As President Obama begins his second term with a promise for "action, not politics as usual," the environmental community is hopeful he will put combating climate change at the top of his domestic agenda. In an open letter to Obama earlier this month, nearly 70 environmental advocacy groups urged the president, "Raise your voice," "Use your executive authority," and "Reject dirty fuels." What the country's leading environmentalists want most is for Obama to finally curb carbon emissions, the leading factor in human-caused global warming.
During his inauguration speech Monday, the president appeared to heed that call, devoting a significant portion of his speech to climate, saying that the U.S. must lead the transition to sustainable energy, and assuring the country that "we will respond to the threat of climate change."
If any of this sounds familiar, it is. Four years ago the environmental community geared up for what many believed was the opportunity of a generation to pass a federal cap on carbon emissions in the U.S. Obama campaigned on the issue, understood its urgency, and pledged to set a graduated cap on carbon that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and require companies to pay for polluting rights. "No business will be allowed to emit any greenhouse gases for free," he said.
In response, the country's green groups launched a campaign to curb the country's carbon emissions. Although a bill squeaked through the House in June 2009, the legislative push for "cap and trade" dissolved spectacularly in the Senate in 2010. Cap and trade was such a dismal failure that many now say the U.S. is further away from passing comprehensive climate legislation than at the start of Obama's first term. Unlike four years ago, there is no carbon cap in sight and the president has so far committed only to convening a panel of experts to discuss "what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations." (The word "climate" came up exactly zero times during the three presidential debates last year.)
Our newly released report, "The Too Polite Revolution: Why the Recent Campaign to Pass Comprehensive Climate Legislation in the United States Failed," tells the story of the legislative push for cap and trade during Obama's first term, and explains what its failure means for the prospects of climate action in the coming four years. Our report was commissioned by the Rockefeller Family Fund in conjunction with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and includes interviews with more than 75 individuals from all sides of the climate debate, including the heads of many of the national green groups.
We found that while a sour economy and staunch industry opposition hurt the chances of a climate bill's passage, at the heart of this failed campaign were the country's largest environmental organizations and funders themselves. Instead of mobilizing the public to demand climate action in Washington, the big green groups decided their best chance of success would come from allying themselves with many of the country's biggest corporate polluters. Under the banner of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, they brokered a compromise that favored a complex carbon trading system -- the idea was to incentivize businesses to move towards a lower carbon economy and win support for the bill from conservative congressional leaders, whose interests were tied to the fossil fuel industry. This inside-the-Beltway strategy was launched with almost no attempt to galvanize broad grassroots public support. When cap-and-trade legislation passed in the House, just one in four Americans understood that the bill addressed environmental issues.
The lack of grassroots engagement may explain the absence of another key actor in this legislative failure. Despite vowing to put climate at the top of his first term domestic agenda ("Healthcare is priority number two," he said), President Obama remained largely on the sidelines for the climate debate last term. In the face of a faltering economy and the forceful emergence of the Tea Party -- which called the climate bill a "cap and tax" assault on its ultra free-market agenda -- the president instead chose to push for healthcare reform. That effort, in contrast to the climate campaign, was bolstered by a well-organized grassroots campaign.
Whatever policy approach is next embraced, the path to meaningful action will require a fundamental paradigm shift. Climate is the defining issue of our generation. Yet it has not been dealt with directly in the United States because solving this problem will require confronting market capitalist forces that are considered fundamental to the American way of life. As Naomi Klein has noted, lowering global carbon emissions to the level that scientists advise will be achieved "only by radically reordering our economic and political systems." History teaches us that such dramatic change requires a visionary president unafraid to use the power of the executive office to take on deeply entrenched interests.
For the green groups who spent the last term pursuing a failed insider strategy of compromises, the focus going forward should be to mobilize the public to demand action. For President Obama, the task is to go beyond rhetoric and make the heroic choices for real change.