Turning on the Heat

by Rasesh Mohan:

In the first week of August, experts in the field of climate change gathered together in the picturesque resort city of Aspen, Colorado. They came from different backgrounds, from think tanks and advocacy groups to corporate institutions and universities. Despite their differences, they had one goal in common: to brainstorm an effective strategy for influencing the Obama administration in the run-up to the U.N. Copenhagen Summit.

The Copenhagen Summit is anticipated to be the most important conference on climate change since Kyoto in 1997. As world leaders prepare to meet in December to decide the future of climate change policy, all eyes will be on the United States, the world’s only superpower and the largest emitter of carbon.

Greenpeace activists gather in front of government buildings to demand action against climate change. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Progressive groups in the U.S. are working to frame the debate around the aspects climate change people respond to, namely job creation and the strengthening of national security through reducing dependence on foreign oil. “It’s not just about saving the polar bears, but it’s about creating jobs and driving investment,” explained Sean Pool, special assistant to the energy policy team at advocacy group Center for American Progress (CAP) which participated in the Aspen summit. The Center recently announced that strong climate change legislation has the potential to create 1.3 million jobs in the economy. “This message has really struck a chord and is now accepted as mainstream in Washington,” Pool added.

The progressive lobby has also worked hard to gather evidence of the dangers of climate change, made available by many research institutions, and disseminate that evidence to policymakers and the public. Humayun Tai is a principle at McKinsey whose research provides the basis for policy-related debates, using consulting skills to parse the latest information about climate change in a way accessible to politicians and private citizens. “A lot of our work on climate change has been based on pulling the facts together,” Tai said.

With high-caliber research in hand, advocacy groups in Washington try to translate knowledge into political action. Groups like the National Commission on Energy Policy (NCEP) “help Congress write policy proposal in legislative language and then advocate them with Congress until they are passed,” said Paul Bledsoe, NCEP’s director of communications.

At the same time, a concerted campaign is underway in the United States to mobilize voters and citizens on the climate change issue. Thecampaign spreads awareness online through blogs and widgets and has reached an audience of over 13 million people. Organizations like Clean Energy Works and the We Can lead campaign have launched primetime television ads pushing the passage of climate change legislation before Copenhagen.

The efforts of this lobby have yielded two climate change bills introduced on Capitol Hill this year, an unprecedented achievement for the U.S. Congress. Neither bill has passed, however, nor has their content been particularly revolutionary from an international perspective. But the representatives present at the Aspen conference see them as a victory: Nowadays, climate change lobbying is no longer regarded as the terrain of crazy environmentalists. It has entered the conscience of mainstream America.

One explanation for the relative success of these progressive groups lies in their close cooperation. In addition to attending conferences like the one in Aspen, these groups coordinate on a daily basis. “It is very important to keep one unified message coming from the progressive community which wants to see action on climate change,” said Pool. “Everything we do is built on partnerships,” said Heather Grady, managing director of the NGO Realizing Rights. “That’s the 21st century way of working. One group working doesn’t do anything.”

The combined voice and multi-pronged onslaught of progressive research institutions, advocacy groups and businesses, has had a major impact on the shape of climate change debate in the nation. Whatever the outcome, the progressive climate lobby in Washington has proven that it is a force to reckon with in the struggle to bring U.S. policy closer in line with international standards.

Rasesh Mohan is a junior Political Science major in Berkeley College.