Climate of Extremes Part Two

Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.


As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.

The San Francisco-based billionaire first gained notice in politics by bankrolling a series of California ballot initiative campaigns that boosted state energy efficiency actions, promoted land conservation, and defended the state’s cap-and-trade law against industry rollback. In recent years, he has devoted much of his wealth and time to financing climate and energy initiatives at Yale University and Stanford University (where as a Trustee he played a key role in pushing through coal divestment), managing clean energy investment funds, and co-founding a climate risk assessment initiative. Along the way, he has hosted major political fundraisers for Democratic Congressional leaders and President Obama, lobbying for stronger action on climate change, including rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.1,2

In 2013, Steyer launched NextGen Climate, a Super Pac that has run a national ad campaign opposing the Keystone XL pipeline while investing heavily in several key electoral races. His top advisor on strategy is Chris Lehane, who specializes in a particularly aggressive brand of hardball politics on behalf of his Democratic clients. “Everyone has a game plan until you punch them in the mouth. So let’s punch them in the mouth,” is how Lehane explains his strategic principles.3 It is an approach that appears to fit well with Steyer’s political philosophy. “The question is, How are you going to get people’s attention?” Steyer told The New Yorker. “A lot of people feel it’s possible to change the status quo politely. That is probably not true.”4

In Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, Steyer’s Next Gen Super Pac joined with activists in spring 2013 to elect Rep. Edward Markey to the U.S. Senate, campaigning against his opponent Rep. Steven Lynch in the primary race. At issue was Lynch’s support for the Keystone pipeline. The Steyer-backed attack on Lynch demanded the candidate “act like a real Democrat and oppose Keystone’s dirty energy,” framing him otherwise as working for Big Oil. In all, Next Gen spent $1.8 million on the Senate Race.5

In fall 2013, NextGen played an influential role in electing Democrat Terry McAuliffe as Virginia governor, spending an estimated $8 million to frame his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli as an elected official who “denies basic science” and who as state Attorney General “wasted taxpayer money” by investigating the research activities of climate scientists. The main goal was to mobilize Virginians who had voted in the 2012 presidential election, but who were otherwise unlikely to vote in the 2013 Governor’s race.6

Their strategy was to portray Cuccinelli as a “wild man.” Direct mail fliers told voters that not only did Cuccinelli dismiss climate science but he also wanted “to eliminate all forms of birth control” and “let criminals, even those convicted of sexually abusing children, buy guns at gun shows.” By the end of the campaign, NextGen had spent an estimated $4.3 million on TV and digital ads, $1.3 million on phone calls and canvassers, and $1.1 million on direct mail.7


With the Virginia race serving as a model to build on, in May 2014, Steyer announced plans to spend at least $50 million of his own money with the hope of raising another $50 million in matching funds from other donors, to support Democratic candidates in seven Senate and Governor’s races. Steyer and Lehane wanted to demonstrate that climate change could be used as a wedge issue to elect Democratic candidates, testing the premise in advance of the 2016 presidential and Congressional elections.8

The strategy is to divide conservative candidates and moderate voters; framing conservatives as standing on the morally wrong side of the climate change issue; as they have been portrayed in the gay marriage and Civil Rights debates.9 The NextGen campaign applies a master narrative that is adapted to each state, emphasizing that climate change poses a serious threat to the economy, public health, and children, and that if a candidate doesn’t believe in climate change, they can’t be trusted. Among those targeted, are young, female, and minority voters who are otherwise less likely to turn out in midterm elections.10

By defining climate change in stark moral terms and by emphasizing Republicans’ “denial” of the problem, environmentalists and Democratic strategists believe that they have identified a successful strategy that will result in electoral victories. Polling suggests that such a wedge strategy may be able to isolate Tea Party identifying Republicans from their more moderate-leaning GOP counterparts. This latter group, though supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, also accepts the reality of climate change and supports specific actions such as EPA limits on coal power plants.11

According to The New York Times, Democratic strategists assume that Republicans who oppose the EPA rules or deny climate change are likely to be viewed by most voters as “ideologically rigid and unwilling to accept scientists’ conclusions,” a perception that will damage Republicans’ efforts to expand their support among young people and women.12

In the Colorado Senate race, for example, NextGen has attacked Republican candidate Cory Gardner not only for being a climate “denier” but also for his positions on gay marriage, birth control, and other social issues. "Climate fits very neatly in a series of issues that define the Republican Party as extreme and out of touch, so in Colorado we're looking to frame Cory Gardner as an extremist," Lehane told the National Journal.13

In response to this strategy, Republicans joined by political reform advocates criticize Democratic leaders for opposing Super Pac spending by conservative billionaires like the Koch brothers, yet readily endorsing Steyer’s efforts.14 In this case, conservatives argue that Democratic leaders are catering to the interests of their liberal activist and donor base rather than looking out for the interests of working class Americans.15

Front page stories at The New York Times and The Washington Post have also highlighted Steyer’s past investments in the fossil fuel industry and the profits accrued by the hedge fund he used to lead, noting the apparent inconsistency with his political advocacy.16,17 Bill McKibben who helped inspire Steyer’s opposition to the Keystone pipeline and who consults with the billionaire activist, offers an opposing perspective: “After years of watching rich people manipulate and wreck our political system for selfish personal interests, it’s great to watch a rich person use his money and his talents in the public interest.”18

Yet to be sure, Steyer’s advisors have been open about his own personal ambitions, as he promotes his national profile and climate advocacy work leading up to a possible future candidacy to be Governor of California.19 “He’s now won two major ballot campaigns in California, and has an incredibly strong relationship with both labor and environmentalists, in a state where it costs fifty million dollars to be a competitive candidate,” Lehane told The New Yorker. “In terms of California brand and California politics, he’s in a pretty sweet place.”20

Steyer’s Super Pac campaign and the allied strategies of groups like the League of Conservation Voters portend further ideological escalation by both sides in the climate debate, with ever more financial and political resources spent on demonizing opponents. Indeed, liberals, environmentalists, and conservatives continue to speculate endlessly as to the fundraising prowess of the other side, each warning of dramatic disparities as a way to mobilize their respective donors and activists.

Across election cycles and legislative battles, as one side gains a perceived advantage; the other side predictably attempts to catch up in terms of spending and polarizing rhetoric.21 In the months leading up to the 2014 midterm elections, liberals led by Steyer have given more to Super Pacs than conservatives, a reversal from the 2012 election cycle.22

Divisive election campaigns deepen public disgust with politics, government and "Washington." The resulting damage to our civic culture disproportionately harms environmentalists and liberals, whose core objectives to combat climate change and seek greater social and economic justice almost always entail government services, investments, and interventions in private markets.

On the complex challenge of managing the risks of climate change and transitioning to cleaner energy sources, where ideas, policy approaches, and compromise from the left and the right will be needed to make substantial progress, the increasing unwillingness of liberals and conservatives to give ground in these debates – or to even listen to each others’ positions – is only likely to seed further dysfunction and disillusionment.

Democrats have also increasingly come to depend upon young people, women, and minorities, who make up a growing proportion of eligible voters. But among these potential supporters, intense negativity and extreme polarization on issues like climate reinforce feelings of cynicism and inefficacy while likely adding to the propensity to tune out the debate. Indeed, in order to mobilize these voter groups in midterm elections, NextGen and their allies will be forced to spend ever-greater resources on canvassing, texting, social media, and narrowly targeted appeals.23


In the final years of the Obama presidency, despite the attention generated by McKibben and Steyer’s campaign strategies, the most significant progress on climate change may occur by way of a traditional insider legal strategy with roots dating to the 1970 Clean Air Act. In this case, going to work behind the scenes after Obama’s 2012 re-election, the Natural Resources Defense Council has strongly shaped the EPA’s proposed rules to regulate greenhouse emissions from existing coal-fired power plants. The rules, many experts predict, can have a substantial impact on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and provide more persuasive leverage in negotiations with China, India, and other countries to agree to binding international emissions targets.24

Indeed, for the foreseeable future, the EPA rules, along with similar executive actions, may be environmental advocates’ best bet to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Looking ahead to after the 2016 election, even assuming that an experienced Democrat like Hillary Clinton is elected president, there will remain major barriers to passing a carbon tax or a similar climate bill, given that Republicans are likely to control at least one half of Congress. Moreover, just as was the case with cap and trade legislation, other issues, including immigration, gun control, income inequality, banking regulation, and revisions to the health care bill may take top legislative priority over climate change.

All of this suggests that in combination with new approaches to grassroots advocacy and election campaigns, a complementary paradigm for climate advocacy may be needed. Indeed, to the extent that the Obama administration has been able to make substantive progress on climate change, it has been through a combination of smaller scale, less politically visible approaches like fuel efficiency standards or EPA rules, rather than pushing for society-transforming solutions like an economy-wide price on carbon.25

In the post 2016 political world, Obama’s strategy may be the new blueprint for tackling climate change. Success, however, will ultimately depend on environmental advocates joining with moderates and right-of-center leaders in pushing for a range of smaller scale policy actions across levels of government. But in the process, for a number of reasons, they will also need to keep a diversity of technologies – including nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and natural gas fracking – on the table as part of the discussion. Not only will we need these options to realistically reduce rising greenhouse emissions, but these technologies will also aid efforts at brokering political agreement.

Drawing on case studies of past environmental debates such as those over acid rain and ozone depletion, science policy experts Roger Pielke Jr. and Daniel Sarewitz argue that once next generation technologies are available that make meaningful action on climate change lower-cost, then much of the argument politically over scientific uncertainty is likely to diminish.26 Similarly, research by Yale University’s Dan Kahan and colleagues suggest that building political consensus on climate change will depend heavily on advocates for action calling attention to a diverse mix of options, with some actions such as tax incentives for nuclear energy, government support for clean energy research, or actions to protect cities and communities against climate risks, more likely to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Under these conditions, in regions, states, and cities it will not only be easier to gain public support from across the political and cultural spectrum, but it will also give members of Congress and future presidents, if they can be pressured into returning to the business of governing, more options by which to reach agreement on actions that address climate change.27

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.

The articles are adapted from the following forthcoming paper:

Nisbet, M.C. (in press). Environmental Advocacy in the Obama Years: Assessing New Strategies for Political Change. In N. Vig & M. Kraft (Eds), Environmental Policy: New Directions for the Twenty-First Century, 9th Edition. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press.

1. Ryan Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker, 2013 September 16.

2. Edward Robinson, “Climate Change Rescue in U.S. Makes Steyer Converge with Paulson,” Bloomberg, 2013 October 1.

3. Adam Nagourney, “Chris Lehane Out-Washington Washington,” The New York Times, 2014 February 26.

4. Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker.

5. Maggie Haberman, “Enviros Threaten Stephen Lynch on Keystone Pipeline,” Politico, 2013 March 18.

6. Alexander Burns and Andrew Restuccia, “Inside a Green Billionaire’s Virginia Crusade,” Politico, 2013 November 11.

7. Burns and Restuccia, “Inside a Green Billionaire’s Virginia Crusade,” Politico.

8. Coral Davenport, “Pushing Climate Change as an Issue this Year but with an Eye Towards 2016,” The New York Times, 2014 May 22.

9. Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker.

10. Davenport, “Pushing Climate Change as an Issue this Year but with an Eye Towards 2016,” The New York Times.

11. Anon, “GOP Deeply Divided Over Climate Change,” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2013 November 1).

12. Carl Huse and Michael D. Shear, “Democrats See Winning Issue in Carbon Plan,” The New York Times, June 9 2014.

13. Jason Plotz and Clare Foran, “Why Are Green Groups Talking About Marriage and Birth Control?,” The National Journal, 2014 September 3.

14. Michael Levenson, “Outside money attacking Stephen Lynch in Senate Race,” The Boston Globe, 2013 April 8.

15. Clare Foran, “Why Democrats Are Afraid of the Man Who Is Giving Them Millions,” The National Journal, 2014 May 12.

16. Michael Barbaro and Carol Davenport, “Aims of Donor Are Shadowed by Past in Coal,” The New York Times, 2014 July 4.

17. Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman, “Tom Steyer’s Slow, and Ongoing, Conversion from Fossil-Fuels Investor to Climate Activist,” The Washington Post, 2014 June 9.

18. Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker.

19. Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker.

20. Lizza, “The President and the Pipeline,” The New Yorker.

21. Matthew C. Nisbet and Dietram A. Scheufele, “The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism,” The Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69, 2012.

22. Scott Bland and Adam Wollner, “Soros, Steyer Spend Big in Bid to Rescue Democrats’ Majority,” The National Journal, 2014 August 22.

23. Nisbet and Scheufele, “The Polarization Paradox: How Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism,” The Breakthrough Journal.

24. Coral Davenport, “Taking Oil Industry Cue, Environmentalists Drew Emissions Blueprint,” The New York Times, 2014 July 6.

25. Jonathan Chait, “Obama Might Actually Be the Environmental President,” New York Magazine, 2013 May 5.

26. Roger Pielke Jr., The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Climate Change (New York: Basic Books, 2010) pg. 43.

27. Matthew C. Nisbet, “A New Model for Climate Advocacy,” Ensia magazine, 2013 November 26.