Why Did US Climate Legislation Fail and What Does It Mean for International Climate Policy?

A new report on the failure of US climate legislation in 2009/10 by Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol is creating a lot of buzz in the internet. For those with little time to read there is an interview on the Washington Post website.

Skocpol argues that the failure was largely due to the bill’s proponent’s strategy of “insider grand bargaining”, not failure of Presidential leadership as many others have argued. The bill’s proponents assumed that the Republican Party was the party of business and that it would hence be possible to win Republican votes by forging alliances with businesses, for example through the US Climate Action Partnership. According to Skocpol they failed to appreciate the increasing radicalisation of the Republican Party. For instance, the voting record of John McCain, who had previously co-sponsored cap-and-trade legislation, sharply plunged in the latter half of the last decade.

“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.”

She also notes that the environmental movement was and is fairly fragmented so there was no strong grassroots pressure to support the environmental lobbyists in the halls of Congress – and indeed not a lot of effort made to create grassroots pressure. She highlights the Health Care for America Now (HCAN) campaign as a positive counter-example that was in her view very effective at burying internal divisions and linking up national, state and local actors. Such broader and more effective campaigning and coalition building outside the Beltway will  in her view be crucial for any future attempt at climate legislation. She suggests that “cap-and-dividend”, where the proceeds of auctioning emission allowances would be paid out to US citizens, could be helpful in engaging ordinary Americans and building a winning coalition.

David Roberts from Grist broadly agrees with her diagnosis but not with her prescription. He notes that while HCAN may have been instrumental in keeping Democrats in line, it did not swing a single Republican senator. Health care only passed because for a brief period of time there were 60 Democratic senators, a situation unlikely to be repeated soon. In addition, Democrats from coal and oil states will hardly hardly show similar party discipline on climate legislation. Also, while many people are trying to build a grassroots climate movement, in his view the results are far from what would be necessary. And he is skeptical of cap and dividend’s potential to mobilise broad-based public support.

In his view, the USA is not yet ready for a comprehensive national solution and the real battles are now at the state and local levels. According to him the necessary pro-climate constituency will be built programme by programme.

“Changing American climate politics will be a ground-up affair, involving both community organizing and slow, painstaking legislative and regulatory work at the local and state level.”

The view that the Republican Party seems irredeemably radicalised seems fairly mainstream among US analysts, including centrist and conservative ones:

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

– from a Washington Post article by Thomas E. Mann from the centrist Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein from the conservative American Enterprise Institute with the title: “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem”.

So if national US climate legislation is impossible for the foreseeable future, what about ratification of an international climate agreement, which requires a 2/3 majority in the Senate? Some like the German Parliamentarian Hermann Ott are therefore calling for a “climate policy of different speeds” where those actually willing to act would move ahead. Waiting for the USA to come on board sure promises to be quite a long wait.

Related Posts:

Sands Are Running Out for Climate Protection – Wuppertal Assessment of the Doha Climate Conference

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