Barriers to Climate Legislation Following the 2016 Election

Political Dysfunction Requires a New Paradigm for Climate Advocacy

Political forecasts are always difficult to make. But given the dysfunction in Washington and the fall out from Obamacare, as I write in a column at Ensia magazine this week, environmentalists would be wise to reflect on what are quickly appearing to be tough barriers to passing a major climate bill following the 2016 election. Even assuming that an experienced leader like Hillary Clinton is elected president, let’s take a moment to consider how these barriers are likely to shape up.

  • Divided government and a GOP controlled House: According to the Cook Report, Republicans in the 2014 midterms are likely to gain seats in the House, rather than lose ground to Democrats. In 2016, therefore, it would take a historic electoral shift for Democrats to win back control of both houses of Congress. To the extent that Republican leadership hold to their long standing rule that legislation can only be called to vote if a majority of their members favor the bill, even the most carefully configured climate legislation stands little chance of being given consideration as long as the GOP remains in power.
  • Other issues trump climate change as policy priorities: Budget battles and government shutdowns have pushed to the back burner immigration reform and gun control, policy priorities that currently stand in line ahead of climate change. If neither issue is resolved legislatively by 2016, these two issues are likely to remain as lead priorities for an incoming Clinton administration, or any Democratic president. The sputtering roll out of Obamacare also likely means that there will be heavy focus post-2016 on fixes to the legislation as well as continued efforts by the GOP to delay, block or eliminate. To the degree that a more centrist front-runner like Clinton is challenged from the left in the Democratic primaries, the strongest emphasis is likely to be placed on reforming the financial sector and in related policies that address income inequality. Though Clinton and other Democratic primary candidates will face pressure from the left to address climate change, financial reform and income inequality are still likely to rank higher as priorities for liberals, and for any incoming Democratic president.
  • Obamacare damages the credibility of future climate legislation. The perceived failures of Obamacare have significantly damaged public faith in the ability of political leaders to design complex legislative solutions to pressing problems. This loss of faith will make it that much more difficult to gain support for climate legislation that will invariably be just as complex as Obamacare, easily perceived as costly, and viewed skeptically by moderates and journalists as a viable fix for a diabolically wicked problem. For environmentalists, selling the public and political leaders on complex climate legislation that places an economy wide price on carbon has been a Holy Grail quest for more than a decade, but in the wake of the perceived failures of Obamacare, the epic journey becomes even more difficult.

As I write at Ensia, thinking through these challenges suggests that a different paradigm for climate advocacy may be needed, a new emphasis that shifts focus from national legislation to a broad portfolio of smaller scale policy actions. Indeed, as New York magazine’s Jonathon Chait points out, 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 rather than pushing for society transforming solutions like an economy wide price on carbon.

In the post 2016 political world, Obama’s much criticized strategy may in fact be the new blueprint for achieving progress on climate change. This success ultimately depends on advocates joining with experts in pushing for a range of smaller scale policy actions across levels of government. But in the process they will also need to keep a diversity of technological solutions – including nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and natural gas fracking -- on the table as part of the discussion.

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, when they are ready to return to the business of governing, more options by which to reach agreement and compromise.

Read the full column at Ensia magazine: "A New Model for Climate Advocacy: Pragmatism and Compromise Are Needed to Break Down Climate Change Into Smaller Interconnected Problems Where Progress Can Actually Be Achieved."

See Also

Nisbet, M.C. (2013). Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist. Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March. Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. [PDF] [Summary, Slides, Video]

Nisbet, M.C. & Scheufele, D.A. (2012, Aug.) The Polarization Paradox: Why Hyperpartisanship Promotes Conservatism and Undermines Liberalism. Breakthrough Journal, 3, 55-69. [HTML]

Nisbet, M.C., Markowitz, E.M., & Kotcher, J. (2012). Winning the Conversation: Framing and Moral Messaging in Environmental Campaigns. In L. Ahern & D. Bortree, (Eds.). Talking green: Exploring current issues in environmental communication. New York: Peter Lang. [PDF] [HTML]

Nisbet, M.C. (2009). Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter to Public Engagement. Environment, 51 (2), 514-518. (HTML).