Politically, environmentalism has had a few good months in the US Hurricane Sandy put the words “climate change” back in the national vocabulary. Republican attempts to attack Democrats for waging a “war on coal” failed to win many votes in states like Virginia and Ohio on Election Day.
In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama made climate action a priority. A climate rally in Washington is being planned for later this month, and the president has committed to conducting a “national conversation” on the subject.
Environmentalists hope all this will pave the way for their top goal: having the Environmental Protection Agency issue comprehensive greenhouse-gas-emission limits on existing facilities under the Clean Air Act.
We've seen this kind of momentum before: in 2009, at the start of the failed attempt to pass comprehensive climate legislation in Congress. In hindsight, environmentalists underestimated the obstacles they faced. Now the risk is great that they are making the same mistake again.
As in 2009, the main challenge will be in the Senate. Although a regulatory approach wouldn't require positive congressional action -- or the 60 votes necessary to stop a filibuster -- it could be rescinded by a majority vote. Emissions rules might lose such a vote even in the present Democratic-controlled Senate. And if they survived -- especially if they survived thanks to a presidential veto -- they might only help ensure that the Democrats lose the Senate in 2014.
This is because fears of a radical environmental agenda still ring true to many Americans. It isn't that Americans don't accept the reality of climate change; most do. It's that they aren't always comfortable with the environmentalists' solutions.
To many Americans, the environmental agenda often seems tone-deaf, prone to overregulation and excessive government spending. Whatever their merits, the climate priorities of Obama's first term - a thousand-page cap-and-trade bill, loan guarantees for green-technology companies, a high-speed rail program, a ban on incandescent light bulbs - only reinforced the impression that environmentalism is all about restrictions and subsidies.
To be successful this time around, the White House needs to change this impression. It can do so with a couple of counterintuitive moves - and environmentalists need to help.
First, it has to make clear that regulation isn't the ideal approach - it's just the only one available. Say that a revenue-neutral carbon tax would be the soundest way to lower emissions through the marketplace, but Congress won't enact such a tax at the level needed to achieve meaningful reductions. Because the Clean Air Act requires the administration to achieve those reductions, the only option is regulation. Thus, Obama can say that he, too, hates resorting to more red tape, but it is his only choice.
Second, the president should offer to eliminate some existing climate-related programs and rules once emissions regulations are adopted. With a comprehensive regulatory framework in place, there would no longer be a need for certain climate initiatives -- green-tech loan guarantees, perhaps, or tax breaks for hybrid cars. Proposing to cut some of these would demonstrate that the administration is looking to use the best tools available and isn't just coming up with more and more government programs.
Obama's third opportunity is even broader, and would require more help from green groups. He should elevate to the level of high priority two environmental initiatives that appeal to business more than to the greens: reforms to the environmental-review process to speed the progress of infrastructure projects, and an EPA effort to streamline its existing regulations. Because the environmentalists are often the ones objecting to these changes, the president should enlist them to provide their own visions for how to achieve these goals. Making regulatory reformers out of environmentalists is just the kind of counterintuitive move that could change people's perceptions of the green movement.
To be clear, this isn't about convincing the other side. A comprehensive package won't make the 113th House of Representatives vote for a carbon tax.
Nor is it about cutting deals that weaken the rules themselves. Quite the opposite: If all that is under discussion is a set of regulations, then negotiations will focus on weakening targets and extending deadlines. But if more options are on the table -- cutting programs and streamlining other rules -- aggressive climate goals will be easier to defend.
This strategy is about refashioning the environmental agenda into one that embraces a variety of tools, including regulation only when necessary. This would reassure critical swing voters who are concerned about the dangers of overregulation and overspending. In turn, that would reassure a few senators whose votes can make the difference between repeating 2009's failure and achieving a successful climate agenda in Obama's second term.
Above all, it would turn the battle over government regulation into a discussion about the best tools to achieve meaningful emissions reductions. That's a conversation the nation -- and the planet -- desperately needs to have.
(Rohit T. Aggarwala leads the environmental program at Bloomberg Philanthropies and is a visiting scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed are his own.)