07/12/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Environmental In-fighting

The next battle in America's war on global warming is a quiet but robust debate among those who seek a larger government role, but disagree about why an earlier Obama effort failed.

This debate is worth watching because it may have implications beyond climate policy. It features a new tactic where a group of outside players attempts to write the narrative about what went wrong in an effort to impose their strategy on what happens next. Earlier failed legislative efforts typically cast a broad shadow. That's why proposed Clinton health reforms were so frequently mentioned during the debate over Obamacare.

If the current effort is successful, it could change the rules of legislative warfare and create a new dynamic, not unlike the impact Ralph Nader's efforts had in the 1960s. Once again, the number of players in the game would be increased even as the influence of civilians waned-- exacerbating a perplexing ongoing challenge to American democracy.

To date the focus has been on insider audiences, but public ignorance owes more to media indifference than any effort at secrecy. I suspect those involved would enjoy media celebrity celebrating them as the next power players (as they doubtless imagine themselves. If this effort is successful, though, it is inevitable that they'll be portrayed -- not unlike the Koch brothers on the other side -- as having cleverly plotted a stealth strategy.

The reality is quite different as their effort was revealed by one of its godfathers, Nicholas Lemann in an environmental appraisal from the first Earth Day forward called "When The Earth Moved" that The New Yorker published in mid-April. After providing broader context typical of such a piece, Lemann asked why, despite environmental successes of the past, Congress in the Obama years had failed to enact climate change legislation.

He then presented the results of two studies he had been instrumental in creating rejecting the conventional view that economic stress and enactment of health reform had precluded major new environmental progress. They were initially released at a Harvard conference in February that created no waves beyond movement insiders.

The reports, done by members of a relatively new group called the Scholars Strategy Network concluded that the 2010 effort failed largely because the established environmental groups had become insiders with a focus on crafting legislation that the segments of the impacted industries who engaged in the process could live with instead of mobilizing masses of Americans who had turned out for the original Earth Day and would have demanded action.

The environmental establishment had botched a doable job, the argument went, by embracing a flawed strategy. Things would go better the next time if the more populist techniques they recommended were used. Left hanging was the question of who should provide the leadership for the next effort.

While the article did not create a major national stir, it did not go unnoticed by those it criticized who rejected the assertion that their comfort in cozying up to the enemy was responsible for defeat.

They fired back in an analysis piece long-time congressional reporter -- and author of a book on enactment of the Clean Air Act -- Rich Cohen penned in Energy and Environment Daily, an insider newsletter. Here's his summary:

In a 142-page analysis published early this year that has generated extensive controversy among pro-environment interest groups -- but scant public discussion -- Harvard University government and sociology professor Theda Skocpol criticized the decision by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other relatively centrist environmental groups to join forces early in the debate with major corporations, such as Duke Energy Corp., DuPont Co., General Electric Co. and Alcoa Inc. That coalition, some of whose members dropped out prior to the legislative conclusion, was the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP).

This "insider bargaining" was "inherently asymmetrical" with advantages to the business groups, Skocpol wrote. "It all has a very distanced, antiseptic quality to it, as powerful and very economically secure people look down on the American multitudes with a kind of bemused amazement," she added. She also criticized Senate Democrats for seeking bipartisanship with Republicans, whom she termed increasingly "extreme" on climate issues amid the rise of the tea party movement, and for their failure to use Senate rules to pass the bill with a 51-vote majority.

And here's what he heard in response:

But central findings of the two papers have been largely dismissed by many key advocates of the legislation. They cite other factors for its failure, including President Obama's greater attention to health care legislation, the weak economy and intense opposition from the energy industry.

"USCAP wasn't designed to be the only horse pulling the climate cart," according to Eric Pooley, a veteran journalist who wrote "The Climate War," a 2010 book that was a narrative of the showdown over climate legislation. "Yes, we needed more horses. But Skocpol's response is, in effect, to shoot the horse that pulled hardest."

For environmentalists, the key question doesn't involve shooting horses, but rather who will lead the next charge -- and how. It appears that the SSN, created by Skocpol an antidote to inadequate progressive impact in the early Obama years, with its ample intellectual clout is pushing for a seat at the table and betting that its published studies and subsequent symposium will give them more clout than a few quickly forgotten op ed pieces in elite newspapers. The group sees itself as a bridge between progressive academics and the English-speaking political world.

It is hard to argue against seating people with their combination of energy, expertise and enthusiasm. But it shouldn't go unnoticed that their constituency ties are not as strong as those already involved in the process and while an incumbent -- either a politician or a leaders of an environmental group -- can be replaced by a fairly open process, they face no such constraints.

Like their opponents on the right, they are a deeply committed group pushing preferred policies. There's nothing wrong with that, but we should be aware that their success could change the process in ways that now defy prediction.