Did Environmentalists Kill Climate Legislation?

Frank Ackerman

May 6, 2011

Cross-posted from Triple Crisis.

Climate legislation, even in its most modest and repeatedly compromised variety, failed last year. And there won’t be a second chance with anything like the current Congress. What caused this momentous failure?

Broadly speaking, there are two rival stories. It could be due to the strength of opposing or inertial forces: well-funded lobbying by fossil fuel industries, biased coverage by increasingly right-wing media, the growth of the “Tea Party” subculture and its rejection of science, dysfunctional institutions such as the U.S. Senate with its filibuster rules, and the low priority given to climate legislation by the Obama administration.

Or it could be because environmentalists screwed up and shot themselves in the foot.

If you had to guess, which of these stories sounds to you like it would get more media attention? You’re right, that’s what everyone else thought, too. Gridlock in U.S. politics, and its effects on the fate of the earth, is such boring old news; the notion that misguided liberals have only themselves to blame sounds so clever and different.

This ecological niche has not gone unfilled. The Breakthrough Institute, whose motto could be “clever and different since 2005,” has repeatedly informed us that the death of environmentalism is the fault of environmentalists. Now “Climate Shift,” by American University political scientist Matthew Nisbet, claims that there was no media bias on climate issues in the last few years, and that advocates of climate legislation outspent their opponents, but still lost.

It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with “Climate Shift.” Nisbet evaluates bias in five well-established media outlets, finding that the New York Times and its ilk give very little attention to climate denial. This is like judging the role of religion in American politics by studying only Episcopalians. Nisbet’s comparison of funding for and against climate legislation mixes and matches incompatible data sources. Major corporations that expressed support for cap-and-trade legislation, BP and Bank of America among them, have large lobbying budgets – and may not have devoted them exclusively to climate advocacy.

The blog world is full of commentary on “Climate Shift,” including the definitive dissection of Nisbet’s errors by Joe Romm at ClimateProgress, and a nice piece by David Roberts at Grist on “hippie-punching” – his term for liberals gaining media attention by attacking other liberals. Rather than adding to the already ample Nisbet-critique literature, I want to speculate about the original question. What did cause the failure of climate legislation?

The boring old story about political gridlock and the strength of the opposition has to carry almost all of the weight. As Romm’s reanalysis of Nisbet’s data makes clear, opponents of climate legislation overwhelmingly outspent the supporters. And the Senate’s adoption of the 60-vote requirement for every substantive issue has made it hard for any new initiatives to prevail. Without a solution to these deep problems, the United States, and therefore the world, will fail to respond to the climate crisis in time to do anything about it.

Still, environmental advocacy wasn’t flawless, and there should be lessons from this experience about how to do better next time. I can see three related areas for improvement.

First, attention and effort narrowed abruptly from broad education and mobilization of popular support to targeting individual members of Congress. As a researcher who often works with environmental groups, I received requests in 2007-2008 for big-picture studies on topics like the costs to the U.S. economy of inaction on climate change. In 2009-2010, I got frantic calls asking if we could write up, in three weeks or less, exactly how climate change will affect six widely scattered states whose senators might be swing votes. (We couldn’t.) While it is important to influence potential swing votes, it is also vital to continue the broader educational effort.

Second, the focus on “framing” and “messaging” grew more and more relentless. Some thought about choosing frames and messages is desirable, but this is an area where it is definitely possible to have too much of a good thing. After a while, every group starts to sound the same and every spokesperson sounds interchangeable, repeating the same few “poll-tested” messages. A greater variety of voices and messages would increase the chances of communicating with different people and issues. And it would avoid the classic problem of monoculture: with only one crop (or message), there is a greater risk of across-the-board failure.

Finally, and most puzzling to me, one of the leading messages did fail. The small kernel of common sense in the Breakthrough shtick is that it’s important to talk about the concerns of ordinary Americans who are worried about their jobs and incomes. But here’s the amazing fact: environmental groups all know that, and constantly talk about the employment benefits of a green agenda. The economic case for “green jobs” is unimpeachably true: intellectual debate doesn’t build energy-efficient cars, appliances, wind turbines, solar panels, mass transit, and well-insulated buildings; it takes manufacturing and construction workers – lots of them – to produce and install these low-carbon technologies.

Why didn’t this frequently repeated, valid argument connect with public opinion? If we can figure that out, it will be a real breakthrough – and might even lead to a real climate shift.

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