Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How to fight climate change

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 11:29 AM EST, Mon February 18, 2013
Supporters of action to counter climate change gathered in Washington Sunday.
Supporters of action to counter climate change gathered in Washington Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands marched in Washington to seek action on climate change
  • Julian Zelizer: President Obama called action on issue a priority in last week's speech
  • Convincing Congress to pass a bill on climate change is a heavy lift, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: Grass-roots organizing will be crucial to passage of a bill

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- Thousands marched in Washington this weekend to call for action to counter climate change.

With organizers estimating 35,000 people filling the National Mall, the Forward on Climate Change march was said to be the biggest demonstration thus far in support of this issue.

"While they were fighting for equality," the Rev. Lennox Yearwood told the crowd, comparing them to those who took part in the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963, "we are fighting for existence."

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

The protesters have support from President Barack Obama, who announced that he wants to make climate change a major issue in his second term. During his inaugural and State of the Union addresses, the president did not shy away from this controversial subject. But persuading Congress to pass this kind of legislation will be extremely difficult.

Photos: 40,000 rally to stop Keystone pipeline

Standing Tuesday before visibly unhappy House Speaker John Boehner, Obama pointed to the recent natural disasters we've seen and spoke about the science of the environment, calling on Congress to act -- or threatening to do so himself if they refuse:

"We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late." Democrats applauded. Republicans kept their hands in their pockets.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



If Obama can persuade Congress to take action on climate change, it would be one of the biggest accomplishments of his administration. But unlike some of the other issues that he has tackled -- including health care -- climate change is extraordinarily difficult since the benefits to voters are not immediate and not necessarily visible.

His mission could be made more difficult if he decides to approve the proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups that backed the president's re-election strongly oppose the project.

To break through the gridlock on this issue and to persuade some of the congressional Republicans to start clapping, Obama will need more than crisis and science. The march this weekend must be the first of more organized grass-roots protests, not just on the mall in Washington but in the districts and states of key members of Congress.

Obama: We must act on climate change

Most of the biggest policy breakthroughs in recent history have depended on strong grass-roots mobilization.

In 1935, Congress passed the Wagner Act, which created the National Labor Relations Board and legitimated unions. This mobilization of industrial workers who would form the CIO was pivotal in providing President Franklin Roosevelt with the strength he needed to take on business with enormously controversial legislation.

Several decades later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 only came about because local activists, led by prominent leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., forced the White House and Congress to deal with the issue of racial equality over their deep political reservations.

While both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were concerned about the huge risks that pushing for civil rights posed for the Democrats' stronghold in the South -- still the electoral base of the party back then -- both were finally moved to take action because of the valiant efforts of grass-roots activists who placed pressure on them and on uncommitted legislators. The civil rights movement changed public opinion and made inaction politically unacceptable.

Conservatives have also depended on the grass roots to mobilize support for their issues.

President Ronald Reagan's drive for deficit-inducing tax cuts and deregulation might not have worked if it were not for the grass-roots conservative activism of the 1970s that pushed national debate to the right. In the past few years, tea party activists have succeeded in moving the GOP toward an agenda of deficit reduction even at a moment when the key problem is generating economic growth and lowering unemployment rates.

Environmental organizations have created a vast organizational infrastructure since the 1970s and remain a huge presence in Washington. But in recent years, they have been less effective at developing the same level of grass-roots energy as earlier movements, including their own in the 1970s.

Climate change has too often been an issue that is Washington-focused rather than grass-roots focused. Instead of having former Vice President Al Gore be the face of efforts to counter climate change, Obama needs the images of local protesters gathering to make sure that Congress deals with the issue.

Obama, a former community organizer, knows this as much as anyone. He has seen the profound effect tea party activists have had on the Republican Party, much to his consternation.

As Harvard political scientist Theda Skocpol has written, "To counter fierce political opposition, reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly congressional offices, comfy board rooms and posh retreats ... insider politics cannot carry the day on its own, apart from a broader movement pressing politicians for change."

Skocpol explains convincingly that one of the reasons for the failure of cap and trade legislation was that climate reformers focused their energy on Beltway lobbying rather than mobilizing support in local communities.

Members of Congress know that climate change legislation doesn't offer tangible benefits to voters, so they're unlikely to act unless they feel pressure from activists in their districts.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Barbara Boxer, D-California, have taken the lead on the issue by putting forth a bill to impose a tax on the country's largest polluters, requiring them to pay $20 per ton of carbon and methane emissions, a sum that would rise over time.

Under their bill, the government would invest the money in developing renewable fuel and more efficient energy policies, including a plan to weatherize more than a million homes.

If the administration is going to build support for a version of this legislation, it will need support from the bottom, not just the top, in swaying and pressuring senators who will be leery about taking on this issue.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT