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Author: Suzanne Goldenberg
Source: The Guardian
Date: 17 January, 2013

A Harvard professor is challenging America’s environmental leaders to learn from their failures on climate change.

Theda Skocpol accused Washington environmentalists in a research paper of grossly under-estimating the resistance to any environmental measures from Republicans in Congress and the conservative Tea party movement. That miscalculation doomed efforts to pass a climate change law.

Now, in an interview, the political scientist is urging environmental activists to accept their mistakes, stop blaming Barack Obama and move on.

“If environmentalists can’t step back two years later and realise it’s more than Obama failing to do something, then they are not going to be ready for the next opening that comes along,” Skocpol told The Guardian.

“The whole world has a stake in the United States figuring out how to change energy-use patterns. It is really, really important for the people involved on all sides of this, those on the inside and those sitting outside to say: ‘what did we miss about the politics here, and what can we do about it next time around?”

She said environmentalists needed to be “realistic”. Even with extreme weather events like Sandy, there was little prospect of action on climate in the absence of a broad-based climate movement.

“You have got to pass legislation, and the way the US Congress works, what senators and representatives think is important and what they are willing to vote for depends on lot on what they are hearing from organised groups and citizens.”

Environmental groups needs to persuade ordinary Americans in conservative regions of the country they would gain, and not lose out in terms of higher gas or heating bills, from the transition to a clean energy economy.

“If you want to change the way Americans think about energy you are going to have to involve large numbers of people in states that are not Massachusetts, California and New York, and that is because of Congress. You can’t get something through Congress unless you have a widespread coalition.”

Blaming Obama for failing to lead on climate was not the solution, she said. “We are now two years after the fact, and still environmentalists are saying: ‘if only Obama gave more speeches or invited Republicans into the Oval Office that could have made a difference. As a political scientist, I find that implausible.”

Skocpol’s research paper, due to be presented at a forum at Harvard on 14 February, has re-opened debate among environmental insiders about the collapse of the climate bill in 2010, and the continued reluctance of the White House and Congress to re-engage with the issue.

The political scientist used data to demonstrate the growing political polarisation in Congress from the mid-90s. Republicans once responsive to environmental concerns began to distance themselves from those issues by the mid-2000s. By 2009, it became a matter of political survival, with conservative Republican activists punishing elected officials suspected of being soft on climate change.

But the finding that most rankled environmental leaders was that they had failed to understand the shift in Republican politics and adapt their political strategy.

Eric Pooley, a vice-president at the Environmental Defense Fund which was instrumental in crafting that failed strategy, said he welcomed the analysis. But he also accused Skocpol of “hindsight bias” for faulting the leaders’ focus on building a coalition with business, insisting there was no way of knowing at the time the strategy would backfire. “Nobody saw the rise of the Tea party,” he said. “The ferocity of the attacks after the bill passed the House caught the environmental movement by surprise.”

Pooley closely covered the process in his book The Climate War, which Skocpol quotes. “Just because you lose a game doesn’t mean the game plan was wrong,” he said. “Maybe the execution was wrong.”

Others agreed with Skocpol that cap-and-trade failed because it was too focused on reaching a deal with industry, rather than trying to win over average Americans.

“In over-emphasizing the need to accommodate big industry (autos, steel, aluminum, etc), they both underestimated the ideological attacks from the tea party and underestimated the potential
groundswell of support they might have unleashed if they had fashioned a very simple bill intended to protect American families,”

– Betsy Taylor, an environmental consultant wrote in an email.

Read article in The Guardian