"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.... Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms." These words in Barack Obama's second inaugural address thrilled many who have heretofore been peeved (if not outraged) at the president's silence on what they consider the overriding challenge of our time: the fight to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and prod the United States into fundamentally new modes of energy use and production. "Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage" is how the nation's leading liberal newspaper, the New York Times, headlined its front-page, above-the-fold story. A more cynical note was sounded by the Wall Street Journal in its page 7 offering, "Rhetoric Heats Up on Climate Change."
What does Obama's new willingness to speak up about climate change really mean for the next two to four years? It does not mean that "cap-and-trade" legislation, or any other variant of carbon taxes or capping, is imminent. But it does suggest that Obama understands the stakes and wants to make a real impact. For that, he should be applauded: A president who speaks regularly about the dangers of climate change and the human causes contributing to global warming can inspire citizens, help people connect dots they would not otherwise connect, and could set the stage for a widely supported legislative push after 2014 or -- more likely -- 2016.
That said, if Obama and his allies in the environmental movement wish to pass meaningful legislation that might stand a chance of delivering on his slightly megalomaniacal claim during the 2008 campaign that the Obama presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," then they must learn from the mistakes of the past. Most of the action on climate-change legislation under Obama has centered in the effort to pass a cap-and-trade system in a drive driven by an alliance of big professional evironmental organizations and leading corporations. Neither the first-term Obama nor environmentalists pushing for comprehensive legislation have paid any heed to the president's heritage as a grassroots organizer. Instead, all the focus has been on bargains with polluting corporations and attempts to woo a few votes from congressional Republicans -- a strategy that badly failed in the Senate in 2010 when no Republicans were willing to vote for cap and trade, no matter how many concessions were offered.
The inside game has failed in part because climate reformers have not invested in building an outside game, a nationwide network of groups that reaches into localities and states. In my recently issued report, "Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight Against Global Warming," I argue that opponents of government action to limit carbon emissions have successfully spread public doubts and mobilized to pressure legislators, especially Republicans. Today, according to a recently issued CNN poll, fewer than half of Americans believe that global warming is a human-caused problem, a level of belief lower than in 2007. Those who either deny global warming or do not think it has human roots or solutions are largely self-described conservatives, who make up about half of the GOP's voting base and represent some of its most determined elite advocates and funders. Republican opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions is entrenched from above and below -- and many Democrats in Congress are irresolute on the issue if they come from states with powerful energy producers or electricity generated from coal-fired plants.
The congressional equation can only change if proponents of carbon limits stop trying to arrange secretive insider bargains and, instead, put forward a transparent proposal such as a carbon tax with revenues returned directly to citizens in annual dividend checks. But proposing such a goal would not be enough; nor would a lot of White House speeches. Several years of popular organizing would be needed to build alliances stretching into most states and congressional districts. Leaders and citizen activists would have to get involved. And not just the usual suspects in the environmental movement. A push for carbon taxes and dividends would need support from unions, women's groups, and community associations.
The president will also need to mobilize his own grassroots army. The old Obama had the right idea. Early on, he hinted at support for some kind of carbon-capping system with dividends for regular citizens, but he stood back once the cap-and-trade push started in Congress. America's first black president has repeatedly been linked to the legacies of Martin Luther King, but on the issue of climate change, Obama has failed to incorporate the lessons of King's civil rights movement. If combating climate change is a decisive challenge -- just as civil rights were in the 1960s -- it is unforgivable that the Democratic Party and its activist allies have failed to organize on the issue and create the kind of widespread movement that can not only move public opinion but also deliver votes at the ballot box and pressure from the districts on Congress. During this last election campaign, Obama deployed one of the most formidable grassroots organizations in history. That organization -- formerly Obama for America has now become Organizing for Action. It is high time it to be put it to good use.