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The Grassroots Alternative

Marshall Ganz, a veteran grassroots organizer who worked on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, said that real societal change “almost never comes from an insider deal.” A key to Obama's 2008 victory, said Ganz, now a lecturer at Harvard University, was the strong local, state, and national leadership of Obama's more than 2,500 field directors and organizers. Civic organizations such as the green groups have become what Ganz describes as “bodiless heads”—professionally staffed, Washington-based organizations that are largely disconnected from the public they purport to represent. “To think that a deep reform of our energy policies was going to happen because somehow it was going to be negotiated in D.C., it was just ahistorical,” he said.

And yet, pursuing an inside game is precisely the path that the green groups chose. Had they tapped into existing mass mobilization efforts, they might have formed valuable alliances with groups such as 1Sky, a network of smaller environmental organizations that was organized well in advance of the congressional legislative battles. As early as 2007, 1Sky, which championed a strong carbon cap, had built up a grassroots base of youth, labor, and faith-based groups as well as some of the strongest regional environmental organizations in the country. Unlike the green groups, 1Sky built broad support, deploying some 2,300 field volunteers across 29 states. Gillian Caldwell, 1Sky's former campaign director, told National Geographic News that the climate campaign suffered from “a chronic and historic underinvestment in grassroots mobilizing.”

This most recent lack of investment in the grassroots was certainly not limited to climate and energy issues. A February 2012 report published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Cultivating the Grassroots, found that between 2007 and 2009, just 15 percent of all environmental grant dollars benefited marginalized communities and 11 percent went to social justice issues—two investment areas that the report's authors identified as critical to cultivating grassroots support.

Part of the reluctance among green groups to make such an investment is because such on-the-ground work is resource and time intensive, requiring commitments that go against the current trend of funding allocations in one-, two-, and three-year cycles with short-term deliverables. As Maggie Fox, president and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, formerly the Alliance for Climate Protection, put it: “Funders don't do grassroots.”

Although the green groups did launch a more localized media and field campaign after passage of the House bill—Clean Energy Works (CEW) — the effort came late in the game. CEW's director, Paul Tewes, a veteran Democratic operative, deployed some 200 individuals in more than two-dozen swing states such as Arkansas and Ohio to generate grassroots support for climate action and to develop intelligence on the senators and their staffs. In an effort to address the most pressing concerns of voters, CEW pushed two chief benefits of cap-and-trade legislation: better national security through energy independence and the creation of “green jobs.”

But while CEW claimed that 1.9 million new jobs would result from climate legislation, even those leading the campaign recognized that the figure was merely “a number cobbled together from a number of reports,” said David Di Martino, former CEW communication director. In truth, despite the fact that the White House had been clear that green jobs was an important message, the green groups never believed they were the right messengers. “We're not about job creation,” NRDC president Frances Beinecke said.

The lack of grassroots organization around climate is in sharp contrast to the 2010 passage of health care reform. In 2008, health care reform advocates faced similarly strong and well-funded opposition as the environmental community did, but how they organized themselves was radically different. Leading the health care push in Congress was Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a reform coalition launched in 2008 that now includes 1,000 groups representing 30 million people in all 50 states. This primary lobbying vehicle was a broad-based organization of like-minded members, including public charities, advocacy groups, physicians and nurses, and labor unions. Rather than seeking to broker a compromise solution from the start as USCAP did, the HCAN approach was more oppositional. Even so, underscoring the difficulty of pushing through such contentious legislation, the health care bill that passed in 2010 was an enormous departure from the principles set out by HCAN.

The failure of the cap-and-trade campaign, which did not have the same grassroots support as health care reform, has left the environmental community even further away from passing comprehensive climate legislation than when Barack Obama first came into office. If anything, opponents of the cap-and-trade bill have been emboldened by its failure and have mounted an assault on the EPA's scope of authority—particularly its ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. In both houses of Congress, dozens of bills have circulated to weaken the 44-year-old law. Even as 2012 went on record as the hottest year in the United States, President Obama faced a tough re-election campaign against Republican candidates who labeled climate change as “manufactured science” and a “hoax.” He shelved plans to tighten Bush-era ozone standards and instead advocated for “the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover.”

The cap-and-trade defeat in 2010 was so profound that it is unclear when another attempt at passing federal legislation can be made. At the beginning of his second term, President Obama called on Congress to “pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change.” In the absence of Congressional action, Obama has vowed to use his executive powers to act on climate. Notably, his administration has proposed the nation's fi st federal limits on power plant carbon emissions. But among green groups, there has been no apparent marshaling of resources around a different approach to climate policy, such as, for example, a carbon tax, which in recent years has been increasingly supported by politicians, economists, and think tanks along the political spectrum for promising to drastically cut the federal defi

Recently, green groups have shown signs that they are trying to engage the public more, mobilizing successfully, for example, in defense of the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases and other air pollutants through partnerships with groups such as the American Lung Association and the League of Women Voters. But it remains unclear whether the big greens will be able to build mass demand for a national climate policy, or even whether they will decide it is in their interest to do so. The most visible grassroots mobilization these days is being spearheaded not by organizations like EDF or NRDC, but by groups such as 350.org, which has successfully rallied students from more than 300 colleges and universities in a nationwide fossil fuel divestment campaign and thousands more Americans to protest the controversial expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline.

“Democratic mobilization becomes the norm when would-be leaders can achieve power and influence only by drawing others into movements, associations, and political battles,” Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol writes in Diminished Democracy, her study of civic engagement in American life. This incentive to mobilize was largely absent in the green groups' campaign for climate legislation. Their fundamental assumption was that success lay in negotiating with industry and lawmakers directly, and not in building grassroots support.

This reasoning is, of course, not without some merit. A real transformation has taken place in the civic landscape over the past four decades, Skocpol notes, from the days when politicians won office in closely fought, high-turnout elections, and American civic life was characterized by participation in far more local and community-based groups. The focus today on Washington-based advocacy and lobbying is reflected in the expansion of congressional staffers who serve as the primary conduit to elected officials— the number of these staffers has risen from 6,255 in 1960, to 10,739 in 1970, to about 20,000 in 1990. By 2000, the number was 24,000.

The composition of the national green groups today, with their professional staffs and their Washington focus, reflects this shift. But given that the green groups are likely to remain vastly outspent by industry lobby groups that oppose their efforts, future campaigns will run into the same obstacles as in this most recent push for climate legislation. Tapping into the grassroots base and learning how to mobilize the public may be the only way to balance the scales. It was, after all, the rise in the public's environmental consciousness in the 1960s that led to the first Earth Day in 1970 and gave a mandate and a constituency to EDF, NRDC, and the Sierra Club, which then leveraged this energy to push for reforms.

Whatever policy approach is embraced, the path to meaningful action will require a fundamental paradigm shift. Climate is the defining issue of our generation. Yet solving this problem requires confronting market capitalist forces that are considered fundamental to the American way of life. As writer Naomi Klein astutely points out in her essay “Capitalism vs. Climate,” in The Nation, what climate deniers understand (and the big green groups do not) is that lowering global carbon emissions to safe levels will be achieved “only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their 'free market' belief system.” In this sense, writes Klein, the climate deniers have a firmer grasp of the high stakes at the core of the climate debate than “professional environmentalists” who “paint a picture of global warming Armageddon, then assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying 'green' products and creating clever markets in pollution.”

In 1995, the journalist Mark Dowie observed in Losing Ground that for too long, mainstream environmental advocacy in the United States has taken the form of a “polite revolution,” one that has been marked from the start by “polite activism” that favors an elitist and insider approach rather than aggressive grassroots and coalitional forms of activism. The failure of the legislative effort during President Obama's first term is perhaps the most definitive evidence to date that climate change will not be resolved through politesse.

 
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