Theda Skocpol Doubles Down With Self-Contradictory, Blame-The-Victim Misanalysis Of Cap-And-Trade Failure

Theda Skocpol is a leading sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University who has entered the fray of the climate bill debate.

Because Skocpol’s academic credentials are in areas largely unrelated to climate and energy politics/policy, her views on those subjects must stand or fall on their own. As one leading scholar wrote me after my previous post disputing key Skocpol assertions:

I thought your analysis was dead on — I really appreciated that you pointed out that no single person’s opinion (especially without facts) should carry any more weight than another person’s opinion.

In particular, Skocpol has been widely criticized for holding President Obama blameless while spending so much time criticizing the environmental community. As readers know, I have been as critical of the environmental community as anyone, but they were the ones who put this issue on the table — and kept it there. So even though their strategy and tactics were not optimal, it’s hard to see how they deserve a significant portion of the blame for the failure of the climate bill, in my opinion.

Skocpol has written a new, self-contradictory analysis at Grist, “Learning from the cap-and-trade debate.” I don’t generally think we need even more Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday-morning quarterbacking at this point, but I do think it is important not to learn the wrong lessons from the climate bill’s failure.

Probably Skocpol’s most revealing paragraph, offered with no justification whatsoever, is:

Now that President Obama has been reelected and some new supporters made it into the Senate, established environmental organizations are happily reveling in the president’s new willingness to give speeches about global warming and signal that he will support regulatory steps through the Environmental Protection Agency and other executive bodies. One can almost hear the sigh of relief that, now, most professionally run organizations can go back to doing what they do best: writing reports and recommending regulatory actions. That has been the well-worn groove of action since the 1970s. Throw in occasional chain-yourself-to-fences demonstrations and short visits to jail, and we’ll be on a roll, global-warming reformers think.

Ouch! Or it would be “ouch” if there were any truth to this harsh caricature.

It is beyond insulting to suggest that the major environmental organizations would “sigh with relief” as the chances for a serious climate bill collapse. Anyone who thinks those groups prefer “writing reports” (or even half-measures by the EPA) to federal legislation doesn’t know the first thing about them — doesn’t know how deeply they care about averting catastrophic climate change and how tirelessly many of them worked to keep this issue on the table when it seemed utterly hopeless for years (i.e. during the Cheney/Bush Administration).

Not one single person I know in any established environmental NGO is “happily reveling” in the grim situation we are now in. Quite the reverse, they are all despairing of it and trying to figure out a new strategy.

And I know some of you thought that Skocpol’s critique of the established environmental groups meant she endorsed the growing grassroots actions of groups like and the anti-Keystone campaign led by Bill McKibben — certainly McKibben himself thought that. But no, Skocpol holds them in the same contempt, as her mocking final line above makes clear.

So why does Skocpol have such disdain for the environmental community? Why does she write things like, “Global-warming reformers must stop being blind and tone-deaf to the real-life circumstances of typical American families in an era of astonishing socioeconomic inequality”? The answer is clear:

Because like it or not, environmentalism has long been primarily a cause of the educated upper-middle class in the United States, and it remains largely populated by experts and activists from that relatively privileged, non-majority class background (including university students headed for that stratum).

Let’s set aside the fact that this applies to her Harvard University far more than it does modern environmentalism.

While her criticism was true decades ago, the environmental community in general and the global warming community in particular have made great strides in expanding to the “majority.” Indeed, the climate bill coalition in particular had

Skocpol seems entirely unaware of this effort, which was certainly the biggest and most coordinated inter-organizational alliance effort ever put together by the environmental community. Obviously it wasn’t enough, but the climate bill push simply wasn’t the elitist effort Skocpol describes.

Here is where Skocpol’s critique becomes absurdly self-contradictory. She spends her entire blog post explaining why environmental groups are privileged non-majority elitists, poor at lobbying, “blind and tone-deaf” to the realities of average Americans, and generally disorganized — but her report paints them as all powerful:

To hold a “failure of leadership” by Obama responsible for the ultimate shortfall for cap and trade, we would have to imagine that, in the spring of 2010, the President could have done something better or different than the USCAP leaders or Senate bargainers to satisfy Rahm Emmanuel’s realistic demand to “get me some Republicans.” We have to picture Barack Obama being more persuasive with leading Republicans than, say, Environmental Defense Fund honcho Fred Krupp, who had successfully cajoled votes out of GOP Senators in the past. I do not find that plausible. Presidential arm-twisting and sweet-talking were not the issue. Developments in the two parties, especially among Republicans, were pivotal.

No, seriously, it’s right there on page 20 of her report.

So what is it, Prof. Skocpol? Are the environmental groups incompetent, disorganized elitists who don’t represent average Americans and who would rather write reports than do the hard work needed to pass a climate bill — or are they so friggin’ powerful that the head of just one group is more persuasive than the president of the United States, the single most powerful person on the planet?

[For the record, the answer is “neither.”]

As you can see, there is no coherent substance to her critique — nor to her “solution”:

My report calls for investments in far-reaching inter-organizational alliances and networks….  It takes time to build such alliances, but so far I see few signs of efforts to do so….

To be effective, these inter-organizational alliances will have to stretch far beyond environmental activists, reaching community groups, unions, churches, organizations of healthcare providers, women’s organizations, and many other kinds of associations with deep roots and actual constituents.”

Like I said, Skocpol simply hasn’t done her homework on what went down in 2009 and 2010.

Her strategy was tried — though I’m sure not as effectively as it could have been since it was the first time. But the bottom line is while this kind of effort can get legislation through the House, it isn’t enough to get 60 votes in the Senate in the face of determined and well-funded opposition and with a President who doesn’t make the issue a top priority.

Her whole discussion is anecdotal in nature:

So far, I find the global-warming movement to be tone-deaf to valid majority concerns about increased costs. Snippets here and there tell the story. At a recent Harvard event, a well-intentioned proponent of higher carbon prices remarked that they would “only raise electricity prices by $25 a month,” not much at all in her eyes. From the perspective of the upper-middle class in Cambridge, Mass., this is indeed a modest cost. But, of course, for most families that increase would be way too much to accept — and they would listen to right-wing attacks on global-warming regulations that threatened price increases of that much or more.

Yes, let’s bludgeon the entire movement based on the quote from some unnamed person who apparently didn’t know that the climate bill gave virtually all of the increased electricity costs back to consumers, which is precisely the strategy Skocpol herself recommends.

In fact the public did listen to nonstop right-wing attacks on the climate bill, attacks that included phony, inflated costs. And yet somehow every single poll that was done during that time (and since) shows the public supported the climate bill (see a list of polls here). But it wasn’t enough to get 60 votes in the Senate.

Then Skocpol writes:

Likewise, at the recent, inspiring D.C. rally against the Keystone XL pipeline, a blogger did an (unscientific) snap poll among attendees, asking them to choose among various things that would “give up” to pay for greenhouse gas regulations. By a large margin, the global-warming demonstrators were reported to be willing to delay Social Security benefits and raise the U.S. retirement age. Of course, this sounds like a harmless step to professionals who work at desks. But do they realize that virtually all of the increase in longevity in the United States in recent decades has gone to white-collar and professional people, while Americans who work on their feet all day, or lift things for a living, have not enjoyed any increase in life expectancy? How will the majority feel about being asked to work at physically taxing jobs much closer to the point of death to pay for global-warming remedies? Asking the question answers it.

Yes, let’s cite an unscientific poll that asked a relatively young audience an irrelevant hypothetical question.

Again, the whole point is that greenhouse gas regulations — cap-and-trade or a tax — pay for themselves. You don’t have to “give up” stuff to pay for them — the majority won’t have to work themselves to death to pay for it. That’s just silly.

Romanticizing 2009-10 as a near miss may seem harmless enough, a form of self-reassurance by cap-and-trade supporters who misdiagnosed the larger political terrain. But such misdiagnosis actually encourages the sort of minimal recalibration signaled in Environmental Defense Fund VP Eric Pooley’s remark that sometimes a loss points not to a bad game plan, but to poor execution. I am a well-informed NFL fan, and as I explain in a recent Foreign Policy rejoinder to Pooley, the overwhelming evidence reveals that the U.S. Climate Action Partnership — a coalition of business and environmental leaders that pushed cap-and-trade — had a bad game plan, not just a few dropped passes in the fourth quarter

I don’t know anyone who thinks 2009-10 was a “near miss.” Heck, we didn’t even get a vote in the Senate.

On top of that straw man, we are told a quote from Pooley shows EDF thinks only a minimal recalibration is needed. Yet Pooley’s boss, Fred Krupp, wrote a piece for Climate Progress two years ago that makes clear EDF thinks a much bigger recalibration is needed (see EDF’s Fred Krupp on “how we begin to rebuild public support for climate action and the political will to pass climate legislation”).

Really, Skocpol’s entire piece goes on and on like this. She repeatedly expresses disdain for almost every aspect of one of the largest movements in this country, and yet she is “surprised by the sudden and intense debate my report helped to kick off.”

Tellingly, she calls me “Cap-and-Trader Joe Romm.” The last thing in this world I am is a “cap-and-trader” — indeed, I have been one of the harshest critics of that term in the world, as in this 2009 post “Can Obama deliver health and energy security with a half (assed) message?” which opens by asking “What’s worse from a messaging perspective, ‘the public option’ or ‘cap-and-trade’?”

As I have written many times, we have to jumpstart the transition to a very-low-carbon economy and get off the business-as-usual emissions pathway while providing leadership to enable a global deal — all to ensure that future generations have a fighting chance to avoid catastrophe. And yes we have to explain to people, as we did, that the bill is good for jobs and the economy, which, as it turns out, they believed according to every poll.

I’d take any bill that makes those things possible. Skocpol writes, “Going forward, a simple carbon tax and ‘green dividends’ approach may be best,” which may be true, but it was simply not an option in 2009, after the failure in the 1990s of the BTU tax. Cap-and-trade was a business-friendly, market-oriented idea, embraced by leading Republicans prior to 2009. It was far from ideal, but, again, not an obvious blunder either.

I think there are several very valuable lessons to be learned from the climate bill failure, but generally not the ones Skocpol identifies. They will have to be the subject of another post.

38 Responses to Theda Skocpol Doubles Down With Self-Contradictory, Blame-The-Victim Misanalysis Of Cap-And-Trade Failure

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    I think a lot of what Theda says is right on the money. I think she knows a lot about politics, if not about climate.

    There is another angle to the USCAP Thursday- morning-quarterbacking. EDF et al would not agree to a “safety valve” that was necessary to get moderate Republican support for cap-and-trade. A safety valve would limit the price of carbon emissions if they started to go too high and threaten a major recession — a real danger under any price-on-carbon scheme.

    One could say that the weak support from ordinary people/centrist Democrats for the USCAP effort, due to all the strategy and economic reasons that Theda describes, plus the terror of the big money moderate Republican forces about the economy, if carbon prices escalated in a market, were the big reasons it failed. That’s my impression.

    I also agree with Theda that the discussion on this blog on this issue has been pretty unenlightening. If so, why? Joe, I don’t think that you have been doing a very good job of modeling the right sort of self-critical – “She might have a point — I could be wrong here” — thinking that is what (I think) is needed. You could even lighten up a little.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Who needs evidence when you have opinions and an ego? But seriously, don’t sociologists and political scientists get taught anything about scientific method? ME

  3. M Tucker says:

    I have no respect for Skocpol’s analysis of the climate movement and I am not convinced Skocpol is much of a political scientist. So, she thinks a carbon tax would have a better chance with House Republicans? If anything gets passed in the next 5 to 10 years it WILL have to be “a business-friendly, market-oriented idea” in order to get any kind of Republican support. My feeling is this is the writing of a well spoken troll.

  4. Joe Romm says:

    That’s because I don’t think she has a point. Or at least one that is distinguishable from her errors. That is to say, I’m sure you can find some stuff in her report that is good analysis. But how is the average reader to distinguish that from the bad analysis?

    For the record, EDF et al would agree to a price collar, and they did. Wasn’t enough.

    The person who needs to lighten up is Theda. I generally don’t find such contempt for the entire environmental community in progressives.

    But I will do a separate post discussing the actual lessons from the climate bill — and you can judge their comparative utility.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    You have a point there.

    She’s not from the quantitative school of sociology, looks like. Her credential in political science doesn’t necessarily carry a expectation of statistical proficiency.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    This was directed to ME.
    I reworked the supporting material so many times I was sure it would go into moderation limbo.

    Here ’tis.

    A keyword search of Socpol’s paper for “interview” turns up a curious collection.

    “..a June 2012 interview I conducted by telephone with one of the nation’s
    prominent environmental leaders” (no reference)
    “..some interviews with key actors and pulled together data of my own along with findings from press coverage and other scholars”
    “consult with journalists … who have done a superb job of interviewing”
    “relied heavily on The Climate War, an interview-based account..”
    “He was able to interview the key USCAP leaders..”
    “That is precisely why his material has been so helpful, freeing me from sole reliance on after-the-fact interviews.”
    “We interviewed grassroots Tea Party activists, tallied the incidence and agendas of some 900 local groups…”
    “Anyone who interviews DC environmentalists will repeatedly hear..”
    “For a political scientist like myself who has interviewed key actors in both the Affordable Care drama and the cap and trade episode…”
    “When Lawrence Jacobs and I interviewed DC players in health legislation,…”
    “When Vanessa Williamson and I interviewed Tea Partiers and visited local meetings in 2010 and early 2011,…”
    “At the time, USCAP leaders and cap and trade proponents dismissed the bill as an unwanted diversion; and in the interviews I did after the fact..”

    The word interview among references:
    Telephone interview with Andrew Hyman, Senior Program Officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, August 14, 2012
    “..when Larry Jacobs and I did interviews with key players in the Senate in January 2010”
    See the interview “Robert Brulle: Inside the Climate Change ‘Countermovement’,” conducted on September 30, 2012, for the PBS Frontline documentary “Climate of Doubt.”

    (end keyword hits)

    Keyword search for “survey” – not all that different.

  7. Jay Dee Are says:


  8. Thomas Rodd says:

    I don’t have a copy of Eric Pooley’s Climate War book but the online search I did of a google books excerpt found several examples of the EDF repeatedly and quite successfully fighting against a safety valve that was favored by business interests. What is your source?

  9. Skocpol participated in a Q&A session on
    which is a members only forum. Here’s the question I posted:

    “How to you respond to the criticisms by Joe Romm at Climate Progress of your analysis of the failure of the cap and trade bill in 2009/2010?
    The President has largely been AWOL on public statements about climate. It’s his job to make the case and change the discussion around complex technical topics. The climate bill might still have failed, but to absolve the President of responsibility for not properly framing the debate and fighting for the solution I think is a mistake.”

    And here’s how she replied:

    “I have debated Romm’s points pretty extensively at GRIST and I do not want to repeat it all here. But the key point is this: Congress determines what happens with big legislative reforms like cap and trade, not the President, and the key point of my report is that, by the time the effort sponsored by the United States Climate Action Partnership was launched in Congress in 2009, Republicans had already moved far to the right at both elite and grassroots levels on global warming issues. To get legislation through the Senate, either GOP votes were needed — not to be found amidst Tea Party radicalization — OR Democrats had to agree early in 2009 on a 51 vote
    “reconciliation” threshold for eventual carbon capping legislation. There was no agreement to do that. In fact, in April 2009, more than two dozen DEMOCRATS joined Republicans in voting explicitly AGAINST using the 51 vote margin for cap and trade. This often happens when moderate Democrats do not want a majority threshold, which would put them on the spot. It has happened again recently with efforts to stop filibuster. When Congressional actors do not want legislation, presidents cannot force them to vote for it, or lower the super-majority threshold. Obama may or may not give enough speeches, but even more speeches would not have moved Congress to pass this legislation in 2010.”

    So the President was completely powerless, and it was all predetermined by Congress? I find that hard to believe.

  10. Henry says:

    I agree that a lot of what Skocpol said was harsh. But isn’t she trying to give the enviro community a sorely needed boot in the pants?
    Some of the comments I’ve been reading on Climate blogs (mostly elsewhere) often refer to the “idiocracy” that doesn’t ‘get’ or care about AGW. These come across as very arrogant. We may not be upper class but neither are we the “great unwashed” that they seem to be referring to, we DO care about the Climate. Maybe that is the attitude the author is talking about.

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thanks Joan. It’s absolutely pathetic, ME

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The problem, Thomas, is that only a ‘recession’ can save humanity from extinction. The economy can no longer go on growing because the planet cannot cope with the detritus produced. We have to downsize, radically. It will happen, anyway, soon enough, but completely out of our control. And the only feasible, humane, way to do it involves radical redistribution of wealth from the insatiably avaricious few to the many. So it’s bye-bye capitalismo, hello solidarity and collectivism. In any case, all of the economic growth in recent years in the West has been captured by the elite, and the vast majority have been and are going backwards at an accelerating pace.

  13. Joe Romm says:

    But if it was hopeless, then the enviros strategy isn’t to blame! Self-contradictory.

  14. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Yes thanks Joan. And may I point out the blatantly obvious, “…grassroots Tea Party activists…” is hilariously oxymoronic.

  15. Thomas Rodd says:

    Mulga, I fully understand your point. A global architecture for managing the downsizing is what we are talking about in the climate policy area. I don’t know why that architecture necessarily has to be “humane” — and I suspect that whatever it turns out to be, it won’t be what you or I would call humane, despite our best efforts in that direction. My guess is that preserving the obscene privileges of the elite will be an integral part of reducing global carbon emissions.

  16. Thomas Rodd says:

    What Theda said:

    “Anti–global warming policies that ordinary Americans can understand, policies that deliver concrete benefits to ordinary families, plus the construction of far-reaching networks of allied organizations able to push Congress — these are what it will take to pass carbon-capping legislation next time.”

    I’d say she’s right.

  17. M Tucker says:

    Most of the political scientists that I respect think Republicans have a lock on the House for the foreseeable future; until the gerrymandering can begin again. There are no more moderate Republicans and that will also continue for the foreseeable future. Not only will they ignore all environmental groups they also wish to eliminate the EPA. Not a single one believes that the government needs to be involved with protecting the environment at all. There will not be any grass-roots environmental organizations in the districts these Republicans represent that will be of any consequence politically. Democrats will be ignored on this issue. The Republican controlled House will continue to appoint deniers to head the science, energy, and environmental committees. Let’s see, redraw the districts after the census in 2020, next midterm in 2022, hmmm…see if we can finally get some kind of modest climate bill passed, Yeah, we are pretty much dead in the water for nearly another decade.

  18. Dave S. Nottear says:

    What planet is this again?

    Carbon credits… yeah, that’s a good idea for the comfortably numb sleeping in Ivory Towers, insulated and isolated from Reality.

    I really hope you people are not taking this “cap and trade” anymore seriously than you took “hope and change.”

    For Dog’s sake. Quite jerking off and wake up.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    Just to be clear, the keyword search was of the 20-page paper linked above in the blog.

    Further downstream, the comments sometimes address the 20 page paper and sometimes a 142 page pdf previously reviewed in January 2013.

  20. fj says:

    The socio economic and political initiatives and changes of the transition seem to be complex, huge and immensely important requiring clear rational functional narratives how we must move forward.

  21. Dave S. Nottear says:


    Have you ever heard of “Mass Delusions” ?

    You’re soaking in it.

    While you guys try to create a clearly irrational and dysfuntional narrative, the rest of us are wondering how we will feed you industrialized, adult-sized children, when you panic.

    “Everything that needs to be said has already been said.
    But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
    – André Gide

    “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has take place.”
    – George Bernard Shaw

  22. fj says:

    Dave, Please explain:

    1. Who are “you guys”?

    2. What is the “clearly irrational and dysfunctional narrative”?

    3. Who are “the rest of us”?

  23. Dave S. Nottear says:

    yeah, I really want to go round-an-round in that circle again…

    Just forget it, go back to sleep.

    “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since everyone was distractedly examining thier bellybutton, the tiger ate them.”
    – André Gide

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Looks like we could have another one of those ‘super heroes’, ME

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    She probably interviewed the Editor of the WSJ – that was her line at the Aussie National Press Club, ME

  26. Chesterdog says:

    Thanks for this, Joe. I work for a major environmental group. Believe me when I tell you, with all sincerity, no one here is sighing with relief.

  27. Steve Rankin says:

    I’ve believed for some time now that nothing is going to change until humanity is up against the wall and by that time 4-6 C will be locked in. When Obama was elected, for awhile anyway, I thought the time had finally come for meaningful action (carbon tax) but his utter silence during his first term blew that fantasy out of the water.

    Oh yes, Obama has championed huge investments in green energy and improvements to automobile fuel efficiency but in comparison to the enormity of the problem it is just tinkering around the edges. For me the final nail in the coffin of Obama’s “concern for future generations” will be his decision on the pipeline from Canada. If it is approved he will have lost all credibility and will have handed a huge victory to those who argue that it is all a hoax. Expect show trials for climate scientists to begin soon thereafter.

  28. fj says:

    Building our future will draw us ever more intimate with our environment, ourselves, and our existence.

    Profound use of natural capital were human capital is the most important component.

  29. fj says:

    Everyone must be welcomed to the party.

    Poor people first.

  30. fj says:

    We must heal ourselves and our planetary home.

    First do no harm.

  31. fj says:

    By definition human power is always with us.

    You people are stronger than you think you are.

  32. fj says:

    Life is intelligence and virtually the same.

    Nature provides everything.

  33. Dick Smith says:

    Sounds like we’ve been through the same expectations and disappointments. I would not have believed it when Keystone started, but now it seems clear that Keystone will define Obama’s climate legacy. The political ripple effects on Keystone are far more significant than they were 18 months ago.

  34. fj says:

    The idea of sailing is potentially an elegant metaphor — like dreaming how we move through time — for the profound use of natural capital and its human control.

  35. Leland Palmer says:

    Her other recent reports were financed by the Rockefeller Family Foundation- it says so in the reports themselves. There is some non-specific language in her recent reports that suggest that support was minimal- without ever revealing the amount of the fee.

    The Rockefeller family has roots in the oil industry stretching back to Standard Oil- from which most major American oil corporations are descended.

    The Rockefeller family may still control ExxonMobil, one of the biggest and most deceptive sources of climate disinformation.

    The Rockefeller family claims not to control the Rockefeller charitable foundations, though. I for one do not believe this.

    She appears to me to be just another paid spokesperson, although one with impeccable academic credentials. She appears to me to be trying to shift the blame for the failure of the climate bill from the oil industry and ExxonMobil to the environmental community.

    Her university also recently received a 100 million dollar contribution from David Rockefeller. She used to be employed by the University of Chicago- a private university co-founded and endowed by John D. Rockefeller.

    The Council on Foreign Relations, another vastly influential source of climate disinformation, is itself funded by the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund.

    I am dismayed to see so much attention paid to what appears to me to be just more paid climate disinformation.

    According to Union of Concerned Scientists reports, ExxonMobil has tried strenuously for years to breach the peer review process, and recruit paid disinformers with impeccable academic credentials. Is it so surprising that they may have succeeded in her case?

  36. While I don’t agree with Skocpol’s analysis of what happened with ACES, it is also obvious while the environmental movement has made a lot of progress, it still suffers from elitism and is hampered by a lack of diversity. I can’t speak for all of the big greens, but the executive director of the organization I work for is aware of the problem and is working to address it. Nonetheless, a long history of disconnect from social and racial rights movements is not easily overcome. The climate movement is somewhat different, but even here, an emphasis on charismatic individuals and climate ‘celebrities’ by the media and foundations has delayed effective grassroots organizing on that issue by about a decade. Before the 350.orgs and 1Skys, there were many local environmental organizations working on climate change whose models and approaches never made it onto anyone’s radar to the detriment of the movement overall.