The White House has agreed to meet with 350.org climate activist Bill McKibben about his quest to get the White House to bring back the solar panels that President Jimmy Carter installed and President Ronald Reagan ripped off.
That’s nice and all. But I think McKibben is putting too much emphasis on the “symbolic” value. From his W. Post oped today:
Obama has drawn much of the blame for the failure of the climate legislation, which he didn’t push aggressively; this is a chance to make at least symbolic amends…
…Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won’t solve climate change — and we’d rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we’ll get for the moment.
That’s setting the bar oddly low.
I find it particularly strange because McKibben was a leading critic from the left on the climate change compromise bills considered by this Congress, as they did not aim to drastically slash carbon dioxide in the atmosphere down from current levels to 350 parts per million.
Now he’s saying that since the current politics prevent ideal legislation from passing, let’s ignore legislation completely and push symbolic measures instead for time being?
There is certainly and time and place for symbolic gestures to galvanize support for substantive policies. But the environmental movement has done every symbolic gesture imaginable to rally support for a carbon cap.
And symbolism has accomplished all it can.
The majority of the country does support a carbon cap, just not intensely enough to overcome regionally based special-interests — Coal Country especially — that place significant pressure on the U.S. Senate.
How is making one more symbolic gesture — and a recycled three-decade old symbolic gesture at that — going to change the political dynamic?
How is a set of White House solar panels going to accomplish what a gigantic oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t do?
I understand why many environmentalists are scrambling to pursue different strategic goals after carbon cap legislation hit a wall in the Senate this year. Relentless obstruction leaves you little choice but to scale back your immediate goals.
Furthermore, the expected Democratic losses in November — be they big or small — will only make the Senate math harder next year.
This is prompting a deep wave of pessimism in the ranks of the environmental movement, so deep that fewer are even trying to pursue a carbon cap at all.
This strikes me as deeply misguided. The probability for a compromise climate bill may be small, but it cannot be presumed to be zero.
The outlines of the compromise initially agreed to by Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham still offer a path to legislation. Most Republican senators reject climate science, but not all. Several have been willing to discuss compromise with the President. And the Kerry-Graham idea — a carbon cap along with some expanded offshore drilling and nuclear power — gives Republican senators and right-leaning Democratic senators the chance to bring home some bacon while averting a climate crisis.
Even after Sen. Graham suspended his participation in negotiations, Sen. Kerry brought together a wide coalition of interests behind carbon cap legislation — including oil companies for the first time. But that coalition never got a test drive after the Gulf gusher. And the corporate side of the coalition may get bigger as EPA climate regs continue to roll out, and more and more business realize they’ll get a better deal working with Congress.
You may think I’m crazy to even give a slight chance for a carbon cap to the pass the Senate in the next two years. Perhaps.
But a carbon cap is the goal. Nothing else comes close.
And symbolic gestures won’t close that deal. Only tough compromises will.