Jonathan Cohn, writing at his new must-read blog, has a fascinating piece on the policy implications of the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The gist of his argument is that the public push for clean energy policy -- in the form of marches on Washington and calls to Congress -- is more subdued than should be expected in the wake of such a devastating environmental catastrophe, and that this dynamic is largely responsible for the Senate's slim chances of moving comprehensive legislation this year.
While I think this argument has some merit, Cohn leaves out several key considerations.
First, I disagree with Cohn's characterization of last weekend's Hands Across the Sand offshore drilling protests. Using turnout estimates of 400 and 450 from two of the 814 protest locations in the United States, he concludes, "[t]hat probably means a few thousand people participated nationwide." He continues, "That's a perfectly respectable figure in normal times. But with the nation's worst environmental catastrophe--an oil spill, of all things--in progress? Under those circumstances, the numbers seem a little disappointing."
Those numbers do seem disappointing, but only because they are not accurate. While nationwide numbers have not yet been released, a few minutes of Googling reveals considerably higher turnout numbers. In St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, over 5,000 people turned out for Saturday's event. Even at an extremely conservative estimate of an average of 50 people per event, the 814 events nationwide would have had over 40,000 people in attendance. Sierra Club pegs the total at tens of thousands. Either way, these numbers are quite impressive for a volunteer-led event that was planned in a matter of weeks, by my standards at least. Dave Rauschkolb, the organizer of Hands Across the Sand, isn't overly concerned with the raw numbers. To him, the real impact is on a more human level. "Every photograph, every video, every footprint in the sand tells the story of how much Americans care about their coastal heritage," he told me by phone Wednesday evening.
Moving on, Cohn continues (emphasis mine):
We have no shortage of committed environmentalists in this country. But two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig first exploded, where are the marches on Washington? Where are the phone calls lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards? Congressional staffers I've contacted tell me constituent contact on climate change has increased in the last few weeks, but only incrementally.
There was a massive rally in Washington just days before Deepwater Horizon exploded, on Earth Day, with 100,000 in attendance. Huge events like this take considerable time to plan, and while they can make a splash, it isn't clear that large-scale, concentrated protests like these are the best way to move votes in the Senate. Hands in the Sand had events in all 50 states and seems to have generated significant media coverage in most of them. Might this have had a bigger impact on the Senate than a DC protest that likely would have been ignored by local media outlets?
In terms of generating phone calls to Congress, environmental groups have been doing this quite well for years without managing to pass climate legislation. In the weeks leading up to the vote on Senator Murkowski's resolution to weaken the Clean Air Act, for example, environmental groups generated tens of thousands of calls to Senate offices. Many of the callers also expressed their support for climate change legislation. Now, I'm not trying to imply that these calls don't make a difference (they certainly do), but blaming the Senate's failure to address climate change on a lack of constituent phone calls seems like a stretch.
The other important point on generating phone calls to Congress is that these types of things are most effective when they are timed properly. That is, environmental organizations can only ask their members to call Congress so many times during a given year, so they may as well do so when Congress is actually debating clean energy legislation. To that end, I wouldn't be surprised to see environmental groups collectively generate hundreds of thousands of calls after July recess, as the Senate actually begins to debate the issue in earnest. These efforts are already beginning to ramp up, with a coalition of groups committing $11 million just yesterday to a series of hard hitting TV spots. With some swing-vote Senators, and some who are up for re-election this cycle or next, this will have a real impact. But for those who made up their mind on the issue a long time ago, no amount of constituent calls is going to change their mind. Using the ballot box to force their early retirement is the only option.
On Cohn's larger question -- The Outrage, Where is it? -- I'd argue that it is already apparent in recent public opinion polling on clean energy legislation:
During the health care fight, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, frequently delivered a message to liberals frustrated with Democratic Party leaders: "Be the wind at their backs." It's fine to make demands of the leadership, he agreed. But progressives who wanted bolder action in Washington had to create a political environment where bolder action was actually possible.
I'd be curious to hear what others think. Is a lack of grassroots engagement the key factor in the Senate's failure to address climate change? Are there other key factors at play here beyond those I've mentioned? What else can be done to persuade recalcitrant Senators to address this critical issue? If folks have concrete ideas on what we can do to convince key Senators to act, I'm all ears.
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