One of the chief expectations of those who voted for President Obama is that he moves assertively to pass climate change legislation, whatever the political climate in Washington.
"We have a bipartisan common interest in moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy," says Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "The sooner that members of both parties in Congress realize that and develop solutions, the better off we'll all be."
Bipartisan support is an elusive national beast these days. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a report last week that says environmental groups doomed their 2009 carbon-emissions program, called "cap-and-trade," by failing to recognize the divided reality of Washington.
Skocpol says that as late as 2009 people thought a bipartisan coalition would get the legislation through Congress because the idea had originated with conservative, market-oriented economists.
"What I argue in my report is that unbeknownst to the supporters, who were trying to put together a coalition of environmentalists and business people, was the radicalization of the Republican Party," she tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
As early as 2006, Skocpol says, the party had a plan in place to discourage Republican politicians from going along with any kind of cap-and-trade compromise.
Due to the levels of polarization in Congress, Skocpol is pessimistic about any sort of climate change legislation before the midterm elections in 2014. She does, however, think preparation is necessary.
Campaigns for massive change, like the president's comprehensive health care overhaul in 2010, take a lot of time, she says. That level of preparation and planning is how supporters should approach cap-and-trade or other climate change legislation.
"Part of the purpose of my report," she says, "is to encourage environmentalists at the national level to start talking to state and local groups to form a broader coalition to engage the American populous as a whole."
That local push, she says, as well as presenting cap-and-trade legislation to the American people in a way they can understand its importance, will go a long way toward getting it passed.
A Shifting Issue
In the past, the U.S. has often been successful at uniting behind ideas of conservation. A case in point is the creation of the national parks.
Paul Sabin, who studies American environmental history at Yale University, says things changed with the rise of the middle class, particularly after World War II.
"One element of that [was] the increasing focus on quality of life issues and health issues," Sabin tells NPR's Lyden. "It was also a product of new affluence [and] that people were more willing to look out for the quality of life."
In the 1970s, Sabin says, there was a need for a more personal shift in regard to conservation. In more recent history, however, he says, there has been a scaling back on the part of the environmental movement of trying to address the issue of personal consumption.
What's happened with the most recent environmental debate is what Sabin calls a recasting of climate change, as a much broader issue that includes national security, the economy and public health.
"I think that is representative of something that goes beyond climate change as an issue itself," he says, "because it is true more broadly about other kinds of environmental problems — that they're not exclusively environmental, either."
But with a looming debate over the debt ceiling, as well as an expected fight on gun legislation during Obama's second term, there's no telling when new climate change legislation will make its way to Capitol Hill.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We want our children to live in America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
One of the chief expectations by those who voted for President Obama was that he would move assertively on climate change whatever the political climate in Washington. Environmental groups say they're hopeful that in President Obama's second term, he'll make good on promises to pass climate change legislation. Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
MICHAEL BRUNE: We have a bipartisan common interest in moving away from fossil fuels. And the sooner that members of both parties in Congress realize that and develop common solutions, the better off we'll all be.
LYDEN: But bipartisan support is an elusive national beast these days. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a report this past week, which says that environmental groups doomed their 2009 carbon emissions program, called cap-and-trade, by failing to recognize the divided reality of today's Washington.
THEDA SKOCPOL: People still were thinking as late as 2009 when Obama moved into the White House that the fact that this idea had originated with some conservative, market-oriented economists in the past meant that you might be able to get bipartisan coalitions to get it through the House and especially the Senate.
What I argue in my report is that unbeknownst to the supporters who were trying to put together a coalition of environmentalists and business people was the radicalization of the Republican Party. And, you know, already by 2006 and '07, my research shows they had a sort of pincer movement in place that was going to discourage Republican politicians from going along with any kind of cap-and-trade compromise.
LYDEN: So how unlikely is it that climate change legislation will be signed into the law in the next four years? What are the lessons from that particular time?
SKOCPOL: Well, I mean, we have a situation right now where there's extreme partisan polarization, so nothing like this is going to get through Congress in the next two years. But the point that I think everybody needs to keep in mind is that campaigns for big changes, like comprehensive health reform, which squeaked through in 2010, or cap-and-trade, it would be the same kind of thing, changing incentives in the entire economy.
Those take years of preparation. So part of the purpose of my report is to encourage environmentalists at the national level to start talking with state and local groups to form a broader coalition to engage the American populous as a whole.
LYDEN: Let me ask you to draw that out a little bit further. You're suggesting that they might take a lesson from the campaign for Obamacare or even the campaign that will be forthcoming on gun control that they need to sort of micromanage it, that they need to make micro-connections state to state.
SKOCPOL: Well, manage isn't quite the right word because, of course, political coalitions that involve grassroots groups are unwieldy. Now, I did make a comparison in my report between organized efforts that went into preparing for the Obamacare push in 2009 and 2010 and the organized efforts that went into the push for cap-and-trade. And it's really striking.
The cap-and-trade efforts were mainly working out bargains inside the beltway. There was not much effort made to explain what they were actually trying to pass to average Americans, and there was very little roping in of local and state groups. In health care, on the other hand, the Health Care for America Now network put together a capacity to do things across all 50 states. And that was pretty important in the final push for health care reforms that there were state and local people pushing on their congressional representatives.
LYDEN: Theda Skocpol of Harvard University. In the past, the United States has often been quite successful at uniting behind ideas of conservation. In the first part of the 20th century, business and environmentalists agreed. Take the national parks. Paul Sabin studies American environmental history at Yale. He says things changed with the rise of the middle class.
PAUL SABIN: I think you see quite a substantial change after World War II. One element of that is an increasing focus on quality of life issues and health issues. And in that sense, it was also a product of new affluence that people were more willing to look out for the quality of life.
LYDEN: I'd like for us to listen to a clip, Paul, of the news special. And this is from 1970, none other than the great Walter Cronkite. And he's explaining the purpose of the very first Earth Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WALTER CRONKITE: Affluent America will, we were told, almost certainly have to scale down its standards of living, give up having as many cars, as many children, as many camps, as many conveniences, as much conspicuous consumption.
LYDEN: You know, I listen to that - first of all, my goodness, what an authoritative voice - but also you don't hear this kind of stern warning, this kind of scary rhetoric in quite the same way anymore.
SABIN: No. I think it's become much less in the environmental discourse. There is - been a scaling back on the part of the environmental movement of trying to address the issue of consumption, which, I think, in the early 1970s, there was more of a sense of a need for a dramatic personal shift. And this is maybe connected to the broader ideas about the personal being political, but that in your everyday life that you had to make changes.
LYDEN: So not 10 years after Earth Day comes Ronald Reagan. How did that change things?
SABIN: Well, I think Reagan really marks a major break with the environmental sentiments of the 1970s. Even Richard Nixon shifted during his presidency from early on. You know, his January 1970 State of the Union address, he talks about environmental restoration as a cause beyond party and beyond factions.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Clean air, clean water, open spaces - these should once again be the birthright of every American.
SABIN: But relatively quickly, he starts to express concerns, particularly with the rise of the energy crisis about the economic consequences of environmental regulation, environmental law.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NIXON: What is needed now is decisive and responsible action to increase our energy supplies.
SABIN: So what's interesting about Reagan is that, literally, his announcement of his candidacy in November of 1979 really marks a major breaking point.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living, the result of thrift and hard work, is somehow selfish extravagance, which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity.
SABIN: What I think that represents is part of the emerging split between the parties in some sense over their relationship to environmental science. And you can see that more recently with debate about climate change and whether it's really happening and the idea that scientists might be misrepresenting what the environmental problems really are.
LYDEN: Well, let's talk about today because, today, we have a president who, during the campaign, had vowed to make climate change a top priority. It certainly has, at times, been a polarizing issue. What else do you notice are features of the way we talk about the environment and climate today?
SABIN: Well, I think one of the interesting things about the climate discussion that has developed is part of a representation of how the environmental movement has changed and how people's thinking about environmental problems has changed.
And one element that I would emphasize is the way that climate change has been recast as a national security issue, as an economic threat, as a public health risk. The idea that climate change is not an environmental problem - it's a much broader type of problem.
And I think that is representative of something that goes beyond climate change as an issue itself because it's true more broadly about other kinds of environmental problems that they're not exclusively environmental, either.
LYDEN: Paul Sabin of Yale University. Coming up, international environmentalist Stephen Kellert on his new book "Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.