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The Too-Polite Revolution: Understanding the Failure to Pass U.S. Climate Legislation

Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley

Passage of an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions has been one of the great, unrealized ambitions of the environmental movement of this generation. With the effects of climate change already in our midst, and environmental catastrophe very much a threat in this century, curbing human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) has become imperative. To this end, over the past two decades the U.S. environmental community has mounted a series of increasingly well-funded and organized efforts toward adopting federal legislation to cap and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But such a comprehensive measure has proved elusive. In the past decade, more than 20 bills have been proposed in Congress to create a federal marketbased carbon emissions cap; not one of them has become law.

The 2008 presidential election was supposed to change all that. Although not a time-tested environmental ally, Barack Obama named clean energy among his top domestic policy priorities and called for a graduated cap on CO2 emissions while on the campaign trail. “No business will be allowed to emit any greenhouse gases for free,” he pledged. Obama, moreover, was a skilled organizer with the largest grassroots base of any president in history. “For the first time in decades, a President will enter office at the spearhead of a social movement he created,” noted Time magazine in January 2009.

With a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate under a Democratic president for the first time in 14 years, a coalition of national green groups, backed by deep-pocketed funders, mobilized for what they believed was a historic opportunity to address climate change. The policy vehicle that the green groups put their efforts behind was a cap-and-trade system similar to one already in effect in the European Union. Under such a program, the government places an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gas emissions and ratchets it down over a specified period of time. Individual polluters are issued emissions permits, which can then be traded in a market exchange with other polluters. According to its proponents, cap and trade thus employs

Dow Chemical plant on the Mississippi River just upstream from New Orleans.

financial incentives for companies to move toward more-efficient, lowercarbon energy solutions.

It was, of course, no secret that any kind of carbon emissions regulation in the United States would provoke vehement protest from major polluters in the oil, gas, and electric industries. Since the early 1990s, these corporations have spent more than $3 billion in total lobbying dollars on Capitol Hill, in part to ensure that similar proposals do not get very far. Opponents of climate legislation also have flexed their muscle in the international arena. Because of industry pressure, the United States never ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. It is the only signatory not to have sanctioned what is the most significant global climate agreement to date.

With this in mind, in this most recent legislative campaign the green groups resolved to bring industry to the table. In 2007, major environmental organizations and corporations came together under the banner of the

U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP). By the end of 2008, the coalition comprised nearly three dozen members, among them the country's most influential environmental advocacy groups, led by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, along with a corporate membership that included some of the country's biggest polluters: General Electric, Dow Chemical, Alcoa, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, and DuPont.

The environmental groups aimed to broker a deal with traditional adversaries and to show lawmakers on Capitol Hill that there was industry support for carbon regulation. The green groups were banking on the political power of the major corporations to sway members of Congress, especially those from states where coal was produced or consumed, to support a climate bill. The corporations, meanwhile, had watched rising public awareness of climate change and believed that comprehensive carbon regulation was imminent. Naturally, the businesses wanted a hand in shaping whatever federal legislation might be crafted. “You're either at the table or on the menu,” said Michael Parr, senior manager of government affairs at DuPont, one of the founding USCAP companies.

But despite passage of a cap-and-trade bill in the House of Representatives in June 2009—itself a historic achievement—no such legislation ever made it to a floor vote in the Senate during that Congress. By mid-2010, after several attempts at crafting a bill had failed, the campaign was officially declared over. Given the backlash felt by House members who had cast a tough vote only to see it come to naught, the Senate's inability to pass even a compromise bill effectively killed prospects for any comprehensive carbon cap in the near future and perhaps longer.

The cap-and-trade campaign was driven by the choice of the country's leading environmental organizations to place their faith in a strategy that required them to make deep concessions to the country's biggest polluters. Although significant external factors contributed to the bill's failure—among them a souring economy, a sharp, rightward shift in the Republican Party base, and the president's choice of health care as the major legislative priority of his first term—the green groups made tactical errors that diminished their chance of success.

At the core of this failed campaign was the green groups' belief that any victory they achieved would be modest and incremental. Repeated failed attempts at passing carbon cap legislation had primed the green groups to seek a compromise from the start. The resulting cap-and-trade proposal was brokered among a small group of stakeholders and was largely without broadbased, grassroots support. The diminished role of the grassroots in the climate campaign was no anomaly. Rather, it reflects a fundamental structural disconnect in the environmental community between the big Washington, D.C.-based green groups that have a predominantly inside-the-Beltway approach and the panoply of local, state, and regional environmental groups that focus on coalition building and citizen engagement.

In keeping with this disconnect, the bulk of the money that fi ed the cap-and-trade campaign came from a small cadre of wealthy hedge fund owners and foundations headquartered primarily in California. This underscored the green groups' reliance on a few large stakeholders rather than on a wide array of on-the-ground supporters. These major funders pooled their resources and coordinated their strategies leading up to the climate campaign. While this may have been done with the intention of marshaling their fi es toward a singular goal, it also had the effect of drawing advocacy groups to a preordained mission, rather than trusting the groups to use their ingenuity and expertise to seek out solutions on their own.

 
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