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Are Environmental Groups to Blame for Lack of Climate Progress?

J. Mijin Cha

In our discussions around climate change, we’ve noted that while vast majorities of Americans both believe in climate change and think it’s manmade, pushing for action on climate change remains a low priority. This reality leaves Congress and the Administration free to not take any meaningful action on climate change and face little political consequence for not doing so. Indeed, since the failure of the cap-and-trade effort, little action has been taken on climate change even though the costs of inaction will dwarf the $50.7 billion that Congress just approved for Superstorm Sandy aid. 


A new paper from Harvard academic, Theda Skocpol, goes beyond claiming that legislative inaction is due to lack of public pressure and places the failure to pass climate legislation on environmental advocacy groups. Skocpol does a detailed analysis of the circumstances surrounding the failure of the cap and trade bill, Waxman-Markey, and compares tactics between climate advocates and health care reform advocates. She concludes that environmental groups failed to adequately prepare for the strength of the Tea Party and conservative opposition and criticizes the insider strategy employed by environmental groups that focused too heavily on inside-the-Beltway politics.

Skocpol is not the first to blame the environmental movement for failing due to its insider strategy. A report released last year looked at how the environmental movement was funded and found that the vast majority of funding goes to big, professionalized organizations that heavily rely on inside the beltway campaigns, rather than grassroots environmental organizations. Environmental organizations with annual budgets over $5 million comprise only 2 percent of all environmental groups, but receive over half of all environmental grants and donations. These large organizations rely on an apolitical approach that assumes decision-makers will do the right thing when confronted with the evidence. Yet, despite overwhelming evidence, this strategy has failed.

Skocpol recommends the environmental movement reorganize their strategy into a broader, grassroots movement. Indeed, in contrast to the failure of Waxman-Markey, the few recent environmental successes were large, grassroots campaigns that harnessed the anger and frustration local communities and climate advocates felt. Rather than using an insider strategy, like lobbying Congressional members, more than 10,000 advocates opposing the Keystone XL pipeline surrounded the White House. What looked like an easy permit approval for TransCanada turned out to be one of the largest environmental mobilizations in recent history and ultimately resulted in the State Department denying the permit. (Although the victory seems to be temporary.)

Likewise, in the fight against fracking in New York State, an unprecedented 200,000 comments were submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation voicing opposition to lifting the fracking ban. The DEC has yet to issue its decision and we’ve raised doubts about the health review underway. But, it’s undeniable that 200,000 comments cannot be easily dismissed or ignored.

I think it’s a bit too easy to just blame the big enviros for the lack of meaningful climate legislation. But, I do think diversifying tactics to include a broader, more inclusive grassroots campaign is the only way the movement can be successful. Ultimately, climate change won’t be a priority for Congress until it’s a priority for the general public. Engaging more people in the environmental movement makes this necessity more likely.