Climate policy, act two

Reactions to Obama's second inaugural overlook Skocpol report

It was great to see The New York Times give front-page treatment to the unexpected weight that President Obama put on climate change during his second inaugural address on Monday.

It sends a message that regardless of what happens next, news outlets should keep close tabs on what the White House is and isn’t doing to live up to Obama’s promise to “respond to the threat of climate change.” After all, he made a similar promise after the first time he was elected and didn’t live up to it, and reporters let it drop.

That can’t happen again, and hopefully it won’t. The eight sentences that Obama spent on climate change—“more than he devoted to any other specific area,” according to the Times—drew a lot of attention, although there wasn’t much variety in the coverage.

Articles like those from Politico and The Washington Post recapped what was and wasn’t achieved during the president’s first four years in office, as well as what is and isn’t likely in the next four, but there was little analysis of what could be done to change the fact that the view is the same in both directions, with efficiency and emissions regulations in the realm of the possible and carbon-pricing legislation a perceived non-starter.

It was surprising, for instance, that nobody mentioned a controversial report released this month by Harvard sociologist and political scientist Theda Skocpol, which basically absolved Obama of any responsibility for the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress in 2010. Instead, Skocpol blamed environmentalists for failing to foresee that the Republican Party, pulled to the right by the Tea Party, would become unremittingly opposed to action, and for failing to organize the type of broad-based political coalition that could override that intransigence.

The assessment re-ignited the debate about what went wrong at a time when Democrats seemed to have the upper hand, but it didn’t get much coverage outside of environmentally oriented blogs. Most of the conversation took place at Grist.

Philip Bump kicked it off with a straightforward write-up before the site’s top gun, David Roberts, weighed in with a three-part series. For the most part, Roberts agreed with Skocpol’s analysis of what went awry, although he doubted her prescription for legislative progress in Obama’s second term, arguing that success of carbon-pricing would require “fixing” US politics (eliminating the power of the filibuster, for instance) and not just a broader, more committed political coalition.

Climate activist and author Bill McKibben also found Skocpol’s report “insightful” and “useful,” explaining at Grist how groups like his,, have started to carry out the type of grassroots-to-gilded-halls mobilization that she called for.

Others were less impressed. Eric Pooley, another author turned climate activist, took issue with Skocpol’s criticism of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a consortium of environmental organizations and corporations that was a major player in the push for cap-and-trade legislation. The idea was that if green groups could get big business to go along, big business would bring Republican votes. It didn’t work, and Skocpol derided the effort as “insider grand bargaining” that ignored the need to build a broader constituency for climate action.

Pooley, now a senior VP at EDF, one of those environmental organizations, disagreed. In an essay for Grist, he argued that green groups did not dismiss grassroots organizing, and that the decision to focus on the Beltway approach “was based on a hardheaded view of what presented the best opportunity at the time.” Skocpol’s argument rests on the benefit of hindsight, Pooley said, and while USCAP did not succeed, it did more than anyone else to promote climate legislation:

The climate campaigners understood from the outset that USCAP was necessary but not sufficient. They knew that increased partisanship and well-funded opponents were going to make this fight extremely difficult. Skocpol concludes that since these alliances failed to become significant, the climate campaign must have had no interest in them. This is mistaken. The campaigners worked hard and came up short. The real problem was execution, not strategy.

Time’s Michael Grunwald also defended the insider approach, and neither he nor Pooley was willing to let Obama off the hook for failing to make it work; as the latter put it, “he chose not to engage.”

Pooley did not, however, hold the president fully accountable. Neither did Joseph Romm, who runs the blog Climate Progress and accused fossil-fuel interests and the “lame-stream media” of doing the most to undermine climate policy. But in a post reprinted at Grist, he, too, argued that whatever amount of blame is left should go to Obama rather than environmentalists (his argument, though, smacks of the same defensiveness and aversion to self-reflection within the environmental community that Skocpol criticized).

Whatever the explanation, the debate about Skocpol’s analysis provided depth and insight that was lacking in most of the coverage of Obama’s second inaugural. True, her report and the ensuing conversation are probably a bit too wonky for reporters on deadline (and their general audiences), but journalists should at be familiar with it. They should also read a competing assessment released this month by Nathaniel Loewentheil, a fellow at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, because the fight over climate policy hasn’t grown any easier and both papers will help them cover what is and isn’t working as Obama’s second term moves forward.

[Update: Time’s Bryan Walsh had a thoughtful reaction to Obama’s big talk on climate, which mentioned Skocpol’s report and highlighted an interesting Q&A that she did with The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer before the inauguration.

According to National Journal’s Amy Harder, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Chuck Schumer of New York have said they “they won’t push big climate legislation and will defer to EPA on global warming.” Unsurprisingly, coverage in the days after the inauguration has focused on what Obama can do to address climate change without Congress.]

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,