A Teachable Moment (Lost?)

Climate change and the domestic economic climate in tension


Thomas Schaller
December 15, 2009 9:16PM (UTC)

One of the frustrations of being a progressive is that the bar to clear for public support seems to be asymmetrically higher for progressive agenda items than conservative agenda items. More than anything else--the bias of the media, think tanks or other institutions, which is a related and relevant element--the political reality that less support is needed, say, to pass a tax cut for rich people or start a war than is needed to expand health care coverage or raise the minimum wage, testifies to the fact that the political system is generally skewed against progressive reforms.

And so it is with climate change. The USA Today reports today that Americans by a 17-point margin, 55 percent to 38 percent, support a global treaty to deal with climate change. In a democracy, no less one where Democrats control the entire federal government, that ought to be enough to political capital to get such a treaty done--and benefit politically, to boot. But I harbor no illusions that that 17-point margin translates directly into political victory the way that, say, a 17-point margin in favor of sending everyone in America a $300 tax rebate check or a 17-point margin in favor of the gun show loophole might.

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Why? Because, obviously, entrenched and largely conservative powers in Washington rely on the fact that majorities can be thwarted. And they will no doubt continue to frame climate change actions as inimical to economic progress. Indeed, the same USA Today poll gives them ample fodder: by a 7:1 ratio Americans think the Obama administration should be focusing on the economy, not climate change. Economic progress and climate protection are not mutually-exclusive choices. And though I realize that the resources like time, attention and political capital that the president and his staff can actually invest in the economy and the environment are mutually-exclusive, you can be sure that calls to "focus on economy" will be used as a convenient distraction for climate change-deniers and others who oppose serious enviro reform.

In any case, this continues to be a teachable moment in which the Obama Administration, the Democratic Congress, Republicans who understand that climate change is real, and all others of good faith must continue to stress that the improving the economy and protecting the environment are not mutually-exclusive public agenda options. What saddens me is that Al Gore and others were having a much easier go of this process of public education before the economy went in the crapper. Teachable moments are tough enough in good times, but they are even harder when people are struggling to make their monthly payments. In that sense, the sad reality is that Obama's first summit in Copenhagen came at a bad time for the environment because it's a bad time for the domestic and global economies.

Still, it's encouraging to see that 55 percent figure. It's something to work with--and to point out repeatedly to critics of reform and climate change-deniers.


Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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