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Nathaniel Loewentheil Headshot

Hot Years and Cold Truths: The Past and Future of Climate Legislation

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The climate campaign of 2009-2010 didn't lack for corporate boosters, lobbying teams nor policy analysts. What it lacked was public support.

According to two new reports from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NASA PDF], last year was again among the top 10 warmest years in the modern global record. The reports add to the overwhelming weight of evidence suggesting that our climate is changing more rapidly than we had anticipated -- and with greater consequences.

This makes for reconciling two difficult truths: first, that climate change is already affecting all of our lives, and second, that our national political leaders are doing nothing to address it. They're not now, and they won't be for the next few years. The environmental movement is almost completely sidelined by a recalcitrant and increasingly conservative Republican Party and, we must admit, a public concerned more with daily economic necessities than long-term ecological challenges. When that movement will again be able to capture public attention is difficult to say.

Nor, we must again admit, is the movement ready for the spotlight. Since the epic defeat of climate legislation in the 111th Congress, the environmental community has been mired in uncertainty. Like a football team watching and re-watching the videos of their Super Bowl loss, they've replayed debates about what happened and what it means for the future.

In a new (and perhaps too lengthy) report out last week from Yale's Institution for Social and Policy Studies, I try to ground an analysis of the climate campaign on a bit of data, looking at historical trends in political parties, voting records, natural resource distribution and a variety of other indicators. Alas, the answers remain muddy. There were a variety of forces that together blocked cap-and-trade legislation, from energy interests and political geography to polarization and the recession.

But, I believe, defeat was not inevitable.

To see this, all we have to do is look at the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The fact that a major healthcare reform bill got through Congress suggests that the climate movement might have succeeded, recession and the Tea Party notwithstanding.

Comparing the two campaigns, a key difference emerges. The healthcare campaign succeeded by combining a sophisticated insider strategy with large-scale organizing. The climate campaign, in sharp contrast, had an insider strategy only. Through the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, organizations like EDF and NRDC built an impressive coalition of NGOs and corporations and laid out the policy framework ultimately embedded in the successful Waxman-Markey bill. But the campaign didn't build a grassroots network or attempt to win over public opinion. In this, it erred dramatically.

I also looked back at the history of environmental policymaking, from the Wilderness Act of 1964 up through the Superfund Act of the late 1980s. In case after case, the same lesson was clear: major environmental legislation can only succeed when an organized movement makes demands and the public voices its approval. Lacking both street power and endorsement by the polls, the climate campaign was doomed to a slow death in the Senate.

The bright side is that a careful analysis of the failure of the climate campaign provides a clear moral for the future. The movement needs to begin investing in local and state organizations that can build a strong, enduring network of activists ready to spring into action the next time a realistic climate bill is up for grabs. Organizing, of course, is built around action -- and now is a good moment to be running campaigns at the municipal and state level for energy efficiency measures and tax breaks for green technology.

But that's not enough. The movement also needs to begin shifting public opinion. And to that end, we need a new generation of journalists who, like Rachel Carson, can capture the hearts of Americans, not just their minds. And not just writers but filmmakers, teachers and academics, an army of intellectual activists reshaping public debate for the better. Americans care about the natural world -- they just to be reminded, and to tie that affection directly to action on greenhouse gases and energy.

If the environmental movement can accomplish both of these admittedly daunting tasks -- building grassroots power and reshaping public debate -- we'll be well poised to win the next round, whether it's in two, four, six or (and we can pray not) eight years.