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.