Failure Of Cap-And-Trade: My Analysis of Theda Skocpol’s Report

Recently Harvard government professor–Theda Skocpol–released a report entitled “NAMING THE PROBLEM: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming.” Skocpol analyzes the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in Congress and the simultaneous success of the health care bill. Why did health care advocates success while environmentalists fail? That is the question that she tries to answer.

Many people have pointed out that Skocpol’s report is valuable because she is an objective researcher. She says: “As a citizen, I am sympathetic to environmentalism in its twin guises of professional advocacy and grassroots activism. Yet my job in this report is to take a cold-blooded look, to use my skills as an empirical, big-picture political scientist to analyze the cap and trade battle against the backdrop of longer-term institutional and political changes in the United States” (7). As a result, her findings hold valuable lessons for environmentalists–especially climate activists.

This is my general take of Skocpol’s report: environmentalists are constantly focused on being inclusive. The climate movement is centered on saving our world. And climate change is an issue that affects every single human being. So it makes sense that getting the most people involved as possible is a good idea.

BUT sometimes activists’ idealism for inclusion takes over, and pragmatism falls by the way side. This is one of the many reasons why cap-and-trade failed. Environmentalists spent too much time trying to win over Republicans and create a “bi-partisan” bill. Health care advocates focused on building support within the Democratic party. And we all know who succeeded. Climate change IS a political issue, and we can’t be naive, pretending that it’s not.

Below are some quotes from Theda’s paper that I think exemplify my thoughts above and her conclusions:

The key point: “If environmental politics in America was ever a matter of working out shared bipartisan solutions to expert-assessed problems, it is now far from that – but in what ways and why” (7)?

What Happened

“Health reformers, in short, were looking to correct for failures they (and their like-minded predecessors) had made in a past political juncture analogous to the one they might soon face, whereas climate reformers eagerly anticipated building upon an earlier triumph during another political opening with a sympathetic president and woo-able legislators in both parties” (22).

“In climate-change politics, the bets were placed on moderate, highly professionalized environmental organizations, and especially on the USCAP coalition that could work out the technical details and broker stakeholder partnerships around a cap and trade proposal and push Congress to move it forward. In health-reform politics, new funding and capacity-building went into various umbrellas for consumer advocates and, most importantly, into a slightly left-of-center effort called “Health Care for America Now” (HCAN) that would orchestrate organizational networks in dozens of states to conduct local events” (35).

What Went Wrong

“As I will spell out, the capacity of opponents to stymie carbon-capping legislation does not depend on general popularity or appeals to middle-of-the-road public opinion. It depends, instead, on leverage within the Republican Party, which in turn can use institutional levers in U.S. government to stymie or undermine governmental measures to fight global warming” (10).

“The question that USCAP supporters should have asked themselves post-mortem was how they could have missed so many indicators of extreme Republican opposition” (99).

“…business interests should have been included in the legislative bargaining process” (97)…

Where To Go From Here

“Reformers of all sorts who want to change energy production and use in the United States will have to publicly dramatize the challenges and offer understandable solutions that do not appear inimical to the everyday values and economic concerns of ordinary American families struggling in an era of stagnating incomes and contracting opportunities” (11)

“The only way to counter such right-wing elite and popular forces is to build a broad popular movement to tackle climate change” (130).

“In the end, members of the House and Senate will decide to support new laws and regulations to help nudge the economy in climate- friendly directions only when they think that articulate leaders and well-organized voters back in their home states and districts really want them to act” (117).

“Whatever happened years ago, “bipartisanship” in today’s Washington DC on environmental policymaking is not going to emerge from additional efforts at insider bargaining – not given the stark polarization of the parties, with so many Republicans now wary of compromise or tilting off the edge of the far ideological right” (130).


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