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Complacent About the Planet. Or Not.

Last week's item about liberals and climate change provoked a smart response from Josh Nelson that, like the rest of his blog, is well worth reading. In my item, I had bemoaned the lack of grassroots pressure for climate change legislation, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and suggested the relative complacency was one reason climate change legislation had stalled in Congress. Nelson offered several rebuttals, chief among them: (1) The grassroots have applied more pressure than I conceded (2) It's unclear how much impact more pressure would have.

To back up (1), he cited several factors--among them, the 100,000-strong Earth Day rally in Washington that preceded the Gulf spill and the Hands Across the Sand event of a few weeks ago. I too had cited Hands Across the Sand, but to make an opposite point: By my (admittedly speculative) guess, just a few thousand people nationwide had taken part. Nelson cited Sierra Club estimates that tens of thousands of people took part. To back up (2), he cited a litany of structural impediments to passing climate change, like the 60-vote threshold in the Senate and power of monied special interests to block it.

Nelson and I agree on a lot--more, I think, than his item suggests. Most obviously, we agree on the need for comprehensive climate change legislation. (Having worked with Brad Plumer all these years, how could I think otherwise?) Less obviously, we agree on the structural impediments to reform. As I said in my original item, the structure of the Senate (in which conservative states have disproportionate power), the requirement of a 60-vote majority, and the huge influence of corporate money make progressive legislation in general--and environmental legislation in particular--awfully difficult to pass. If I somehow implied these factors were less relevant, that was certainly not intention.

But the impediments are also a fact of political life, at least for the moment, much as some of us are desperate to change them. And in that political environment, it takes herculean efforts to push legislation through. An idea must, for starters. be broadly popular. Climate change legislation is, at least on the surface. But public sentiments on the issue are not always clear or deeply held (thanks in no small part to misinformation from climate change denialists). Support for schemes that put a price on carbon is particularly ambiguous.

In one highly publicized Stanford survey, large majorities of respondents said they believed climate change was real and that government should reduce information. But similarly large majorities opposed taxes on on electricity or gasoline. Different polls have produced different results, depending on the wording. (I know of at least one that showed majorities were willing to spend $100 more a year to curb emissions.) But that's the point: It's hard to discern a clear sense of public priorities right now.

This is hardly unusual; the same was true of health care reform. But particularly under such circumstances, pressure from activists--something that conveys intensity and passion--have an impact. And that’s really what I was writing about.

I’m not sure I buy those Sierra Club crowd estimates, but let’s stipulate that it’s true. And let me concede that I was wrong to overlook Earth Day: when 100,000 people show up in Washington, it’s a big deal. The premise of my argument was what I was hearing from staff on Capitol Hill, many of them supporters of climate change.

In the wake of the oil spill, I had asked them, were their switchboards lighting up? Were they getting inundated with emails? With letters? The answer was no, no, and no.

Here, again, is what one senior staffer told me:

There is not a giant push beyond the major enviro groups and John Kerry, and none may come for the rest of this year. The larger apparatus that would need to be mobilized for such an effort is either hungover from health care, still finishing the job on fin-reg, or both.
The Gulf disaster is causing lots of members to rush to appear responsive, but most see climate change as off topic in terms of an action item.
Climate change is in large part a victim of the sour economy. Republicans can too easily message it as a job killer. With 10 percent unemployment, health care wouldn't pass now either.
Plus, whereas health care at least had buy-in from almost every Democrat, climate change starts off at more disadvantaged position, because it is an issue that cuts geographically more than anything.

One issue is whether the push would have materialized if Democratic leaders like President Obama committed to passing legislation. As I said in my article, I do fault Obama for his slow political reaction and, perhaps, missing an opportunity to push an otherwise skittish Congress. (More on that particular issue, and the related question of how liberals feel about Obama, soon.)

But maybe it’s not too late. Nelson suggests that, when (and if) the Senate turns to climate change/energy legislation later this summer, activists will mount the kind of campaign I think is still lacking. Nothing would please me more.