Tag: global warming

Tweets of the Week #3

Twitter HQ: Logo artwork

It’s the weekend, so it’s time for the third edition of “Tweets of the Week.” My twitter feed was again filled with some interesting micro-blogging.

By the way, I apologize for the way last week’s home page post looked. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong with the images, though it seems to be fine once the reader clicks the link to Continue Reading. I hope readers can see the image at the top of this page. Continue reading


Transnational Battle over Gay Rights

The transnational battle over gay rights took an interesting turn last week when the Obama administration announced that it would work hard to promote gay rights worldwide. The gay community welcomed the news. But more strategic thinkers also raised questions. As Neil Grungras of San Francisco’s Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration cautioned:

“In countries where U.S. moral leadership is not high and where increasingly Western values are [seen as] negative . . . there is a real danger people can use this issue and say, ‘No, we are cleaning up here, we are going to reject this American imposition of decay.’” As an example, Grungras pointed to last year’s gay pride event at the U.S. embassy in Pakistan. This sparked large demonstrations against the U.S., gay rights, and homosexuals.

Also of interest is the reaction from American religious conservatives active in the fight against gay rights. They decried the Obama initiative, and vowed to oppose it. In the past, they have scored successes. They have formed a “Baptist-burqa” network of religious conservatives, both state and nonstate, including Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and more, spanning the world, just like the gay rights network. They have successfully blocked major new UN initiatives on gay rights and excluded gay activists from participation in international institutions. They raise rival norms, primarily to religious freedom and cultural autonomy, as a means of attacking gay rights. And they are supporting the backlash against gay rights in many countries, especially in Africa.

This may be a rearguard action, but there is little doubt that it has and will slow the progress of gay rights around the world. True, there have been major, hard-fought advances for gay rights in some countries in recent years. But many countries remain indifferent or, if anything, have become more overtly hostile as gay rights advance. Uganda’s horrific Anti-Homosexuality Law, complete with death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality,” is an example.

Scholars who study such issues sometimes ignore “retrograde” networks, in favor of studying progressive new norms and their moral entrepreneurs. Yet in the transnational battle over gay rights at the UN and in many countries, opponents are powerful and important. One can’t understand the politics of gay rights without examining their sworn enemies. One can’t appreciate the framing of a “new” norm without noting its rivals’ frmaing. One can’t explain the shifting policy outcomes without analyzing the bitter conflict among hostile sides.

Beyond gay rights, this is true of countless other policy issues, from global warming to global health. One side’s solution to what it portrays as a pressing crisis will itself be a problem for another group, generating fervent opposition activism. One side’s initiatives are invariably matched by a rival’s counterpunch.

[SELF-PROMOTION WARNING!] For those interested in transnational battles over gay rights and other issues – as well as the implications for understanding global public policy more broadly – my book, The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics – is due out next month from Cambridge UP. [STORY IDEA for Brian Rathbun: Things PSers Like: Ironic attitude toward shameless self-promotion.]


Isn’t there a global climate conference in Durban?

Durban Skyline

Why aren’t you there? You love South Africa. New baby. ‘Nuff said.

What, there is more? Low expectations. Hard to justify traveling all that way (let alone burn all those hydrocarbons) for a meeting that is likely to be unproductive.*

I take it you are not a big fan of big global conferences? Not really. Hard to see how thousands of delegates and NGOs can converge in a single place and actually produce meaningful results.

Jealous much? A little.

Ok, low expectations aside, what would constitute a “success” and what would be a failure?

Here are some headlines coming out of Durban that would signal “success.”

  • New York Times – Durban meeting ends with agreement on the Green Climate Fund
  • Washington Post – Climate negotiations reach agreement on transparency
  • ClimateWire – Global warming negotiations avoid blowup over Kyoto Protocol
  • The Economist – Boring climate negotiations make incremental progress
  • The Onion – Durban meeting ends

Here are some headlines that would be bad news for future action on climate change.
  • Climate Progress – Climate negotiations end in impasse over future of the Kyoto Protocol
  • Global and Mail – Canada leads walk out of Durban climate meeting
  • ECO – Durban climate talks a bust: No legally binding treaty!
  • OneClimate – U.S.-China Finger-pointing over Durban Climate Talks Failure 

Somewhat humorous, but what does this all mean?
Ever since the United States Congress failed to act on domestic climate legislation in 2010, it has become clear that the Obama Administration is not in a strong position to do much at home to address its greenhouse gas emissions or provide its fair share of funding for global climate finance. This has cast something of a pall over the ambitions that can be achieved globally because at the heart of the agreements reached at Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 are non-binding political pledges by countries, including emerging economies like China, to take action at home. With the U.S. hard-pressed to do much, this could take the steam out of other countries’ efforts. That said, there has been some good news as Australia recently passed a carbon tax, and China has actually embraced more robust action. 
Advanced industrialized countries, what we used to call “rich” countries, also pledged billions in climate finance to developing countries, up to $30 billion in the short-run. They are expected to mobilize $100 billion per year in public and private sources by 2020. Unfortunately, without a price on carbon in the United States, it’s hard to see where money from the U.S. will come from. With Europe on the brink of financial catastrophe, it’s also increasingly unclear whether Europe will be in a position to keep its commitments.
Moreover, though the global recession has helped U.S. and European emissions decline, global emissions are soaring. Meanwhile, the politics in the U.S. are unfavorable for another legislative effort. The Obama Administration is nominally committed to its commitments to reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 but unless it unrolls a regulatory approach to carbon and President Obama wins in 2012, it’s hard to see how those all come to pass (though its actions on automobile fuel efficiency, appliances and other measures have all been quite positive).
So that’s old news, what’s happening in Durban?
In the midst of all this comes Durban where there is plenty of unfinished business. Copenhagen and Cancun created the Green Climate Fund but left the details on its structure, who administers, who receives, and what it will fund for subsequent negotiation (details were discussed by a 40 person Transitional Committee). Assuming some of that climate finance materializes and is directed multilaterally through the Fund, there have to be some clearer rules on how it will operate. Incremental plodding progress on this issue would make for a low-key but successful meeting.
The danger is a big dust-up over the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Its first commitment period ends in 2012 and Europe, China, and developing countries would like to see it extended for different reasons and with slightly different implications. Developing countries want to see a second commitment period of binding emissions reductions for developed countries (Ed. – ain’t gonna happen). Europe might accept a political commitment of a second commitment period but wants countries to set 2015 as the date for a new legally binding treaty that would take effect in 2020 so long as countries like China and India sign up (Ed. – ain’t gonna happen), but it may settle for Kyoto’s first commitment period to be extended for a few years. 
China likes Kyoto, not least because it enshrines legal asymmetry for developing countries, binding emissions for advanced industrialized countries but none for itself. China also likes Kyoto because it has been the main beneficiary of the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows rich countries to meet their obligations at lower cost by paying for projects in developing countries.
For their part, countries like the U.S., Canada, and Japan have ruled out a second commitment period under Kyoto. As U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing said: “A structure of a legal agreement where we are bound and major emerging economies are not is untenable.” All three of these countries have had difficulty meeting their Kyoto Commitments and support the new processes created under Copenhagen and Cancun. Rather than a divisive fight over new binding commitments or a new treaty, these countries want to spend the time at Durban fleshing out the rules and procedures related to transparency, technology transfer, and finance agreed to last year in Mexico. 
As Robert Stavins from Harvard noted, there are actually three negotiation tracks on-going: (1) a Kyoto track, (2) a track based on Long-Term Cooperative Action (LCA) emanating from the first 1992 framework treaty, and a third Copenhagen/Cancun track. The U.S. and company want to combine (2) and (3) and focus on the technical details of those (for discussions on these dynamics, see here and here in Bloomberg. Read CFR Michael Levi’s blog and FT column for a more extended discussion here. NRDC’s Jake Schmidt has a three part series on Switchboard here).

If it wasn’t clear, I’m sympathetic to the U.S. point of view. I don’t see belabored negotiations about treaties that aren’t going to happen to be at all useful.

So, how is it all going to end?
Your guess is as good as mine. My most hopeful faux headline from above is the one from The Onion or maybe the first one on the Green Climate Fund. If there is drama at this meeting, that would likely be bad. I don’t see how the U.S. can be shamed into action internationally without a domestic consensus at home. That brings us back to domestic politics and the need for smarter climate strategies here at home, getting angry, going right, or something altogether different. 
* Actually, members of our research team from the Climate Change and African Political Stability Program are presenting our work at some side events

Get Angry or Go Right: What’s the Best Strategy on Global Warming?

Supporters of action on climate change are under siege in Washington. House Republicans are attempting to cut appropriations on all things related to climate change. Even Democrats appear to want to downplay talk of the issue. The “green jobs” agenda, in light of Solyndra solar’s woes, is now mired in controversy. Despite Al Gore’s recent effort to refocus attention on the problem with his new Climate Reality campaign, an economy wide legislative effort like cap-and-trade appears dead in the United States for the foreseeable future (That didn’t stop Australia’s House of Representatives from bravely passing a carbon tax last week).

Perhaps with gallows humor?
 Source: Artist as Citizen via Realclimate.org

With the Durban negotiations approaching in December, the Obama Administration is trying to put a brave face forward, downplay expectations, and get out of South Africa without the rest of the world heaping opprobrium on the United States for its failure to lead.

Meanwhile, Europe’s economy is teetering on the edge of an abyss with unknown consequences for the United States, itself poised to enter an election year with paralyzing partisan rancor and potentially a double dip recession.

In light of these difficult circumstances, what should advocates for action on global warming do? In this blog post, I outline two potential strategies, one I call “Get Angry,” a strategy akin to a “Green” Tea Party mobilization of the base, and another called “Go Right,” a strategy designed to widen the number of supporters by bringing in moderate Democrats and Republicans.

Get Angry? The “Green” Tea Party – Occupy Wall Street Strategy

Occupy Wall Street protests
Source: Daily Dish

In late August, anticipating the Occupy Wall Street protests, writer and activist Bill McKibben initiated a series of protests outside the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would bring oil from Canada’s tar sands to the United States. This direct action led to the arrest of more than 1,000 people.

Dave Roberts at Grist.org would make this a more general strategy to elevate the political pressure on politicians through aggressive action.

Rather than try to coax and cajole reluctant Republicans and wavering Democrats to support action on climate change, Roberts thinks that a Tea Party insurgency on climate change is what is needed. Passionate advocates should instill fear in the political class by making themselves a nuisance. It’s not enough to have passive majority opinion on your side, what you need is a minority with intense preferences to make their feelings known.

Drawing on John Sides, Roberts recently wrote on Grist.org that there “There is no vast middle full of reasonable people.” He argued:

It is not the opinions of the reasonable nonpartisan masses but intensity and money that win in politics. That’s why a relatively small group of hardcore anti-clean energy climate skeptics in the right-wing base has exercised effective veto power over American climate policy: they have the intensity and they’re backed by money.

From this perspective, what is needed is a countervailing movement of climate change activists. A more finely calibrated message (i.e. “framing”) to appeal to moderates won’t do it:

Politics is not a grad school seminar and this notion of explaining things in a more grown-up way to a mythical middle is a wonk’s fantasy.

I think the implication of this strategy is more in your face type actions like the Keystone XL protests, which will make it much harder for new investments in carbon-based fuels to go forward. These have been pretty successful over the last few years. Here in Texas, activists helped prod the utility TXU to cancel 8 of 11 proposed new coal plants in 2007 (though this strategy was hardly one of traditional rabble-rousing. Environmental Defense had a lawsuit in federal court and in exchange for giving up the lawsuit guided TXU’s new owners to support a change in direction).

In another post on the finding of climate denialism among conservative white men, Roberts wrote: “It may be that the simplest, least clever strategy — kick their asses — is still the way to go.” This still begs the question of how to carry that out. Elsewhere, Roberts wrote approvingly of civil disobedience and encouraged people to support the tar sands movement:

Therein lies the (potential) value of civil disobedience: It is a social signaling device. It says, “We are taking this seriously. We are willing to risk our comfort and safety, willing to get arrested, just to get you to pay attention to this.” If done well, in the right circumstances, that kind of behavior sends a stronger message than any compendium of scientific results ever could.

However, to get noticed, it has to have an element of surprise and novelty: 

The problem with so much of what passes for environmental direct action is that it’s become rote and predictable. The kids chaining themselves together and getting arrested. The activists scaling something tall and unfurling a big banner. The protestors sitting in trees to stop loggers. All those things are brave and well-intentioned, don’t get me wrong, but they are not surprising. At this point, everyone’s seen it before and everyone knows exactly how to process it.

From this perspective, the tar sands actions were in a sense the same old familiar direct action of old. Indeed, Roberts initially panned the Occupy Wall Street protests for the same reason (though he later embraced the cause):

Hippies gather w/ puppets & drums; jerky cops abuse them & shut them down. It’s a script every American knows. Causes no one to think anew.

On the Keystone activism, I’m not convinced that this negative strategy of trying to stop new pipelines and plants is all that productive. I’m not a fan of the pipeline, not least because of the likely impact on Canada’s boreal forest. That said, I’m not sure it’s the best use of community time and energy to try to kill this particular pipeline. Yes, this will represent sunk costs that perpetuates an economy reliant on carbon-based fuels, but that is likely going to continue for some time anyway. What we need is some price on carbon that not only helps make future investments like this one more costly (which protests do) but also rewards clean energy innovation (which protests don’t do).

As Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations noted, even if the pipeline is built, that doesn’t mean all the oil will eventually come out of the ground. If we put a price on carbon, it may become uneconomic for that pipeline to carry the oil:

Slash oil demand and oil sands development goes away; keep oil demand on its current trajectory and we’ve got huge climate problems regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved.

One advantage of having a “Green” Tea Party equivalent is that it might make the moderate pragmatists in Congress pushing a climate agenda appear even more moderate. This is known in the social movements literature as the “radical flank effect.”

The question becomes whether or not the Keystone XL protests will serve as a focal point for further climate mobilization or a one-off effort to kill that particular project. As Andrew Revkin argued on his Dot Earth blog on The New York Times:

While it’s a potent symbol and convenient rallying point for campaigners, it’s a distraction from core issues and opportunities on energy and largely insignificant if your concern is averting a disruptive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In this view, stopping a single pipeline today is not nearly as important as the policies to create an energy transition tomorrow. For his part, Bill McKibben takes issue with the notion that a new policy environment is possible. Instead, we will have a series of decisions like this one to bless or kill:

It’s empty to insist that the right thing would be some huge energy plan to make some great transition. Sure, but that’s no going to happen in Washington as presently constructed. If we’re going to get anywhere, it will be fight by fight and battle by battle—and this once, the president can actually do it by himself.

To me, defeat of this particular proposal seems like a Pyrrhic victory. In the absence of a price on carbon, decisions like this one will still tend to support carbon-based fuels. Environmentalists might win this particular battle but continue to lose the war.

It’s not clear that environmentalists are numerous enough to stop this project, let alone to carry this forward to generate a broader movement to put climate change back on the legislative agenda. McKibben is trying to attach the Keystone protests to the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We’ll see if that goes anywhere.

Even if this movement were successful, it might get attached to policies that ultimately prove unworkable. The Tea Party’s influence on the debt ceiling debate may be instructive. Moreover, the downside of such mobilization may be even further polarization of domestic politics, exactly the opposite kind of strategy that initially brought President Obama into office. That “One Nation” strategy had crossover appeal and may be exhausted, but a strategy based on direct action may further drive a wedge between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. Maybe that is the price of progress, but something about that strategy just doesn’t strike me as nationally sustainable.

Go Right: Find a Way to Appeal to Republicans Strategy
If you think, as I tend to, that you have to have some Republicans on board for any climate policy to be successful, then how can advocates generate more GOP support?

To that end, Roberts and I had an interesting Twitter exchange about a month ago about the best strategy. Again, for him, his theory of change is one of brute political power and an energized grassroots. It’s not clear to me if that represents an effort to try to turf people out for anti-environmental positions or merely registering a pro-climate perspective so vigorously that politicians, even Republicans, feel like they have to respond.

This may sound a little far-fetched but it was not too long ago that moderate Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tim Pawlenty supported regional cap-and-trade schemes. I think this happened in large part because of the larger environmental constituencies in those states and the mobilization of Al Gore’s climate change slide show army. While not an especially radical challenge, Gore’s presentationistas were at least able to generate some political impetus for doing something.

Pro-climate policy folks were almost there in the first years of the Obama Administration with the passage of the House cap-and-trade bill, but the lingering economic crisis and health care made that moment almost but not quite perfect. Unfortunately, we may not get a better chance for some time. For that reason, I tend to think overtures to elicit Republican support are warranted.

In those days, Democrats sought to enlist broader support for climate policy, particularly from Republicans, by re-framing the issue in two ways: (1) first, as an economic opportunity that would create “green jobs” and (2) second, as a security challenge.

The green jobs agenda was taken up vigorously by the Obama Administration which likely oversold the benefits that could come from investments in that sector. Maybe if the policies had been perfectly implemented…There is a longer backstory on why this “economic opportunities” frame was adopted that I’ll explore in my next post, but I think this focus made it seem like the climate problem was easier to solve than it actually is.

On the security front, the issue is not just about climate change but also dependence on foreign oil. Unfortunately, the climate security angle on its own has not yet worked to draw in (many) Republicans. It’s easy to see the attraction of a security frame, but the attention it generates may further reinforce fossil fuels. In these discussions, the melting summer sea ice in the Arctic comes up a lot and how the U.S. needs to be prepared to defend access to the hydrocarbons that are becoming available. The energy independence argument can also buttress bad policy choices, like diverting much of the U.S. corn crop for biofuels and opening up environmentally sensitive areas to oil drilling.

Aside from messaging, how else might advocates appeal to Republicans? In the lead up to the failed Senate vote on cap-and-trade, President Obama also made two key concessions to moderate the legislation, both of which may be politically unavailable in the future.  First, he expressed a willingness to allow more domestic offshore oil drilling in less ecologically critical areas like the Gulf of Mexico (deeply problematic after Deep Water Horizon). Second, he also extended greater support for nuclear power through loan guarantees (perhaps equally difficult after Fukushima).

Beyond messaging and tactical concessions, advocates face other challenges going forward. Cap-and-trade was initially based on Republican ideas but has been rebranded by right wing ideologues as cap-and-tax and no longer enjoys an image as market-based environmentalism. Advocates will need to identify a new solution, perhaps coupling a carbon tax with a cut in the payroll tax, that doesn’t suffer from the same problem.

At the same time, as I’ve noted before, the issue has become so tightly identified with the Democratic Party and leaders like Al Gore that have little appeal and credibility with Republican voters or elites. Can advocates enlist Republican champions of this issue (or at least those trusted by Republicans)? Teddy Roosevelt IV? Former Virginia Senator John Warner? Former Secretary of State George Schultz? Rick Warren?

In my next post, I’ll make the case that a mix of Republican-trusted interlocutors coupled with messages that emphasize the local effects of climate change on America may be a productive way forward.

Obviously, both the “Get Angry” and the “Go Right” approaches to climate change at this point leave a lot to be desired. Perhaps a hybrid approach, where the radicals try to stop the Keystones and the moderates try to build broader support can ultimately be successful. In the meantime, both camps have their work cut out for them.


The World Is Waiting: U.S. Public Opinion and Climate Change

So, we’re almost in October, and it’s still 100 hundred degrees here in Texas.  We have just endured the hottest summer on record for any state in the United States.  Just last month, thousands of acres burned in a series of wildfires just outside Austin.

September 2011 Texas Fires

Our governor Rick Perry is running for the Republican nomination for president, and though climate change is not high on the agenda, he took time out of his busy schedule to deny that climate change was real and to claim his perspective was akin to being a modern day Galileo. These remarks prompted President Obama this week to quip: “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.”

Now, as I’ll say more in my next post, there are reasons from a scientific perspective to be skeptical that the drought and fires in Texas are attributable to climate change, but I think it may be smart politics.

Some months ago I posted about Republican elites’ allergies to all things climate change and how this issue had become a partisan signifier like abortion. This was before Perry threw his hat into the ring and before his rival Jon Huntsman took him to task for his climate change denialism via Twitter:”To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

At the time, I promised to come back to U.S. public opinion on the topic. So here goes. This isn’t just about U.S. domestic politics because unlocking U.S. climate policy remains the most important step towards addressing the problem globally.

What Do Americans Think About Climate Change?
There has been considerable flux in what Americans think about climate change in recent years in terms of how worried they are about the problem and whether or not they think it is real. While we know what the numbers are doing, I don’t think we have a really good handle on what is driving these changes. That said, we can make some pretty reasonable suppositions.

Between 2008 and 2011, Gallup came out with several polls suggesting that Americans were less worried about climate change and more likely to say the problem was exaggerated (2008, 2010, 2011). Gallup attributed this to the financial crisis based on previous dips in support for environmental protection during economic downturns.

Gallup also suggested the declining poll numbers might be the result of a series of so-called scandals that climate denialists have glommed on to try to make their case that climate change is a fraud perpetrated by scientists eager to get research grants (as if the self-serving motives of people who make their money from carbon-based fuels are somehow less powerful an incentive to deny the science).

So, if you followed this stuff attentively like I do, you read about trumped up controversies over the hockey stick graph (did temperatures increase in the 20th century after centuries of relative stability?). There was also flak over leaked emails by climate scientists from my alma mater the University of East Anglia, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got some grief for typos and sourcing errors in a several thousand page document. Small beer, as they say, but perhaps enough to move the dial for some people.

Other polls suggest that the most important differences really are between Democrats and Republicans, with as much a 30 to 40 percentage point gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether they worry about climate change and whether it is happening. A 2011 Yale-based poll also found that self-identified Tea Party types are the least likely to believe climate change is real, while they consider themselves knowledgeable about the problem. They are less trusting of mainstream news sources, scientists, and the EPA.  Tea Party supporters were much more likely (45%) than other groups, including Republicans (20%), to be aware of the controversial UEA hacked emails, most likely from their trusted news sources like Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and various other conservative websites.

The Economist
 recently ran a story on this poll with the graphic below:

McRight and Dunlap (2011) draw some similar conclusions from their assessment of a number of polls: they conclude conservative white men are less likely to believe that climate change is real, which they attributed to a particularly risk acceptant attitude among that group.

The good news from the Yale poll and other polls is that a majority of Republicans think the problem is real. Indeed, a 2011 Reuters poll found that the percentage who believe the Earth has been warming increased from 75% to 83% between 2010 and September 2011, including 72% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats.

This could be a result of the way the poll was worded. Other studies by Schuldt, Konrath and Schwarz (2011) and Villar and Krosnick  (2010) have found that Americans, particularly Republicans, are far more likely to believe in the problem when framed as “climate change” rather than “global warming.”

It should be noted that even though a majority of Americans worry about climate change, environmental issues almost always rank low on the list of priorities for Americans, though they tend to identify environmental problems as being among the most important future problems (see these two Gallup polls here and here).

Where does this leave us? I think what this means is that the public is only intermittently attentive to the issue, and while most people are taking their cues from what the scientists are saying, other people are listening to climate denialists and hardening their attitudes to believe that the issue is a hoax.

Just a few years ago, when public concern was at its maximum, moderate Republican governors around the country were jumping on the climate bandwagon to support cap-and-trade initiatives and the like. If we think public opinion matters, then advocates have to do a better job, particularly among the Republican public in convincing them that the problem is real and worth caring about. The recent Reuters poll that showed an increase in concern suggests a possible reason why Americans are becoming worried again: the weather. My next post will discuss how, the science aside, focusing on the local consequences of weird weather (Hurricane Irene, floods in the Midwest, and drought in the Southwest) might concentrate the minds again. 


Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

This is my inaugural post on this site, and I thought I would start with a topic I’ve been puzzling over for a while. It may take me a couple of posts to get it all out, but here goes: What happened to Republican elites on climate change?

Republicans have long been more reluctant than Democrats to address the problem. However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s slide show and mov(i)ement, moderate Republican governors – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee – lined up to support schemes to cap and trade emissions of greenhouse gases. In the Senate, John McCain throughout several Congresses, as recently as 2008, sponsored cap-and-trade legislation which was seen as a market-oriented (read: Republican) alternative to more command and control regulatory approaches. In 2008, Newt Gingrich eagerly appeared in one of Gore’s post-partisan promo shots alongside Nancy Pelosi in support of the We Can Solve It campaign.

Flash forward to 2011. In post financial crisis America, climate change, if it is possible, has become even more politicized. As they seek the Republican party nomination for president, Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman have had to apologize and backtrack for their prior support for cap-and-trade. It has become almost an article of faith among Republican activists that presumptive candidates not only have to disavow former support for cap-and-trade but they have to deny the science itself and reject climate change as a problem (Though he has assailed cap-and-trade, Mitt Romney admirably stuck to his guns and said the problem is real). Pawlenty, by contrast, just this week told Fox News, “So there is climate change, but the reality is the science of it indicates that most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes.” What gives?

Al Gore, in a recently released broadside in Rolling Stone, would have us believe that this is nothing more than business as usual efforts by “Polluters” and “Ideologues,” with a handful of climate change deniers, bankrolled by dirty industries, able to twist public opinion and challenge the credibility of climate scientists (Ross Gelbspan made a similar argument in his 1997 book The Heat Is On – my have times changed!).

A slightly different view sees opposition rooted in the regional politics of the United States. David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development suggests the reluctance to address climate change is a function of the relatively high adjustment costs that some Red States particularly in the South, the Ohio Valley, and Mountain West face compared to other states. This dynamic too has long been used to explain why some Democrats like Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia oppose more vigorous action on climate change (see my 2008 piece along these lines for the Center for a New American Security).

Something different and more profound seems to be going on here than just run of the mill special interest politics. Climate change has joined the list of symbolic partisan signifiers like abortion that party activists and aligned biased media (like Rush Limbaugh) are using to identify members of their team.

This is unfortunate and more than an American problem. As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (next to China), the U.S. is a necessary part of the solution. In the lead up to this year’s climate negotiations in Durban, the fraying of purpose internationally is partially a consequence of dismay at the lack of U.S. action.

While the Obama Administration still is seeking to push through some of its climate agenda through regulation, many of its international commitments, particularly on climate finance, ultimately hinge on having a national carbon cap that generates public but more importantly private sector resources to support climate mitigation efforts around the world.

Where does that leave us? For all of his righteous fury, I fear that Al Gore is now part of the problem. Democrats own the environment and climate change as an issue. As Glen Sussman has documented, during the Carter era, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House on the League of Conservation Voters environmental scorecard was 27 points. During the Reagan era, the gap in both chambers increased to 32 points and then 35 under George H.W. Bush. By the Clinton era, the gap extended to 52 points and in the first year of the George W. Bush administration stood at 65 points.

By 2010, the gap between Democrats and Republicans was a chasm. Among the leadership of the top five environmental committees, the partisan gap was 60 points in the Senate (with Democrats receiving an average score of 60 and Republicans 0) and 76 points in the House (with Democratic committee leaders receiving an average score of 88). As I’ll write about more in my next post on public and elite opinion, these dynamics are as if not more pronounced on climate change, which has come to dominate the environmental agenda.

For supporters of action on environmental causes in general and climate change in particular, this degree of partisanship is poisonous. Gore is surely right that there has been a deliberate effort to mislead the public and discredit climate scientists, but that may not matter. In this din of information, I don’t know if anybody is listening to him any more other than people who already agree with him. While advocates have been struggling with the right message (is climate change a security problem?) to get Republicans on board, it may need a new messenger too.

It is unclear when the country will again have another shot at passing national climate legislation. In the last Congress, the Democrats possessed sufficient voting strength and discipline to get a cap-and-trade bill through the House. President Obama inherited an economy in distress and two ongoing wars, and he had to choose what single ambitious agenda item – health care or energy – he could get through the Senate and as we know he chose health care.

The Democrats do not and likely never will possess the votes or party discipline to get national climate legislation without some support by Republicans in one chamber. The Obama Administration conducted some efforts to enlist South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to identify potential Republican Senate support in the last Congress. They probably needed 8-12 votes, and the usual suspects were senators like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (As an aside, while Ryan Lizza documented how ham-handed these efforts were in the New Yorker, I have trouble believing that better political gamesmanship would have delivered the necessary votes).

Going forward, there has to be a renewed effort to enlist Republicans and those trusted by Republicans to make the case that this is a problem worth caring about. Gore’s ad campaign of 2008, which featured both Gingrich and Pat Robertson, recognized this, but as long as Gore is the main face of the climate change movement rather than governors, CEOs, military leaders, and pastors, I fear Republican defenders of vigorous action on climate change like Michael Stafford and D.R. Tucker will be few and far between.


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑