As the World Burns: New Yorker examines Senate's climate fail

As the World Burns: New Yorker examines Senate's climate fail
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In a new article in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza examines the Senate's failure to pass climate legislation in 2010. It's a detailed and compelling account, the type of palace intrigue that titillates even far outside the beltway. I think the main conclusion you should take away from the article, however, is missing from the text.

But perhaps "palace intrigue" isn't the right phrase for the article, after all. Lizza's piece reads less like the West Wing and more like Saved by the Bell. According to his account, the behind-the-scenes climate negotiations taking place in D.C. were peppered with temper tantrums, profanity laden phone calls, tears, backstabbing, jealousy, and more. The talks were emblematic of the high-school cafeteria politics that now defines "the world's greatest deliberative body."

Lizza outlines how the talks began in early-spring of 2009,

In March of 2009, a senior White House official outlined a strategy for a "grand bargain," in which Democrats would capitulate to Republicans on some long-cherished environmental beliefs in exchange for a cap on carbon emissions.

Over the next year, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Grahm, and Joe Lieberman (the infamous K.G.L.) worked tirelessly to placate, wheedle, and compromise with industry and Republicans to try and build support for a weak climate bill. They were aided by big green groups like Environmental Defense Fund. Lizza writes, "The E.D.F., virtually alone among green groups in trying to form bonds with Republicans, prides itself on being the most politically sophisticated environmental organization in Washington."

Political sophistication is partly code for "giving politicians money" it seems. Lizza describes E.D.F's director Fredd Krupp's work to try and buy Lindsey Graham's continued support for the bill,

Krupp introduced Graham to donors in New York connected to the E.D.F. On December 7th, Julian Robertson, an E.D.F. board member and a hedge-fund billionaire, hosted Graham at a small gathering in his Manhattan apartment. Some New York guests gave money directly to Graham's campaign account. Others, at Krupp's suggestion, donated to a new group called South Carolina Conservatives for Energy Independence, which ran ads praising Graham in his home state.

Giving hand outs to Republicans was only part of KGL and EDF's "politically sophisticated" strategy, however. Lizza writes, "The second theory about how to win the Republicans' support was to go straight to their industry backers." What follows is an extensive account of the give-aways offered to big polluters, often without any real concessions from the industries themselves. Part of the failure, Lizza reports, was due to the blunders by the Obama administration, who authorized offshore drilling and nuclear loans, for example, without consulting with KGL or getting any additional promises from industry. As Lizza writes, "Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach."

As those of you who followed the demise of the climate bill already know, the "compromise and compromise some more" strategy crashed and burned in firey political fashion. The White House screwed Lindsey Graham by accusing him of raising gas-taxes, Harry Reid stabbed everyone in the back by selfishly pushing immigration reform to try and get some political points in Nevada (immigration reform is essential, but timing is everything), Olympia Snowe tantalizingly offered support that never came, and the talks quickly fell apart.

Lizza ends the article by concluding that the failure of the bill is in large part due to the dysfunctional Senate and failure of Obama to show more clear leadership. I agree that those are two main factors, but I think another reason is just as important: at no time throughout the debate did the parties involved feel significant public pressure to pass a strong bill.

Read Lizza's article and you'll find scant mention of any outside political pressure on the process. That's in part because of the nature of the piece, it's a look at the inside game, but it's also because a strong movement simply wasn't there. There was no major political cost for politicians to back away from reform and little pressure on industry to force them to capitulate. Big Polluters weren't shaking in their boots, they were busy demanding more loot.

The thing is, the movement could have been there. Groups like EDF, the Administration, and the Senate gave up on building public support early on. I remember getting an email from a beltway environmentalist in 2009 who wrote, "Why do we need a movement when we're already in the room negotiating with Senators?" The public effort that was rolled out by the big green groups was a by-the-book political strategy of placing phone calls, signing postcards, sending email petitions, and hosting a few rallies. That's maybe good enough to get some more support for public parks, but it isn't nearly enough to reform the entire economy. As I wrote in a blog last week, many environmentalists traded their slingshots for suits and ended up getting badly beat by Goliath.

The movement that could have made a difference, however, was bubbling up all around the country in 2009, but as most grassroots efforts are, it was understaffed and underfunded. Incredibly talented local groups that could have posed a credible in-district threat to politicians were never brought in on the "sophisticated political strategy" of the beltway team. Massive online networks and upstart political campaigns were largely left on the sidelines. Millions of dollars were spent on slick and on-message, yet largely ineffective ads, when the money could have gone towards supporting local groups that knew their territory, mobilizing young people to staff and run regional efforts, investing in aggressive online campaigns to take on dirty lobbyists, or other efforts that not only would have built genuine political pressure but laid the groundwork for a lasting movement.

I understand it's tough to put metrics on movement building. I imagine all this talk about a "climate movement" or a "youth movement" can sound rather loosey-goosey to hardened, sophisticated politicos on the left. Those who have their doubts should take a lesson form their opponents on the right who seized onto the tea-parties early on and helped make them a political force.

Admittedly, I have a large interest at stake here as one of the co-founders of We're one of those up-start, slightly hard-to-put-your-finger-on, movement-focused campaigns that's actively trying to chart a new way forward. And when I say "we" I don't mean our small team of staff -- most of us are in our mid-twenties and still unabashed amateurs at all this -- but the "we" that includes hundreds of thousands of people across the planet working on this movement together.

Next weekend, we're going to do our best to show what this movement is all about and give our colleagues on the left a strong, tangible example of the type of campaigning that we can be investing in over the coming years. There are now over 5,500 events in more than 183 countries planned for the 10/10/10 Global Work Party, with more than 1,200 of them in the United States. As the name suggests, we're not having a "tea party" but a "work party," a day for citizens across the planet to get to work on climate solutions and challenge their leaders to do the same.

Last year, CNN called's 5,200 events in 181 countries for the international day of climate action on October 24, "the most widespread day of political action in the planet's history." Considering we've passed that mark already and may hit as many as 7,000 events for next weekend, that will make October 10 ... well, pretty big.

There's no guarantee that this is the type of thing that can change the political dynamic in this country or lead to the conditions that could pass a climate bill in the future. But it's a heck of a start. Our team here at is mostly made up of people in their mid-twenties. We're not pulling the wages of political consultants (our founder Bill McKibben doesn't take a dime for his tireless work) nor running the budgets of big groups like EDF, but by giving away the campaign to thousands of volunteers and hundreds of partner organizations, we can still accomplish big things. If we can do it, so can others.

But enough out of me for now. I've got to get back to work on the final push for 10/10/10. My hope in writing this blog is that you all will be interested enough to join us for the big day. A movement is out there and it's gaining momentum, but it needs your help. October 10 will see more than double the amount of "Tax Day Tea-parties" that reengergized the right. We're unlikely to get the media attention the tea-parties did (no Fox news on our side), but with your help, we can make enough positive noise that the Global Work Party becomes more than just a single day. And we can look forward to the New Yorker article a year from now that tells the story not of cafeteria-politics in Washington, but of a powerful political movement across the country.

Let's get to work.

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