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The death of climate legislation revisited

Dan Farber, professor of law | February 12, 2013

Why did the push for climate legislation fail even though Democrats controlled Congress and the White House in 2008-2010 ? Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, addressed this issue in a controversial recent paper.. Matt Kahn and I have both blogged before about her paper (here and here). Now that I’ve had a chance to read the 150-page article more carefully, I have a few more observations.


NASA photo

I can understand the angry reaction of  people who were involved in the fight to pass climate legislation in Obama’s first term.  Skocpol sometimes seems airily dismissive of their hard work and faults them for failing to anticipate the rise of the tea party, a failure that was widely shared among political analysts. She also takes a few cheap shots at the pampered lives of “wind and cheese liberals,” which come with ill-grace from a professor at a posh Ivy League university.  But she has a more serious point that can get lost along the way.

Skocpol’s basic point is a little more subtle than most accounts indicate.  It’s not based on a general theory that legislation has to be based on a mass popular movement.  Rather, she argues that a certain kind of grassroots movement is needed under present circumstances.  Because of the Tea Party, Republicans are essentially unavailable to form a bipartisan coalition in Congress.

Therefore, pulling Democrats together is the key.  To make this work, she argues, we need a grassroots movement that will not only mobilize Democratic voters but articulate a clear policy proposal that can help frame debates.  She points to the success of a similar effort in the fight to pass a healthcare bill.  She also advocates “cap and dividend” as a policy around which many Democrats could coalesce

I don’t know if she’s right about this, but it’s a point that deserves serious consideration. A variant on her argument is presented by “The Too Polite Revolution,” a recent report to the Rockefeller Family Fund, which also argues for a stronger grassroots political approach.

Shocpol also has some very interesting things to say about the extreme position of congressional Republicans on climate change.  It turns out that they are significantly  more anti-climate regulation than Republican voters as a whole.  Democrats, on the other hand, are closer to their voters.  So polarization in Congress is much higher than among the general population.  But polarization among the public has also increased because Republicans have become sharply core skeptical of climate change. Fox News’s first story on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment was neutral, but starting the same night and intensifying over the next months, Fox began an unremitting series of attacks on climate science. She views the Fox campaign against climate change as “part of a much broader, concerted messaging campaign” involving conservative think tanks, bloggers, and talk radio hosts.

If nothing else, it is clear that the Fox messaging campaign coincided with a shift in views among Republican voters.  The result of the shift was  increasingly huge gap between Democrats and Republicans over whether the threat of climate change.  In 2001, the gap 2as about 25%, while by 2010 it had doubled.  But remember that the GOP congressional delegation moved even farther to the right, so that even previous supporters of climate legislation like John McCain were engaging in a “duck and cover” exercise.

The effort to draw lessons from past failures is commendable.  But there are two caveats to keep in mind.  The first is that failure to enact legislation is the default political outcome because our political system is filled with obstacles to legislation.  The second is that the political situation has been quite volatile in recent years, so past events may have limited future relevance.

No one predicted in 2006 that we would soon see our first African American president; few predicted in 2008 that ultra-conservatives would soon take over the House.  So we need to combine an understanding of past experience with the imagination to adapt to the future.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “The death of climate legislation revisited

  1. NORC, again

    The incredible lack of responses to the few global warming warnings posted on the Berkeley Blog continues to prove beyond all doubt that there are not nearly enough Berkeley professors and scholars who are seriously concerned.

    Thanks for all of your efforts Prof. Farber, but prevention of climate changes that are already destabilizing tipping points is a lost cause.

    This lack of concern at Berkeley is the number one reason that anti-global warming propagandists and special interests are overwhelmingly successful.


    Another excellent reality check on your part Professor Farber.

    Since there is no other solution (nationally and internationally) possible in time to prevent further unacceptable consequences/tipping points from destroying acceptable quality of life for our newest and future generations, it is up to LBL to achieve Edward Teller’s half-century old promise at last, time to build fusion power plants that will eliminate the need for CO2 producing power generators around the world.

    After all, we won WWII and saved the world because of our sense of urgency, and put men on the moon with a sense of urgency as part of our success in winning the Cold War, but we continue to fail to build fusion power plants which makes it appear that the IPCC is wrong like GOP propaganda declares most successfully because there really is no need for urgency to save humanity from Global Warming?

  3. And I have to add that no one predicted the UK MET Office — when it became obvious that fiddling with the data could no longer be covered up — would suddenly find ‘errors’ in their data that would show that global warming flat-lined in 1997. Now the MET is predicting it will stay flat for at least another five years.

    Yet CO2 has gone up? This was not supposed to be possible under the AGW hypothesis. For serious climate science researchers in other countries that are not so ethically desperate that they have to cling to the lifeboats of the sinking US global warming government funding ship, the AGW hypothesis has been nullified or at least put way back on the burners.

    Meanwhile, those off-shore EU scientists, not realizing their science is second rate compared to the US, are making spectacular progress on new climate theories that actually being verified with empirical data instead of computer models.

    It looks like it is going to get cold, maybe very cold, for several decades. To stay on top of things, the USA and the UK may have to outsource climate science, too, along with everything else.

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