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Environmentalists as Battered Spouses

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Greens keep returning to their abuser after another promise to do good, but nothing in President Obama’s oil spill speech should offer them any hope that the administration is really going to change.

For a long while now, I’ve thought the environmental establishment was the political equivalent of a cheap date for Democrats. Like the civil rights movement and the black vote, Democrats could count on environmentalists to side with them no matter how much benign neglect Democrats showed their agenda when in power.

Now I’m starting to think “cheap date” isn’t a strong enough simile. Environmentalists are much more like battered spouses, returning again and again to their abuser based on another promise to do good. And nothing in President Obama’s June 15 oil spill and energy speech should offer environmentalists any hope that this is going to change.

The lack of any shift in public opinion on climate change ought to tell the climate campaign something important: The public just isn’t that into you.

Word around town before the oil spill was that environmentalists were ready to swallow additional offshore drilling and new nuclear power subsidies to gain Republican votes for the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill. They had been told by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to shut up and fall in line, you green mother-earth frog-lovers—or something close to that. There’s no way environmentalists would have accepted this deal had Bush been president or a Republican Congress proposed the compromise package. In fact, during the Bush years environmentalists said they would oppose any cap-and-trade scheme that allocated the emission permits for free, demanding instead (and quite soundly I might add) that most or all be auctioned instead. But when the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill gave away 90 percent of the initial emissions allowances for free, the environmental establishment (with a few notable exceptions such as Greenpeace) said. . . nothing.

Eric Pooley’s new book, The Climate War (currently excerpted on Slate.com) offers even more evidence that environmentalists can be pushed around by Democrats with virtual impunity. As Pooley reports, from the earliest days of the Obama presidency, White House support for a cap on carbon emissions “has been all talk—and even the talk tends to get watered down.” Pooley quotes an unnamed White House insider: “You had this incredible green Cabinet of really committed people, but the only thing that really matters is what the president says—so everyone was trying to get words into his mouth. And Rahm was trying to keep the words out of his mouth. It was just a chronic pattern of infighting.”

Environmentalists are much more like battered spouses, returning again and again to their abuser based on another promise to do good.

The greenies in the White House (and Al Gore on the outside) pressed hard for Obama to make a more serious effort. “But then there were the Washington operatives on the political and economic teams who did not want to waste a bunch of bullets on some weirdo green crusade when the polling numbers weren’t there, and it would be a bloody battle to take that hill. They said, ‘Let’s go take some other hill.’”

Pooley adds this additional detail:

When corporate and environmental leaders from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership went to the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing for a late spring 2009 meeting with Emanuel, they could see that he didn’t much care about climate change. What he cared about was winning—acquiring and maintaining presidential power over an eight-year arc. Climate and energy were agenda items to him, pieces on a legislative chessboard; he was willing to play them only in ways that enhanced Obama’s larger objectives. He saw no point in squandering capital on a lost cause. (Emphasis added.)

Pooley’s bottom line: “The chief of staff was an obstacle to climate action.”

So what do environmentalists think of this cynical treatment of their No. 1 priority? Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, said last week that “Obama is the best environmental president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt.” Sounds like he’s willing to be battered again before questioning his political betrothal. Politico noted in a story Saturday, “Some say there’s little doubt that if a spill like the one in the Gulf took place on former President George W. Bush’s watch, environmental groups would have unleashed an unsparing fury on the Republicans in the White House. For their liberal ally, Obama, they seem willing to hold their tongues.”

The public is fine with subsidies and tax credits for green energy (which is all a weak energy bill will do), but you can kiss any serious emissions cap goodbye.

Matt Yglesias argued in The American Prospect last week that “a disaster of this magnitude should be a boon to progressives and progressive policy.” And yet the best bet in Washington right now is that cap-and-trade is dead in any form, that the best environmentalists can hope for now is yet another energy bill like every other energy bill going back to President Jimmy Carter’s first big one in 1978—a bill that, as Kevin Drum rightly observed on the Mother Jones blog, “accomplishes very little, and accomplishes that little solely by offering up subsidies to every special interest you can imagine.” “Yes,” Drum adds, “I'm feeling bitter about this at the moment. Anyone have a problem with that?”

In fact, environmentalists do. When they’re not resembling battered spouses or girlfriends, they’re doing their best paraphrase of Sally Field’s plaintive Oscar night declaration a few years back: “They like us—they really, really like us!” In this case, the climate campaigners keep insisting that at any moment the public is going to come around and embrace their cause, despite poll after poll showing public indifference—if not rising skepticism—about climate change politics and policy.

The best bet in Washington right now is that cap-and-trade is dead in any form, that the best environmentalists can hope for now is yet another energy bill like every other energy bill going back to President Jimmy Carter’s first one in 1978.

The latest exercise in straw-grasping came last week from Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group, which issued a new poll supposedly showing that “huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.” They like us—they really really like us!

While the Stanford poll crows that 76 percent (!) of respondents favor government regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the poll gives away the whole ballgame with its more relevant finding that “Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption.” Um, okay. The public is fine with subsidies and tax credits for green energy (which is all a weak energy bill will do), but you can kiss any serious emissions cap goodbye.

It’s hard not to side with Emanuel’s hardheaded political realism when you see the willful cluelessness of environmentalists. The entire 20-year-old climate campaign to alarm the public and the political system into accepting a “wrenching transformation” (to use Gore’s words) of our energy supply has to be reckoned the single least-successful public persuasion campaign in history. At least a billion dollars has been spent (not counting free media and Hollywood celebrity endorsements) directly trying to push the agenda of carbon constraint over the finish line, and many more billions supporting the scientific establishment that has become an echo chamber for climate doom. Yet all the polls that track the issue with consistent questions year after year (such as Gallup or Pew) show that the needle of public opinion hasn’t budged; to the contrary, there is declining public support for the climate agenda according to Gallup and Pew.

‘When corporate and environmental leaders from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership went to the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing for a late spring 2009 meeting with Emanuel, they could see that he didn’t much care about climate change.’

The modern environmental movement styled itself in many ways after the civil rights movement, and that model was very successful in the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s an important contrast, too. Between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, the civil rights movement succeeded in generating a sea change in public opinion about race relations, which is what made possible the passage of landmark civil rights laws. The lack of any shift in public opinion on climate change ought to tell the climate campaign something important: The public just isn’t that into you.

The climate campaign likes to blame their lack of progress on the “denialist” camp, which has spent a tiny fraction of the amount of the climate campaign to express its skepticism of climate alarmism. If ever there was a modern David-and-Goliath story, this is it. But blaming the climate skeptics is like blaming beer and ESPN for an abusive husband, rather than facing up to the fact that he’s a no-good bum. Rather than traffic in odious “denialist” language, environmentalists might want to consider battered spouse syndrome as an analogy for themselves.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Hayward recently discussed “Trying to Capture that Old Earth Day Magic,” detailed temperature problems with climate change in “Unsettling the Settled Science,” and he and Kenneth Green dismantled the old environmental solutions in “Back to the 1970s: Let’s Get Small!” He outlined solutions to “The Energy Policy Morass” and said many climate change enthusiasts are “In Denial.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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