Theda Skocpol names the problem, and the solution involves climate dividends

The March 31, 2022 edition of FEASTA’s Bridging the Gaps Podcast focuses on US climate policy, in particular climate dividends, and lessons learned from the 2010 failed effort to pass national climate legislation.  Our guest, Professor Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, has extensively researched the social and political dynamics that can bring about major changes in social policy in the US.

In 2013, Professor Skocpol wrote the report “Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming”. It came out in the aftermath of a failed attempt at climate legislation in the US that took place in 2010. This failed legislation, sometimes referred to as Waxman-Markey, for the names of its main sponsors in the House of Representatives, was a sprawling bill of over 1,500 pages – with sections on incentives, regulations, and a carbon pricing section on Cap & Trade.  The climate bill passed the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate. The report dissects the various actors involved, why it failed, contrasting it with the political strategy that helped a health care bill pass around the same time. The report also supports Cap and Dividend, or Cap and Share, a climate policy that’s advocated by members of Feasta’s climate group.

“Naming the Problem” calls out one of the problems with the Waxman-Markey bill: its lack of engagement and resonance with the general public. The report stated that

‘the trick in preparing for the next drive for carbon capping legislation will be to work out an approach that can inspire widespread public understanding and enthusiasm and, at the same time, build organizational networks in which national and local activists can work together.’

‘To counter fierce political opposition, reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats. Compromises with amenable business interests will still be necessary. But insider politics cannot carry the day on its own, apart from a broader movement pressing politicians for change.’

The report says that a successful climate bill needs to reach out to networks outside the Washington DC Beltway.  The report states,

‘USCAP brought together more than two dozen big business CEOs with the leaders of big environmental organizations – the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the World Resources Council, and the Nature Conservancy. (Originally, the National Wildlife Federation was also on board, but it eventually dropped out in early 2009.)  ‘Not surprisingly, the major environmental groups that stuck with USCAP throughout 2009 and 2010 steadily gave ground on issues like free allowances and offsets to carbon polluters. They steadily lost leverage, because they could not simultaneously stand up for negotiated compromises with their business partners in USCAP and have their own organizations push unremittingly for tougher, more environmentally friendly legislative provisions.’

During the podcast, Professor Skocpol notes that the report was met with hostility by those organizations, and there was not any follow up discussion or self-reflection.  Those organizations pivoted to a different strategy, hoping the White House would regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act.  The Obama Administration’s proposal was put on hold by the Supreme Court (one of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s last acts before he died), and later reversed by the Trump Administration.  There is a case with the potential to undermine Biden’s revived regulatory approach (which has not even been announced yet) pending before the current Supreme Court, whose make up now consists of 6 potential votes to overturn the plan to only 3 votes to sustain it.  The Beltway groups also support spending and investment policies such as The Green New Deal or Build Back Better, but have not vocally supported climate dividends.

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Naming the Problem said it was difficult to create a personalised message to less politically engaged Americans outside the Beltway because

‘the cap and trade bills debated in Congress were all about inter-organizational deals among corporations, unions, advocates, and industrial sectors, not about specific benefits that would be directly delivered to individual citizens. The best ad writers would be able to do would be to personally dramatize threats from climate change, and they rarely even did that.”

Opponents to Waxman-Markey had a field day with claims about how much more households would have to pay with what they called ‘cap and tax,’ and most people didn’t even know what ‘cap and trade’ was.

Some environmental groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and saw the flaws in Waxman-Markey as it became too watered down, and they started criticizing the USCAP group, saying it was too ‘pro-business’.

‘As the environmentalist critics saw it, the whole USCAP exercise was a bad deal with the devils in the carbon-polluting industries, in which way too much was conceded, only to have the devils walk away in the end.’

Naming the Problem goes on to question the benefit of a Green New Deal with no cap on emissions.  It could still result in rising emissions.

“…even if it makes good sense to urge public investments in research and deployment of green technologies, is that a substitute for raising the price of carbon energy production and use? Will the new green technologies be able to get off the ground if U.S. regulations and taxes continue to subsidize oil production and encourage the use emissions-producing energy sources?”

Perhaps that movement for a Green New Deal and Beyond could combine Green New Deal with carbon capping and dividends.

In Spring of 2022, the Build Back Better agenda is currently in limbo, and the era of increased polarization is hampering the ability to develop bi-partisan climate solutions (let alone carbon capping).  Professor Skocpol recommends building networks outside the Beltway.

The Dividends for America website is a first step towards reviving some of the grassroots and organizational support behind the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act of 2009 and 2010.  On the international level, CapGlobalCarbon would also lay the ground for scaling up cap and dividend and funding the Global South’s energy transition.  If we can learn from the past, maybe we will not be doomed to repeat it.

The first step is to ‘name the problem’, and Professor Skocpol also names a key part of the solution: cap and dividend. We can prepare for the next opportunity to tackle this problem by forming a broad coalition so that we can also address the economic concerns felt by Americans across the country.  High gas, fuel, and energy prices bring renewed attention to this issue, and the ideas behind Universal Basic Income are slowly infiltrating the public consciousness, so maybe that next opportunity is not so far off.

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