What is the climate left doing?

Protesting Joe Biden thanks to a fundamental misreading of the situation

Unlike my usual bland fare, I suspect this one will make some people upset, but climate change is a really big problem and I’m increasingly concerned that huge swathes of the climate advocacy world are losing the plot.

There are a lot of dimensions to this, but it really comes to a head in two recent developments.

One is the decision of major climate groups to blast the bipartisan infrastructure deal that the Biden White House is hoping to get passed and greet it with protests at the White House. The other is this letter from environmental groups on U.S.-China policy, which blasts “the dominant antagonistic approach to U.S.-China relations” as bad for climate, but then across several hundred words of verbiage doesn’t actually say what policy change they want before concluding grandiosely that “nothing less than the future of our planet depends on ending the new Cold War between the United States and China.”

I could cite plenty of other specific missteps, but what these two outbursts have in common is a total failure to read the political situation.

Climate groups seem to be operating in a reality where there is massive public support for much more dramatic action on climate change and the only thing standing in their way is a need to sweep aside the power of corrupt and timid moderate Democrats. There really are some issues like that — marijuana legalization and interest rate regulations — which come to mind, and I wish progressive funders would focus more effort on building activist campaigns around those issues. But on climate, it’s not true. The public is supportive of climate action to an extent, but as you can see from the unpopularity of carbon taxes, there is also a ton of wariness and a deep reluctance to do anything to sacrifice present-day living standards.

The good news on climate is that there is a lot of elite buy-in on the importance of climate action, and climate topics actually get a lot of prioritization in Democratic Party politics up to and including things like a former Secretary of State taking a White House job running point on climate diplomacy. But there are hard technical issues here and hard political issues here, and publicly trashing your allies in search of “leverage” doesn’t help anyone. Especially because the climate groups themselves often seem to struggle to actually prioritize reducing emissions in their own policy agenda.

There is climate stuff in the infrastructure bill

I was surprised by the size of Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan proposal. And I was surprised that Congressional Democrats basically swallowed it whole and passed it. Then I was surprised by the scope of Biden’s follow-up Jobs Plan and Families Plan proposals. I was not surprised that Congressional Democrats did not swallow this whole.

What the moderate members who hold the pivot points decided was that they wanted to try to strike a bipartisan deal on the infrastructure aspects of these proposals, and then maybe come back later with some kind of reconciliation bill that would pass on party lines and deal with the rest.

The odds of success on that seemed kind of low to me, but they got some senators to play ball and wrote a deal that does some good stuff. Is it the most amazing bill in the universe? Of course not. But it’s a good bill. And if passing it on a bipartisan basis makes moderate senators feel happy, that’s great. And if Republicans tank a bipartisan bill and that makes moderate senators feel angry at Republicans, that’s great. But instead, climate groups seem to have decided they want to try to sink the bill from the left, on the theory that Biden is a “coward” and the bill doesn’t address climate issues.

There is always a lot of uncertainty about political tactics, but the idea that this bill does not contain climate measures is just clearly false. It features:

  • $16 billion for capping orphaned wells and cleaning up abandoned mines.

  • $47.2 billion for climate resiliency projects.

  • $48.5 billion for public transit.

  • $66 billion for freight and passenger rail.

  • $15 billion for EV charging stations and electric buses.

  • $73 billion for upgrading the electricity grid.

Will that solve climate change? No. Should it cause everyone to shut up about the issue and never press for anything new? No. But should it induce a crowd of protestors to come to the White House and get mad at Joe Biden for not addressing climate change? That’s absurd.

If you want to protest someone, protest the tiny handful of House Republicans who hold seats that Biden won and try to pressure them into backing the bill. Or don’t protest anyone and send out a press release that says “we’re glad this bill does some climate stuff and we’re going to urge members to prioritize more climate stuff in the next bill.”

But why lie to people? It’s not because of a single-minded focus on climate. Even at the rally, the Sunrise people are still stepping on their own message with Defund MPD stuff, and on May 11 they were tweeting about “solidarity with Palestinians” and how “collective liberation is only reached when people are freed from colonial and imperial violence worldwide.”

But then Sunrise also signs the China letter, which says “escalating, bipartisan anti-China rhetoric in both Congress and the White House damages the diplomatic and political relationships needed to move forward boldly and cooperatively.”

If you just completely leave climate change out of the analysis, it’s of course easy to make sense of this mish-mash of left-wing causes — it’s a left-wing mish-mash. And it engages in random outbursts of hostility toward Joe Biden because he is the standard-bearer for Democratic Party moderates, so they don’t like him and don’t want to see his approach as successful. Even when he brings home a bipartisan bill that accomplishes useful things on climate, they pretend it doesn’t.

But the idea that blowing up the bill from the left would induce Jon Tester to get behind a much more left-wing, much more climate-focused reconciliation bill is absurd. As is the idea that making Joe Biden unpopular so Democrats do poorly in the midterms would somehow pave the way for more aggressive rather than less aggressive climate policy. It’s pointless mass movement cosplay in lieu of real analysis.

Potemkin Skocpolism

I would trace the derangement of the current approach back to some stuff that happened in the aftermath of Waxman-Markey’s failure in Congress back in 2009-10.

My personal analysis of what went wrong there would draw heavily on one of my favorite books of political science, “Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why,” which argues that regardless of lobbying resources available, the people trying to defend the status quo almost always win in U.S. legislative fights because we have a lot of veto points. In other words, having come close to passing a major bill but failing is not necessarily an indication that you did anything at all wrong. Unfortunately, while that is a great book and a great insight, it does not provide actionable advice of the sort that climate funders were seeking.

Instead, they turned to another great political scientist, Theda Skocpol, who published an influential paper in 2013 arguing that Waxman-Markey was too much of an elite-driven inside game rather than something grounded in grassroots politics. And it absolutely was an elite-driven inside game. Climate advocates recognized that lots of Democrats who represented fossil fuel producing areas of the country (there were a lot more of them back then) generally agreed in principle that we should do more on climate and that lots of moderate Republicans felt the same way. The idea was that you could stitch something together that had business backing and that gave cover to Coal Country Democrats and then go get something done whether or not the public was enthusiastic. It didn’t work, so Skocpol suggested trying something else.

Her specific policy proposal is that a “cap-and-dividend” policy, where the fees from a carbon price flow directly into citizens’ pockets, would be more appealing to a mass audience than Waxman-Markey’s complex set of insider-driven allocations.

But the stirring conclusion is more general than that and says you need popular mass mobilization around climate change:

The only way to counter such right-wing elite and popular forces is to build a broad popular movement to tackle climate change. Ways must be found to use policy ideas as tools to knit-together inside-outside links among many organizations, including some that can draw masses of ordinary citizens into the transition to a green economy. Carbon caps are still needed, but they should be formulated and fought for in new ways that empower many kinds of reformers to work together – for transparent legislation that delivers concrete benefits to millions of regular American citizens. Most of us will need to engage in this battle if it is to have any chance of success. Americans who want a new, sustainable economy cannot leave any part of the effort, including the drive for new emissions legislation, entirely in the hands of honchos striking bargains in back rooms. Citizens must mobilize and many organizations must work together in a sustained democratic movement to build a green economy.

Movers and shakers in the climate universe had an odd reaction to this critique.

They did not embrace cap-and-dividend as a policy (I think that’s probably wise given the fiscal policy realities) but more importantly did not embrace Skocpol’s view that real grassroots mass mobilization was necessary to make progress on climate.

Instead, they decided to invest a lot of money in creating a simulacrum of a vast and highly energized social movement funding lots of groups to “do grassroots activism” without genuinely building accountable membership organizations. This Potemkin Village version of what Skocpol called for does deliver some of the benefits of real mass mobilization (mainly by fooling gullible journalists), but it doesn’t move the needle on things that really matter.

Democrats prioritize climate more than the public

I, personally, would very happily pay higher taxes in order to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

And I wouldn’t really care whether the revenue was spent on clean energy programs (which would boost the emissions-curbing potency of the tax) or whether it was spent on a dividend (which would reduce poverty) or whether it was spent on offsetting tax cuts (which would be better for me personally). To me, you should tax carbon and good things are going to happen.

But this idea is very, very, very unpopular. This is important not because carbon pricing is the only good idea in the climate policy space, but because it reveals that most people just are not that jazzed up about reducing emissions. They’re supportive, but not in a “would personally accept having less money” kind of way.

  • A pre-election Gallup poll found that 55% of the public called climate either very important or extremely important. That put it behind healthcare, terrorism, gun policy, education, the economy, immigration, abortion, inequality, the budget deficit, taxes, race relations, and foreign affairs.

  • A pre-election Pew poll found that voters ranked climate 11th out of 12 issues. Particularly striking is that in the Pew poll, Biden voters ranked climate behind healthcare as an issue.

In Gallup’s current polling, 3% of the public calls climate the most important problem. That’s not terrible. It’s tied with crime, poverty, healthcare, the budget deficit, and “ethics/moral/religious/family decline.”

This is the relevant context in which to assess a bipartisan infrastructure bill that features hundreds of billions of dollars in climate programming. Note that there were important climate provisions in the American Rescue Plan. There are also important climate provisions in the U.S. Competition and Innovation Act. Last December’s energy bill has important climate provisions.

None of that is to say that what Congress has already done or has in the works is adequate. It’s just that the actual situation with regard to climate is roughly the opposite of the view that’s promoted within the climate pseudo-movement. Rather than mass pressure dragging a reluctant and cowardly political system into climate action, an elite consensus inside the Democratic Party keeps pushing climate onto the agenda even though the mass public is not that engaged with it.

Skocpol’s analysis, however, remains roughly correct. There’s just no way you’re going to get a massive climate bill without an engaged grassroots movement demanding one. But there is no such movement, and pretending it exists and then secondarily suggesting that Democrats are perversely ignoring it is introducing a huge amount of confusion into this space. In truth, Democrat elites are convinced (rightly) that the mass public is too short-sighted and too parochial about climate change, and they are trying to drive the pace of change ahead of what pure popularism would suggest. Given that dynamic, the appropriate role for climate groups would be to try to be helpful. Instead, they only fitfully support emissions-reducing policies.

Environmental groups should prioritize climate change

That the mass public does not adequately prioritize climate change is unfortunate.

But it’s perhaps understandable in light of the fact that environmental organizations themselves don’t consistently prioritize it. The Natural Resources Defense Council cheered April’s shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear plant in New York, arguing that “because of New York’s landmark 2019 climate legislation and years of clean energy planning and investments by the state, New York is better positioned today than ever to achieve its ambitious climate and clean energy goals without this risky plant.”

This is just an insane analysis. There is no universe in which we are going to have so much zero-carbon electricity that we won’t regret having lost existing sources of zero-carbon electricity. After all, to meet our climate aspirations we not only need to replace 100% of existing fossil fuel electricity, but we also need to convert the entire fleet of vehicles for transporting people and cargo to electricity. That’s a lot of electricity!

I used to think this was just a kind of historic bugaboo about nuclear energy. But there are folks who call direct air capture research a “dangerous distraction” from climate change (see Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò for why that’s wrong) and many environmental groups also oppose carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) efforts.

A very funny encapsulation of where this comes from is visible around minutes 26 to 27 of this great episode of Columbia Energy Exchange where Jane Flegal is the guest. She was working at the Hewlett Foundation at the time, and she’s talking about this and that and is saying supportive things about CCS, so the host asks her about opposition to CCS from “climate justice groups” — which is to say groups that are allegedly bringing a racial justice perspective to the climate movement. She very judiciously tries to point out that these groups are not necessarily representative, that there are a bunch of other relevant stakeholders, and the real calculus is much more complicated than simply deferring to what they say:

I think for one there are really complicated questions in democratic theory that show up in climate philanthropy and the non-profit community. Who is authorized to speak on behalf of any communities, actually? And non-profits, we’re not democratically elected. So there are real tensions around this. I think unions are by and large pretty racially diverse and take a very different position on CCS than some of the climate justice organizations do.

I think that was not well-received at Hewlett, but the good news is she’s now senior director for industrial emissions at the Council on Environment Quality. The basic issue here is that the industrial heat problem in climate change is extremely difficult (read David Roberts’ explanation of this, don’t take my word for it) as a technical matter, and we can’t just be solar/wind dogmatists about it.

Politics is important but boring

I know everybody wants politics to be more interesting than this, but the boring truth about climate change is that unless you figure out a way to create an actual grassroots mass movement for change, then advocates are just basically hostage to the overall fortunes of the Democratic Party.

  • If Democrats defy the odds and retain their majorities in the midterms, then all kinds of legislation will end up containing climate provisions.

  • If Republicans take over Congress, then the scope for legislative action will narrow considerably.

  • If Democrats retain the Senate, then the federal judiciary will grow less hostile to climate action, whereas if Republicans hold the majority, then action will be impossible.

  • If Biden’s approval rating goes up, then these good things are more likely to happen and he will have a stronger hand in negotiations. If it goes down, the reverse will happen.

  • In state politics, too, the better Democrats do in the midterms the more likely we are to see climate policy enacted.

But it just cannot be said enough that in the real world, Democratic Party politicians take more aggressive action on climate than sheer political cynicism alone would warrant. In Washington State, for example, carbon pricing ballot initiatives have repeatedly failed in a distinctly left-of-center state. Undeterred, the state legislature is pressing ahead with a politically risky carbon pricing plan.

I am on board with the consensus that this is an issue worth taking some risks on. But it would really behoove the climate left to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening here, which is that they are one of the blessed children of the Democratic Party coalition — political capital is spent down on advancing their priorities. They ought to act like that’s true and try to be politically helpful rather than turning every act of incremental progress into a feel-bad betrayal, acting so all-powerful that they can afford to deride disfavored sources of zero-carbon energy and go out of their way to associate climate with other, even politically riskier ideas.

Get a grip.