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Will The Grass Be Greener In Obama's Second Term?

A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Some environmentalists hope President Obama lives up to campaign promises regarding climate change in his second term.
Jim Urquhart
A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. Some environmentalists hope President Obama lives up to campaign promises regarding climate change in his second term.

One of the chief expectations of those who voted for President Obama is that he moves assertively to pass climate change legislation, whatever the political climate in Washington.

"We have a bipartisan common interest in moving away from fossil fuels towards clean energy," says Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "The sooner that members of both parties in Congress realize that and develop solutions, the better off we'll all be."

Bipartisan support is an elusive national beast these days. Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol published a report last week that says environmental groups doomed their 2009 carbon-emissions program, called "cap-and-trade," by failing to recognize the divided reality of Washington.

Skocpol says that as late as 2009 people thought a bipartisan coalition would get the legislation through Congress because the idea had originated with conservative, market-oriented economists.

"What I argue in my report is that unbeknownst to the supporters, who were trying to put together a coalition of environmentalists and business people, was the radicalization of the Republican Party," she tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

As early as 2006, Skocpol says, the party had a plan in place to discourage Republican politicians from going along with any kind of cap-and-trade compromise.

Due to the levels of polarization in Congress, Skocpol is pessimistic about any sort of climate change legislation before the midterm elections in 2014. She does, however, think preparation is necessary.

Campaigns for massive change, like the president's comprehensive health care overhaul in 2010, take a lot of time, she says. That level of preparation and planning is how supporters should approach cap-and-trade or other climate change legislation.

"Part of the purpose of my report," she says, "is to encourage environmentalists at the national level to start talking to state and local groups to form a broader coalition to engage the American populous as a whole."

That local push, she says, as well as presenting cap-and-trade legislation to the American people in a way they can understand its importance, will go a long way toward getting it passed.

A Shifting Issue

In the past, the U.S. has often been successful at uniting behind ideas of conservation. A case in point is the creation of the national parks.

Paul Sabin, who studies American environmental history at Yale University, says things changed with the rise of the middle class, particularly after World War II.

"One element of that [was] the increasing focus on quality of life issues and health issues," Sabin tells NPR's Lyden. "It was also a product of new affluence [and] that people were more willing to look out for the quality of life."

In the 1970s, Sabin says, there was a need for a more personal shift in regard to conservation. In more recent history, however, he says, there has been a scaling back on the part of the environmental movement of trying to address the issue of personal consumption.

What's happened with the most recent environmental debate is what Sabin calls a recasting of climate change, as a much broader issue that includes national security, the economy and public health.

"I think that is representative of something that goes beyond climate change as an issue itself," he says, "because it is true more broadly about other kinds of environmental problems — that they're not exclusively environmental, either."

But with a looming debate over the debt ceiling, as well as an expected fight on gun legislation during Obama's second term, there's no telling when new climate change legislation will make its way to Capitol Hill.

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