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The Green Bubble Hasn't Burst

Ever-present eco-straight talkers Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, whose important essay on "The Death of Environmentalism" (PDF) and subsequent full-length book, Break Through (not to mention a summer Democracy Journal article titled "Scrap Kyoto"), have ruffled more than a few feathers within the green coalition, are at it again in today's Los Angeles Times. Their piece tries to answer a question that's been irritating me for the last few months: Why, as they put it, has the "green bubble" burst? Democrats are trusted more than Republicans to deal with environmental issues. Record gas prices should have nudged millions into their political coalition. Yet, say the duo, the left has "serially overestimated their strength and misread public opinion." Their summary of the spring and summer:

While liberals and environmentalists were congratulating themselves on the triumph of climate science over fossil-fuel-funded ignorance, planning inauguration parties and writing legislation for the next Democratic president and Congress, gas prices became the second-highest concern after the economy, according to Gallup.

This summer, elite opinion ran headlong into American popular opinion. The train wreck happened in the Senate and went by the name of the Climate Security Act. That bill to cap U.S. greenhouse gas emissions would have, by all accounts (even the authors'), increased gasoline and energy prices. Despite clear evidence that energy-price anxiety was rising, Democrats brought the bill to the Senate floor in June when gas prices were well over $4 a gallon in most of the country. Republicans were all too happy to join that fight.

Indeed, they so relished the opportunity to accuse Democrats of raising gasoline prices in the midst of an energy crisis, they insisted that the 500-page bill be read into the Senate record in its entirety in order to prolong the debate. Within days, Senate Democrats started jumping ship. Democratic leaders finally killed the debate to avert an embarrassing defeat, but by then they had handed Republicans a powerful political club.

I don't disagree that the Republicans have been bludgeoing Democrats with that very club all summer (though, as I've written, public opinion is pretty mercurial; support for offshore drilling tends to rise and fall with the price of gasoline). But Nordhaus and Shellenberger create equivalencies between the energy debate and the state of "environmentalism" at large. They pretend that liberal greens in Congress are crowing over converts—which reads like pure strawmanship, as this summer has brought, if anything, bipartisan aggression on energy (and not from Congress).

They are absolutely right, as they first wrote in 2004, that "public support for action on global warming is wide [but] it is frighteningly shallow." And that in 2008, a potential for backlash exists. Because it's not clear to me that the public really cares about "global warming;" it's more likely that the anxiety of $4/gallon gasoline can be filed under broader concerns about home finances (hence the continued Democratic advantage), or a vague "dependence on foreign oil"—not the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the air that the Climate Security Act (aka Lieberman-Warner) primarily sought to address. Frankly, most Americans have probably spent the summer humming: "I want global warming to go away and gas prices to go down so help me Congress la la la." 

So there really is a need for better messaging on the economics of going green. But the authors depict the drilling fight as the overwhelming metric with which to judge environmental progress in 2008. This is wrong-headed. In fact, I've argued that the derided June bill, which won 48 votes in the Senate, was clearly a two steps forward, one step back situation, and a good step forward at that. Not the kind of "progress" we've seen with the failure of this week's financial rescue bill (greens probably didn't want the neutered Lieberman-Warner to pass). But a serious down payment on future regulatory and subsidy "asks," that was itself a show of improvement on the McCain-Lieberman bill of 2003.

--Dayo Olopade