Living in the Past

Rather than endlessly rehash the environmental movement’s signature moment of defeat, wouldn’t it be amazing if noted political scientists and big-time environmental thinkers focused as much energy on figuring out what has gone right in the many clean energy victories of the past decade?

If you were feeling nostalgic for the interminable debates over political and policy strategy that dominated discussions about global warming in the environmental community during the fateful days of 2009-10, the publication of Theda Skocpol’s recent retrospective (PDF) on the failure of cap-and-trade – and the responses to it by many of the climate movement’s sharpest thinkers in Grist – is like a trip in the Way Back machine.

Me, I don’t miss those days one bit. My own perspective is that the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill in the House in 2009 represented a towering achievement. That bill, had it been passed by the Senate and signed by President Obama, would have transformed the nation’s energy system in fundamental ways.

Yet, several peculiar things happened as the bill was being debated and after its passage in the House. One is that the public debate focused on the one facet of it that was most threatening, most easily demonized, and most difficult for the public to understand: cap and trade. Unbeknownst to most of the American people – and probably even to most of the environmentalist base – the Waxman-Markey bill included a host of common-sense energy reforms designed to move the nation toward a cleaner energy system less dependent on fossil fuels. Why these clean energy policies – which the public has continuously and vigorously supported over time – came to take a back seat to the debate over cap-and-trade (or, even more obtusely, the push for “green jobs”), remains a mystery to me.

Second is that a large chunk of the most passionate and active segments of the environmental movement greeted Waxman-Markey with a collective “meh.” Yes, Waxman-Markey was a compromised piece of legislation, but not fatally so, and clearly represented the best that could possibly emerge from that beacon of environmental leadership known as the U.S. Congress. Yet, many held off in their support of Waxman-Markey because it wasn’t a carbon tax or didn’t go all the way to hitting the emission targets needed to forestall the worst impacts of global warming. That disdaining of incremental (but significant!) progress looked unwise to me at the time, and I think it looks even worse in retrospect.

That, however, is ancient history by now, and it’s clear that, whatever you think the prospects are for significant climate action in the U.S. in the next few years, the political context of any future battle is likely to be far different next time than it was in 2009-10. So there’s limited utility, in my view, in rehashing why cap-and-trade failed and apportioning the proper dollops of blame to the appropriate individuals and institutions. The goal of climate advocates and activists cannot be to win the blame game for the last war – or even to refight the last war properly the next time around – but rather to understand the playing field as it exists and design a political and policy strategy that can achieve necessary change.

Which leads to the other mystery of the cap-and-trade debate, touched on eloquently in Mark Hertsgaard’s response to the Skocpol piece in Grist: why so little attention is paid to the many successes grassroots activists and state and local climate advocates have had on every field of play in recent years except Capitol Hill. Hertsgaard’s worthy focus is on the Beyond Coal movement, but one could easily tell similar stories about the fighters against Keystone XL, the citizens opposing coal exports in the Northwest, the successful campaigns to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency in many states, or the seismic shifts in personal habits and local government attitudes toward transportation and land use that we’ve highlighted in our work on that issue.

Rarely, for example, is it celebrated that that U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide are on their way to an 18-year low and are down 12% from their peak in 2007. Admittedly, some of this decline is due to cheap natural gas, but not all of it. Solar and wind energy capacity is increasing dramatically, energy efficiency is making inroads, driving is down, cars are becoming more fuel efficient, and the future of clean energy sources such as solar has never looked brighter. We haven’t reached the promised land yet, but in so many ways and in so many places, there is real progress happening. As our reports, America on the Move and The Way Forward on Global Warming pointed out, those changes can make a meaningful contribution toward achieving the nation’s emission reduction goals.

Rather than endlessly rehash the environmental movement’s signature moment of defeat, wouldn’t it be amazing if noted political scientists and big-time environmental thinkers put as much energy into figuring out what has gone right in the many clean energy victories of the past decade? Maybe we would find that there are lessons from those efforts that can be applied to the next battle on Capitol Hill.

Throughout history, Congress has usually been the last stop in movements for reform, not the first, with major reforms always following years, and sometimes decades, of grassroots push.  In that sense, the fight for national policy to curb global warming pollution never really ended in 2010 – in fact, it’s happening right now in every city and town where citizens are working on global warming solutions and in every state capitol where people are working to expand or defend clean energy policies. Focusing resources, energy and attention on those fights now is likely to be far more helpful to the prospects of a future comprehensive climate and energy strategy for the U.S. than relitigating the past.



Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.