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Why has climate legislation failed? An interview with Theda Skocpol.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama often said his top two priorities were climate change and health care. By the end of his first term, however, only health care legislation had been signed into law. The effort to pass a climate bill was a total bust.

So what went wrong? Why did environmentalists fail where health reformers had succeeded? In a massive new report (pdf) published this week, Theda Skocpol tries to answer exactly this question. The Harvard political scientist spent many months interviewing key players and poring over data.

One of Skocpol's key insights is that health care reformers spent much of their time in the run-up to Obama's election studying past legislative failures and seeing what they could learn from them. Environmentalists, meanwhile, assumed they could build on previous successes and continue attracting Republican support. As a result, the climate movement was utterly unprepared for the GOP's sharp turn against cap-and-trade in 2008.

It's a complex analysis worth reading in full, but it's also 140 pages. So, to discuss some of its main points, I called Skocpol to talk about why the cap-and-trade push failed—and whether climate legislation can ever be viable again. Following is our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Brad Plumer: You spend a lot of time dissecting the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the big collaboration between greens and businesses to push for a cap-and-trade bill that could win support from Republicans. It wasn't a crazy strategy—cap-and-trade had picked up a fair bit of bipartisan support between 2003 and 2007. So why did it ultimately fail?

Theda Skocpol: The whole USCAP strategy was based on this very reasonable idea that you'd get Republicans in Congress to go along with Democrats. But by the time we get to 2009, Republicans just weren't going to be there. And I don't think environmentalists were able to see the shifting ground at the time.

BP: But was there really that big a shift among Republicans? I mean, even in the 2008 campaign, John McCain was in favor of cap-and-trade.

TS: One of the things that really surprised me in my research came from pulling together scores from the [League of Conservation Voters]. And you see a clear pull on politicians from grassroots conservative opinion around 2006 and 2007. Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican identified voters around this time. That created new pressures on Republican officeholders and candidates. And I don't think most people noticed that at the time.

Even John McCain. I have this figure that shows him moving up on LCV scores for most of the last decade [i.e., casting more pro-environmental votes] and then pulling back suddenly to the lowest level starting in 2007.

BP: You have this quote from one cap-and-trade proponent who said "We invested a lot in John McCain." It seems a big chunk of the cap-and-trade strategy relied on the hope that McCain would bring along GOP votes. But he turned against the bill pretty decisively in 2009.

TS: That was from a prominent environmentalist who had spent a huge amount of time on McCain. And that was understandable. But in the end, he wasn't there, was he?

BP: So around 2007, Republicans were becoming more skeptical of climate policy. Yet the main climate strategy in D.C. was to craft a complex cap-and-trade bill amenable to businesses like BP and DuPont in the hopes that those companies would bring in Republican votes.

TS: I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But 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. And in the research we've done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA.

BP: So environmental groups weren't quite ready for Republican resistance. But then why did health care succeed when cap-and-trade failed? What was the difference?

TS: The two groups had slightly different strategies going into 2009. Health care reformers were thinking about how to build support among Democrats while many environmentalists were focused on reaching out to Republicans. But it was when I looked at what kind of organizational investments each campaign had made, that was where I saw some very interesting differences.

BP: How so?

TS: You can argue that the environmental community is extremely fragmented. One thing that struck me was how determined each wing was to point fingers at each other. You have the big, professionally run organizations that had grown up to influence the [Environmental Protection Agency]. Then you have the local groups and direct action groups who think it's futile to cooperate with business. If those different wings had been able to cooperate, they might have gotten further.

And that's exactly what happened in health care. The investments that philanthropies made in [the Health Care for America Now campaign] helped cement links between the national players and the state and local players. The HCAN campaign touted the idea of the public option—which, ironically, wasn't included in the final bill, but it served as a bridge. It allowed people to push for the health care bill without feeling like they were selling out. There wasn't the equivalent of that in the environmental arena.

BP: There was certainly a lot of environmental infighting during the cap-and-trade push—groups on the left arguing that the greens crafting the bill were selling out to coal and so forth. But was HCAN really that crucial in the health care push?

TS: I want to be careful here. I’m not saying HCAN was the primary group responsible for everything. But it did create kind of links that made it possible to push at the very end when many Democrats were ready to drop the whole thing, after Scott Brown's election in Massachusetts. Everyone in Washington was getting ready to run for the hills at that point. But the network that had been built dropped its demand for the public option and pushed for the law to pass.

BP: Whereas with cap-and-trade, as soon as Lindsey Graham backed away from the bill in the Senate in 2010, environmentalists weren't prepared to exert any sort of pressure. The whole thing fell apart very quickly.

TS: It did, and there wasn't really even a push for cap-and-trade to come to a vote. When things start to fall apart, Congress prefers just to pull back. And I think that would have happened with health care, except HCAN played a very important role there. And the irony is that campaign cost just $50 million, a fraction of what USCAP spent.

BP: You talked to a lot of climate activists who fault Obama for not pushing harder for cap-and-trade. 

TS: That wasn't unique to environmentalists—in every policy area I've studied there's this tendency to say that you just need the president to make your issue the top priority and give a lot of speeches and knock heads. From a political science perspective that’s a really bizarre idea, because legislation still has to pass through Congress.

I was also startled by the level of contempt that many environmentalists had for the health reform push. I had a bunch of people telling me that if only health reform had been dropped and climate had been prioritized, they would've prevailed. Or that the health reform push caused all the partisan polarization that doomed cap-and-trade. But if you believe Pew's research, environmentalism is the one place where polarization has grown more sharply than anywhere else.

Only thing I can say here is that I think for people who are highly educated, who think about problems scientifically, which is true of a lot of environmentalists—they find it impossible to believe that the climate issue is ideologically polarizing. It's hard to accept the fact that there are trade-offs here. But we're talking about changing energy use and a huge part of the economy.

BP: So is there any hope for climate policy? You spend a lot of time dissecting the failures of this pro-corporate USCAP strategy that tried and failed to woo Republicans. But you're also skeptical of proposals from the environmental left that building grassroots pressure for climate action is sufficient in itself.

TS: At the end I talk about cap-and-dividend as a promising policy approach [i.e., a cap on emissions in which the proceeds are directly refunded to all Americans]. But I’m not endorsing any bills.

I think of that policy as tool for building a certain political coalition, one that unites around carbon controls that also have payoffs for ordinary Americans. I don’t agree that average Americans can’t grasp big issues. I’m a little different from a lot of scholars on that. But you do need to give people a link to their lives. And big insider deals are just going to turn people off.

BP: Does a new coalition around climate policy really seem realistic? That seems pretty remote right now.

TS: I think it could happen if the various groups that participate in climate-change efforts would frankly start talking to one another about reaching some sort of common ground and that they can reach out to non-environmental groups. The Sandy relief bill is going through the House [on Tuesday], and almost no environmental groups weighed in on that. That’s shocking to me. Here we are, a large group of people in New York and New Jersey that environmentalists want to connect to climate change, and the groups aren't there.  Why not?

So you do have to build broader coalitions. That was one of the things that health reformers did this time around. They buried hatchets and forged ties with groups they needed to, like medical providers, and reached out to small businesses. Health care reformers spent years talking about what went wrong, what they could do differently. But that also took 15 years, from 1994 to when health care finally made it over the top. I'm not sure climate can wait 15 years.

All I know is if another opportunity comes along to get legislation through Congress, those that are prepared are going to be the ones that will be take advantage. And that’s what I don’t see yet. I haven't been impressed by the inside-the-movement post mortems I've read. I don't see any thought that there will have to be a lot of rethinking for that to happen.