“Confidential” GOP memo on blocking cap-and-trade bill assumes lack of focus on cost of inaction

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A leaked “confidential” strategy memo by Senate Environment Committee Republican staff has been derided by Democrats for its obvious flaws, but it does suggest how climate legislation is vulnerable to an attack message if its supporters fail to make clear the likely consequences of inaction on climate change. A pseudo-populist attack, attempting to paint the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security cap-and-trade emissions-reduction bill as an anti-consumer “energy tax,” could succeed politically if leading supporters of the bill focus too narrowly on a “green jobs” and “clean energy” message, while neglecting to speak in terms of WHY a transformation of the energy system is essential: that is, to avoid devastating likely impacts of unchecked global climate disruption.   

Post by Rick Piltz

“A Strategy for Climate Change: Consumers vs. Big Business,” a leaked May 14 memorandum labeled “Confidential” by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee staff, leads with: 

In the coming months, climate change legislation will move to the House, and possibly the Senate, floor. Republicans need an effective message to defeat this legislation. We must effectively communicate to the American people that cap-and-trade is a massive new energy tax that will affect every aspect of their lives. As Harvard’s Martin Feldstein wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Anyone who drives a car, uses public transportation, consumes electricity or buys any product that involves creating CO2 in its production would face higher prices.”

This is a fight we should welcome, for it presents the perfect contrast between to the two parties: Democrats support a national energy tax, Republicans do not.

The 4-page memo lays out a messaging approach based on the argument that cap-and-trade puts Democratic supporters of climate legislation on the side of big business and the rich, while leaving Republican opponents on the side of the poor, the elderly, and the working class.  A few messagey excerpts:

By opposing cap-and-trade legislation that will have no climate benefits, Republicans are protecting American consumers from massive job losses, a lower standard of living, and higher prices for food, gasoline, and electricity.

By supporting cap-and-trade, Democrats are choosing big business over consumers, by pushing legislation that enriches several big corporations at the expense of American consumers, their jobs, their livelihoods, and their futures….

The distinction between the two parties on cap and trade is clear and real. Republicans stand with American consumers; they also stand with America’s small-to-medium sized manufacturers, which are the backbone of the economy. This should be emphasized at every turn, reminding the public of who will win (corporate America) and who will lose (consumers, the poor, the elderly, small businesses, low-income families, etc.) under the Democrats’ cap and trade scheme….

The bottom line message is this: Democrats are protecting big business; Republicans are protecting consumers….

Democrats are the pro-Wall Street, pro-corporate welfare party. Or put another way, Democrats are the anti-consumer, anti-Middle America party. Therefore, in the fight against cap-and-trade, the Republican message should focus where our true sympathies lie: with consumers, or those who will ultimately pay for cap-and-trade.

The rhetoric in the memo was predictably mocked by Democrats quoted by Politico for its May 19 story on the memo (“To fight bill, GOP turns on business”):

Republican staffers for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works say Republicans should argue that Democrats are embracing “Wall Street traders,” “polluters” and “others in corporate America” who are “guilty of manipulating national climate policy to increase profits on the backs of consumers.“…

Democrats laughed off the harsh language Tuesday, saying it’s too late in the day to convince voters that Democrats — rather than Republicans — are in bed with Big Business.

“I find it extremely amusing that suddenly the Democrats are being attacked as being too friendly to business creation. I don’t get it,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “No one is going to believe that the Republicans are attacking us for creating jobs and new businesses. It doesn’t make sense.”

Added House Democratic aide: “The Party of ExxonMobil and Peabody coal cannot credibly convince the American public that they are the champions of small businesses and consumers.”…

Democratic officials downplayed the GOP efforts in much the same way as they have their position on many other issues—describing them as the “party of No” and arguing that the attacks will have little impact on voters.

OK, but on the last point, i.e., that the attacks will have little effect on voters (and some members of Congress), I wouldn’t be so sure. The argument that a fundamental transformation of the current energy system toward renewable energy sources, driven by a regulatory system that could signficantly drive up the cost of energy, with economically regressive distributive implications – i.e., that the Waxman-Markey bill is, in effect, a big energy tax on consumers – could have some pretty strong legs politically, and could bring about enough public pressure to swing a critical number of Democrats against voting for it. Even if it passes the House, the bill in anything like its current form could be essentially dead on arrival in the Senate, given the 60-vote threshold for success.

A good case for the bill can be argued in terms of economics and job creation. But, just as the global warming denial machine had considerable success for a long time in obfuscating the scientific evidence about the reality of human-driven climate change, it isn’t necessary for the opposition to climate legislation to win the argument on the costs of action on the intellectual merits – it may be sufficient for them to spin up enough of a sense of there being a big debate, with fundamental uncertainty about the economics of mitigation, to achieve the political goal of undermining support for legislation.

While this argument about costs is going on, it seems to me that some of the supporters of climate legislation are making a mistake by seeming to de-emphasize the likely consequences of inaction in dealing with the threat of global climate disruption. Thus: U.S. water resources will be stressed and disrupted, amplifying regional droughts, water quality problems, and declines in water supply dependent on mountain snowpack. Coastal settlements, infrastructure, and ecosystems will be at increasing risk from sea-level rise and more intense hurricanes with related increases in wind, rain, and storm surges. Threats to human health related to heat waves, poor air quality, water-borne diseases, and diseases carried by insects and rodents will increase. Some changes, including species extinctions, will be irreversible. Climate disruption will combine with population growth, overuse of resources, pollution, and urbanization as a stress-multiplier, and a rapid rate of change will limit the ability of society and natural systems to adapt successfully.

And so forth. A pro-legislation messaging strategy focused exclusively on “clean energy” and “green jobs” while failing to focus serious public attention on WHY this legislation is necessary would take a big piece of the argument for the bill off the table.

The GOP strategy memo says:

Recent polling clearly demonstrates that, despite tens of millions of dollars spent on advertising and grassroots activity by environmental groups, global warming barely registers as an issue of concern for the American public.

U.S. public opinion is, of course, too complex to be summarized so bluntly and superficially. But I believe we do not yet have a critical mass of strong public support for a transformational climate and energy policy. Unless the highest-level U.S. political leadership speaks to the public with a framing that explicitly includes discussion of disruptive climate change impacts, they will cede essential territory to the denial machine and fail to do justice to the evidence being put forward by the science community. 

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