Big Green Environmentalism’s Big Climate Failure

Maybe it’s because I spent about four years dueling with stupid in North Idaho, but I have to admit some amusement with the recent what-went-wrong analysis of the climate battles in Obama’s first term. A recent study (140-page pdf) by a Harvard researcher puts a lot of the blame on the Big Green groups based in Washington, DC and their blindness to the swift radicalization of the Republican Party and their inability to counter it.  Indeed, the concentration of policy wonk generals calling the shots in DC without sufficient resources being put into the necessary grassroots army across the country was a fatal flaw that was glaringly obvious from Coeur d’Alene.

It probably shouldn’t have required a Harvard political scientist to do so, but researcher Theda Skocpol provides a clear-eyed explanation of how things went wrong, culminating with the Tea Party summer of 2009. It was entirely too easy for Big Greens to dismiss the rantings of right-wingers in flyover states — what with all their misspelled signs and all the Jon Stewart ridicule — but the truism that all politics is local was lost on Big Greens whose strategy was based on coalitions with (selective) Big Businesses far from that summer’s town hall shouting matches.

As Skocpol is quoted in a brief Washington Post interview:

Theda Skocpol: Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican identified voters around this time. That created new pressures on Republican officeholders and candidates. And I don’t think most people noticed that at the time. …

… I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But I don’t think the Republican Party right now is mainly influenced by business. In the House in particular, ideological groups and grassroots pressure are much more influential. And in the research we’ve done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA.

The fact that much of the white-hot rhetoric was directed at health care reform served only to mask the equally hot anger at legendary evils of EPA  overreach. Indeed, the terms “cap and trade” and “scientific consensus” were no less threatening than Obama’s death panels. The DC leadership of the Big Green groups should maybe have gone to an Idaho town meeting or two rather than climate conferences in Copenhagen.

The folks at Grist have provided some superb analysis of the analysis, but I’m hoping that the lessons aren’t lost. For one thing, foundation funders and big enviro thinkers could start re-emphasizing grassroots capacity in locations other than big blue cities where the Big Green groups are headquartered.

Furthermore, enviros can’t be missing in action on important issues related to climate. This exchange closes out the interview and, with a week or two into my new role with a new group, it doesn’t bode well.

Washington Post: The Sandy relief bill is going through the House [on Tuesday], and almost no environmental groups weighed in on that. That’s shocking to me. Here we are, a large group of people in New York and New Jersey that environmentalists want to connect to climate change, and the groups aren’t there.  Why not?

Theda Skocpol: So you do have to build broader coalitions. That was one of the things that health reformers did this time around. They buried hatchets and forged ties with groups they needed to, like medical providers, and reached out to small businesses. Health care reformers spent years talking about what went wrong, what they could do differently. But that also took 15 years, from 1994 to when health care finally made it over the top. I’m not sure climate can wait 15 years.

All I know is if another opportunity comes along to get legislation through Congress, those that are prepared are going to be the ones that will be take advantage. And that’s what I don’t see yet. I haven’t been impressed by the inside-the-movement post mortems I’ve read. I don’t see any thought that there will have to be a lot of rethinking for that to happen.

Indeed, last night, as the House of Representatives was voting on amendments to the delayed Sandy relief legislation, the sacrificial cuts — given up at the altar of the Tea Party gods of debt ceilings, deficit reductions, fiscal cliffs, and deadbeat deadlines —  came from $150 million in oceans and coastal programs, and a particularly unlucky wildlife refuge in Connecticut.

Yeah. Like we’re ready to fight any climate battles any time soon.


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