumbling (yours truly as one of the grumblers) that Obamacare was not the most liberal option out there, not the most “big government” you could go. Thus, a legislator could say that “well, something was going to get passed, and while I’m not happy about all of Obamacare at least we kept the public option out”, and cover their ass [example needed]. Perhaps there could have been a far more drastic Carbon Tax on the table to push the ‘Overton Window’ and make Cap and Trade look like the reasonable compromise that it is. I also think that the dividend route has promise- if you can spin the fossil fuel companies as hurting everyday Americans to line their pockets (which is how it works – asthma rates, anyone?), I think people will respond very favorably to 100% even distribution of the auction proceeds amongst Americans.

Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the ideas above would have been enough in 2009/2010 – the rise of the Tea Party, the pain of the economic downturn, the lack of interest by the Obama administration, the stranglehold of rural and fossil-fuel interests in the Senate, all of these were powerful enough to make a failure seem inevitable in hindsight. I do think it was unfortunate timing, and I agree that these conditions will never exist again (if they even did exist for a moment).

Hopefully we’ll get another chance. I see Robert’s analysis of how impossible reform is in the Senate and think about the new voter ID rules and despair. Perhaps a national campaign to make Voting Day a federal holiday could help overcome the bias toward moneyed interests and low voter turnout that allows Republican primaries in moderate districts to determine the course of the entire nation. That’ll happen right after Republicans sing kumbaya around the Maypole…

In any case, I’m glad 350.org exists and I hope groups like OrganizeMO are able to help counteract the massive marketing machine driven by the fossil fuel interests in the states that actually have a say in our legislation. It is also heartening that California can start driving these changes by itself- since it is large enough, it’s a good testing ground for policies that hopefully can be rolled out quickly nationwide.

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