On Climate Bill – You Can’t Win If You Don’t Play

With global temperatures continuing their relentless climb upward (this past April was the hottest on record, according to NOAA and NASA), environmentalists say we need nothing short of a World War II-style “emergency mobilization” to address the threat of climate change.

Well, then, where’s the mobilizing?

In the nearly two weeks since Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their comprehensive climate legislation, green groups’ efforts to shape and pass the American Power Act have fallen short of what I would consider an “emergency” effort. Distracted by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, forced to play defense to halt Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski’s effort to weaken the EPA, and handicapped by the public’s through-the-looking-glass understanding of global warming, the environmental movement is showing itself unable — or unwilling — to flex the muscle needed to pass the legislation.

The Senate climate bill represents a major test of the environmental organizations’ political strength. And right now, unfortunately, they’ve got a failing grade. If the green groups want to pass some sort of decent greenhouse gas regulations, they need to get their heads out of the Washington, DC echo chamber, get serious about field organizing in specific states, and focus on the senators who are considered swing votes to clear the 60 votes needed for passage. At this point, tackling global warming will require focused efforts at the local level.

In all fairness, the green lobby is in a tough position. The Deepwater Horizon blowout has, for good reason, swallowed up many organizations’ resources and staff attention. At the same time, a cynical move by Senator Murkowski of Alaska to undo the EPA’s authority over greenhouse gasses (set for a vote June 10) has pushed environmentalists into a rearguard defense. Greens have been forced to triage their priorities.

“We’re kind of juggling a couple of different priorities, between the oil disaster and this imminent vote on the Murkowski resolution,” David Willett, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, told me last Thursday. “So this week our focus is on getting our activists to contact senators on the Murkowski resolution. … We have three number one priorities at the same time. Our main issues right now are Kerry-Lieberman, response to the oil disaster, and beating back any attempt to gut the Clean Air Act and gut the EPA authority.”

Author and influential climate blogger Joe Romm told me Friday that he’s “impressed with how the environmental and energy communities have worked so closely and with such coordination” to push for the American Power Act. But, he said, green groups’ efforts have been hamstrung by what he called “a collapse of political space.”

“It is the polluters and the anti-science crowd that have demagogued the issue to the point where a Republican solution — a market mechanism to control emissions — has become some kind of ‘liberal takeover,’” Romm told me. “There is a misperception that this is a political loser. … If there’s no bill, the fault lies 90 percent with the rigidness of the Republican Party.”

Perhaps. But I think it’s fair to say that environmental groups — despite creating an impressive coalition of veterans, religious leaders, and labor unions to support the legislation — hold some of the responsibility for failing to make climate and energy a political winner. Senators are simply not feeling any heat from their constituents when it comes to global warming.

Last week I contacted the offices of half a dozen senators who are considered swing votes on the issue. I receive no reports of overwhelming mobilization around the Kerry-Lieberman bill. A staffer for Republican Susan Collins of Maine said their office had received “some communication on this issue, but the phone calls and emails we receive from constituents in Maine are focused mainly on the economy and job growth.” The office of oil-state Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska, said that energy and climate is among the “top four” issues they have received comments on, but that many of them are “robo-calls.” Evidently, the major green groups are not mobilizing strongly enough to get senators’ attention.

Some of the best grassroots organizing on Kerry-Lieberman is coming from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), a group better known for cuddly ads with panda bears than hard-hitting political efforts. Spurred by WWF affiliates in other countries, the US arm of WWF has boosted its lobbying on climate by 600 percent in the last year, according to a article by Climate Wire (subscription required.) WWF spokesman Joe Pouliot told me that the group has set up phonebanks to encourage members to contact their Senators and has paid staffers doing member outreach in Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, and North Dakota, all states with important swing votes.

“It’s worth pointing out that embarking on a campaign such as this is new for WWF,” Pouliot said. “We typically don’t engage in a public advocacy role such as this. We got involved now because we feel that climate change is one of the greatest threats to wildlife and nature and biodiversity.”

Compare that stance to the work of organizations for whom climate change is a key priority. Al Gore’s Repower America has a nifty Facebook-like “wall” where you can post a statement in favor of energy legislation; but an outdated alert focusing on the Senate is buried as the fourth action on its home page. The typically impressive 350.org movement says it is “mobilizing our members a great deal” to encourage them to participate in “Crude Awakening” rallies about the Gulf of Mexico disaster; but the group has “not asked 350-ers to send messages directly to Senators.”

Connecting the Gulf spill to climate legislation would, it seems to me, be about as difficult as walking and chewing gum at the same time. Yet somehow this isn’t happening as it should be. The five-million-member-strong Moveon.org last week encouraged its network to lobby the Senate to lift the liability cap for oil spills; but its call to action didn’t include any language about the climate bill. Same with those “Crude Awakening” rallies hosted by the Energy Action Coalition, an Earth Island-sponsored project that is the largest campus movement focused on climate change.

And when groups have made a clear connection between the Gulf disaster and the climate bill, they have made one of two mistakes: Either directing their energies at a less-than-strategic target — President Obama — or else addressing only the capital’s chattering classes. A slick NRDC ad featuring Robert Redford draws a straight line between the oil blowout and energy policy (though the ad doesn’t use the word “climate” once) then leads people to an online action targeting the White House. A hard-hitting commercial by Americans United for Change uncovers the GOP’s reliance on oil industry monies and encourages people to contact their Senators to urge passage of the American Power Act — yet the ad was only broadcast in Washington, DC because, as the group’s communications director told me, “It’s aimed at the opinions makers and lawmakers here in town.” The Sierra Club (which hasn’t yet used its “flagship” email newsletter to encourage action on Kerry-Lieberman) managed to make both errors, running a print ad in the über-insiderish newspaper The Hill which directed its message at the president.

Presumably the smarties who run the political operations at the Big Green groups have a plan here. But unless someone changed the “how a bill becomes law” flow chart, the climate legislation still has to get through Congress before it arrives at the Oval Office. It seems like the environmental lobby has forgotten that unshakable Tip O’Neil aphorism: “ All politics is local.”

To win this thing, environmentalists need to stop focusing so much attention on Obama and put real pressure on senators via the constituents in their home states. Yes, I know, policy gets shaped in Washington. But politics (the push and pull of voters’ worldviews and opinions) are forged outside the Beltway. In an election year, one-third of Senators are concerned about one thing: Winning re-election. Why anyone thinks that they will be swayed by an ad in DC is beyond me.

Joe Romm told me that environmentalists are leaning on the White House because “only the president can really twist the arms of Democrats and lean on the remaining moral sensibility that half a dozen Republicans have.” OK. Obama’s approval rating, however, is at just 48 percent according to the latest Gallup Poll. So why do green political operatives believe that the president’s coattails are long enough to pass this bill? The environmental movement needs to do some arm-twisting of its own and get serious about state-by-state and senator-by-senator targeting. Because politics is a full contact sport. You win by threatening to punch someone in the face … and sometimes fulfilling the threat. The labor movement — sclerotic as it has become — is the one corner of the progressive-left that still gets this. For example, in the lead up to the health care vote, the unions and their allies (led by SEIU) had organizers in 42 states pushing for a reform bill; on a single day (Sept. 22) the unions organized more than 150 rallies demanding a health care overhaul. To pass climate legislation, green groups are going to pull off something similar.

If the environmental movement wants to influence Obama, it seems to me that it should take a lesson from the president’s own playbook. Obama, we shouldn’t forget, snatched the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton through a grassroots strategy, winning primaries and caucuses with determined field organizing. Unlike the Clinton operation, the Obama campaign knew that securing the nomination wasn’t a national effort, but instead was a collection of 50 smaller races. That’s why Obama won upset after upset in places such as Montana. Which brings me back to that terrific television ad Americans United for Changes is spending $50,000 to run in the DC media market. Why not spend that same money in Missoula, Bozeman, and Billings to influence Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester? They’d get far more bang for their bucks — and likely influence more votes that way.

Just like the Democratic primary, the climate bill isn’t a national fight. It’s 100 different contests, each with their own unique character, and you have to nab at least 60 to win.

I wonder, though, if the lack of a full-throttle push on Kerry-Lieberman has less to do with greens’ field mobilizing ability and more to do with sheer willingness. With its giveaways for the nuke and coal industries, its weakening of EPA authority, and its allowances for off-shore oil drilling, the American Power Act is a difficult bill for most environmentalists (aside from EDF’s Fred Krupp) to get excited about.

Take NRDC, whose president, Frances Beinecke, has made it clear that passing climate legislation is the organization number one priority. NRDC press staff did not return repeated emails and voicemails to comment for this article. But an NRDC program staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to speak on the climate bill, said that enthusiasm for Kerry-Lieberman is flagging. “The people that I know are all really discouraged and feel pretty cynical about it,” the staffer told me. Complicating the matter is the fact that — even with all of the corporate handouts that discourage progressives — the bill faces long odds; last week Reuters reported that the bill is in “legislative limbo.” That’s forcing green groups into a tough choice about how much scarce political capital to expend on a long shot. “We all recognize it’s in pretty bad shape,” the NRDC staffer said. “Do we expend every bit of organizational capital? Maybe not.”

The dilemma illustrates Joe Romm’s point about how the politics of climate change have become so constricted. In our corporate-dominated political system, members of Congress have to make so many compromises to inoculate their legislation from corporate opposition that they end up sapping the enthusiasm of the progressive allies they will need to gain passage. It’s no so much that the perfect becomes the enemy of the good — NRDC and the Sierra Club understand well the wisdom of compromise — but that even the good turns out to be a bad deal.

Perhaps the reason that the environmental lobby is putting up a lackadaisical fight for Kerry-Lieberman is simply that the bill isn’t really worth fighting for.

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