What Can Climate Activists Learn from the NRA?

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I think the answer to that question is pretty simple: not much.

Robert Walker thinks otherwise and has a post at Grist arguing that “Supporters of climate-change legislation have much to learn from an organization that is often rated as the most powerful lobby in Washington: the National Rifle Association.” I think the real lesson of the NRA is the same as the real lesson of the similarly powerful AIPAC—the most valuable asset you can have is the lack of an effective opposition. I’m a gun rights supporter, but I don’t really care about the issue. A candidate for federal office who agrees with me about climate change and taxes will get my vote regardless of his stance on guns. A candidate for local office who agrees with me about education and transportation will get my vote regardless of his stance on guns. It’s a very low priority for me. But there are many people—people who own guns and people who earn a living selling guns—for whom this is a high priority. And the NRA organizes them. For a while in the early nineties crime was a high-salience issue, some gun controllers put a high priority on it, and gun control groups won a bunch of political battles. But since the nineties crime drop the only people who care agree with the NRA, so the NRA runs the table.

The problem for climate change activists is that nothing is going to make the fossil fuel producers or energy-intensive manufacturers go away or somehow forget that they care about this issue. So you’ll never achieve the kind of dominance over the congressional landscape that the NRA has. Which is why any real-world climate change bill is likely to, à la Waxman-Markey, represent a compromise between sound climate policy and the demands of relevant interest groups.

This is too bad, and it’s a reason that people who care about climate change also need to care about political reform. Interest group politics matter in pretty much all political systems—US, Denmark, China, Iran, wherever—but how much the matter does vary. The US system’s proliferation of veto points and slow speed tends to enhance the power of interest groups relative to ideologues and technocrats. And that’s a problem.