Climate Legislation Redux: The View From the Red Seats

One casualty of our Too Big to Fail, 24-hour news cycle culture has been the faith that people used to put in the value of small things. Small farms, small communities, even "small" people, who will never headline a news program, but may possess priceless knowledge of a place and a people developed over generations, have slipped from most Americans' radar. Our inability to hear those voices, to find a space for them in decisions that affect us all, makes it difficult to create policy that addresses the biggest survival picture of all: the interrelatedness of all species with our earthling home. Ironically, cap and trade legislation -- intended at some level to protect such values -- fell victim to exactly the same top-down, insular thinking that has carried us all into the maw of a global climate crisis.

Theda Skocpol's recent insightful analysis lays bare the no-man's-land disconnect between D.C. groups and grassroots as climate legislation died a slow, public death in 2009 and 2010. There was no bridge across. We from the red states -- when we could get a hearing at all, even with our own allies -- described debating not just political opponents but often our own neighbors and family members over the profound impacts that global warming legislation promised to have on fossil fuel-dependent state economies. We talked about how fossil fuel taxes were remodeling schools, propping up impoverished reservations and small towns that had been evolving into ghost towns, filling state coffers with billions even as the economy tanked.

You are asking people to give up security for a frightening unknown, we said. The role of the inner West in the global energy economy is small-scale -- except for our coal mines, our gas and oil fields, and our earth-shaking fracking apparatus. The fossil fuel industry's money and influence dominate our daily lives. This isn't ideology, it's another inconvenient truth. Climate policymakers would have to deal with it or run into a buzzsaw of swing state opposition -- as ultimately they did.

As Bill McKibben points out in a recent Grist piece about Skocpol's study, the inside game seemed worth a try at the time. It played on a traditional strength of the environmental movement: getting major players around the table and hammering out a compromise. But the insiders, perhaps because they weren't out in the states where fossil fuels were and are king, couldn't see the magnitude of the forces they confronted. Even now, I have to remind myself consciously that the strategic decisions on cap and trade were made in good faith by fallible, well-intentioned human beings. My mind fixates on too many conversations with staffers for large NGOs and program officers for large foundations. I was saying what many representatives of red state, grassroots NGOs were saying: "The impacts of cap and trade on a few states are too great. They'll never let this happen. We'll lose a whole swath of swing state Democratic senators if they have to vote for this. The foundation isn't there. We have to build movement around this. The resources have to go into the states first, before the D.C. strategy can work." We pointed out at the time that health care reform was championing vastly greater grassroots organizing resources in the states and getting proportionate results.

Our time would have been better spent learning to knit for all the good it did. We swing staters found ourselves looking around in confusion, wondering where the climate campaign resources could be going if not to us. There we were in states like Montana and North Dakota with powerful fossil fuel industries and moderate Democratic senators -- the people who would have to vote en bloc for climate legislation if it were to have any hope of surmounting a filibuster -- and the ground game was entirely missing. The notion of consulting the people likely to be most negatively affected by climate legislation seemed to be dismissed early on as dangerously naïve by the people controlling financial resources. Somebody else -- more urban, more expert -- would decide how to handle this civilization-level challenge. It would be up to a 22-year-old activist with a Blackberry and an out-of-state phone number to sell it to people with legitimate fears about losing their jobs while their utility bills tripled. A few small grants here and there supported in-state cap and trade communications, a few operatives parachuted in -- but the job wasn't to build consensus, it was to sell a pre-wrapped package that nobody wanted.

Our interlocutors from urban areas and blue states believed, perhaps, that we were experiencing an aberration, something politically insignificant. Maybe they saw the problem as too difficult and chose to tackle what they had some hope of changing: a kind of political Serenity Prayer coupled with a Hail Mary hope that our best would be good enough. And too many of them, I know from personal experience, believe that red state residents can't be trusted to make any rational decision regarding our own lives, contaminated as we are by religion, gun culture, and a highly suspect lack of interest in living in a big city. That contempt cost us all dearly.

What red state grassroots climate activists were seeing, in 2008 and 2009, was a mounting perfect storm of ideological opposition to any form of federal action on climate. The contributing factors were complex. The economy certainly played a part, but fossil fuel interests with a long-standing presence in states and localities played their hand well. They wrap themselves in the flag of loyal, community-supporting businesses, American-sourced energy, jobs, and tax revenues. They consistently undermine renewable energy efforts as expensive and unreliable -- or just take knee-jerk stances against them. One red state legislator told his local university that he'd oppose any additional funding for it after administrators chose to install a geothermal heat system instead of relying on in-state coal. They fight dirty, leaning on labor unions, chambers of commerce, rural electric cooperatives and other well-funded lobbying superpowers for support, and they are running the table in swing states, to put it mildly.

The failure of cap and trade is a failure of democracy, of creativity -- in the end, of civilization. It is also a failure of faith in small places and the power of community. At the moment of crisis we lacked the faith in each other necessary to engage in true dialogue and understand each other's fears and needs. We chose the top-down, arrogant path that led us into the climate crisis in the first place. The path back, the path of healing, requires exactly the opposite. It requires listening to small voices, many voices, and engaging in the careful, long-term work of restoring Earth's ecosystems -- human, plant, animal, and mineral -- one community at a time. This isn't a distraction from the main issue, it is the issue. It is the only path back into right relationship with all our relatives.