Massachusetts, Climate, and Change

03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Exactly 365 days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama, we in the climate movement certainly don't seem to have hit our stride. In fact, that's a bit of an understatement: the compromises of ACES, the slow pace in the Senate, and the disappointment of Copenhagen have left many activists and volunteers disillusioned and unsure about the best path forward.

And now, in a year when we hoped to start anew, we suffer yet another blow: the election last night of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate seat that Ted Kennedy held for over 35 years.

Losing a vote in favor of bold, comprehensive climate legislation and replacing it with a politician who has specifically stated his opposition to a comprehensive cap and trade program is bad. Even worse is the "conventional wisdom" that cap and trade simply isn't popular enough to pass or that the Democratic Congress will be too gun shy to move forward any legislation that would actually benefit real people with real problems.

But before we all start investing in houseboat stocks and declaring the planet permanently doomed, I think it's important to remember a few key facts about where we are and that, as a movement, we still have immense power and certain very powerful themes on our side.

First, it's important to note that Brown has not always been consistently opposed to comprehensive climate solutions. In fact, he voted in favor of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) as a Massachusetts state senator. He did attempt to disown that vote last fall when running in a Republican primary, but it shows that there is some possibility of dialogue.

More to the point, studies have shown a clean energy jobs bill could provide 38,000 new jobs in Massachusetts alone and 1.7 million nationwide. With America still mired in a recession and 10 percent unemployment, any senator should think twice about voting against a bill that creates jobs. That is especially true for a senator who will have an extremely tough reelection fight in 2012 and is representing a state overwhelmingly in favor of bold climate legislation.

Looking at the larger picture, we must remember that passing comprehensive climate legislation was always going to be a bipartisan endeavor. Unlike health care, the Administration's top domestic issue, we were never going to impose complete party discipline on Senate Democrats. Republican votes are necessary to the passage of any climate bill. That means that the loss of one senator matters less for climate than it might for other issues -- even if that senator was the nominal 60th vote for the Democratic caucus.

Most important though, is not getting bogged down in the day-to-day vote-counting grind, but remembering some of the overarching themes that compelled voters towards certain politicians in the last few years of frustration and hope.
After all, Brown did not win yesterday's election solely based on one small comment against climate legislation (or health care or any other number of specific issues). Rather, there are a number of intersecting reasons and themes that can account for his surprise victory. Among the biggest, I believe, is the fact that the Massachusetts electorate saw him as the candidate most likely to bring about change. For better or for worse, many voters in Massachusetts viewed him, like they viewed Barack Obama the previous year, as the politician most likely to shake up the status quo that they felt has done nothing to address their problems.

While it's depressing on one level that a candidate who adopted a very anti-progressive platform could be temporarily seen as an agent of change, it's also encouraging on another level for the environmental movement that this desperate need for change is still a dominant factor of American political life.

After all, the very heart of the clean energy reforms that 1Sky and other progressive groups are pushing are a change from the corrupting, failed status quo of Big Oil and Dirty Coal. Poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans want clean air and water, a clean energy economy, and an end to the threat of climate change -- and that is what our push is all about.

The most important thing we can all do right now is remind our politicians of this basic fact: we need to be as loud as possible, as active as possible, and organize as much as possible. We need to flood their offices with calls to remind them that -- contrary to some media conjecturing about the state of a Senate climate bill -- millions of Americans still firmly support a transition to the clean energy economy and warding off a climate disaster.