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While President Obama's reelection campaign was almost completely silent on the issue of global warming, Organizing for Action, the advocacy group tooled from his 2012 campaign machine, has launched a campaign designed to build support for the president's climate-change agenda.
The multipronged, multiyear effort aims to inject climate change into the heart of national politics—and make it an election issue as well.
Conventional wisdom held that the issue is a loser on the trail, but former campaign operatives who scrupulously avoided talking about climate change last year are now writing press releases slamming Republican lawmakers for denying the science behind it.
They're fanning out around the country—to more than 20 states, so far—holding meetings and press conferences aimed at spurring voters to bring up the issue with elected officials. They're preparing to fight back against a national campaign, led by a conservative advocacy group that would roll back state renewable-energy laws. They're starting conversations in churches and town halls about extreme weather and climate-change adaptation. And, they're laying the groundwork to win enough Senate votes to protect Obama's ability to use his executive authority to enact climate-change regulations—with or without the consent of Congress.
On Wednesday, Organizing for Action will hold 50 events across the country to underline the importance of addressing climate change, including a number of events in Republican districts where the group will directly criticize specific members of Congress who question or deny the science of climate change
"Our mission is to change the conversation on climate," said Ivan Frishberg, the head of Organizing for Action's new campaign. "A lot of our work is focused on changing the conversation in the American public, so that members of Congress can act."
Obama has said that taking on global warming will be a top priority in his second term. But after a major climate-change bill was torpedoed in the Senate in 2010, the chances that Congress will take up a climate-change bill in the near future are slim. After Republicans took over the House later that year, they passed a bill essentially declaring the science behind climate change a hoax.
Climate change can be a tough primary issue for Republicans, and policy proposals to fight climate change, such as taxing or regulation coal pollution, can be difficult to discuss. Polls consistently show that, while American voters are concerned about climate change, they tend to rank it behind such issues as jobs, the economy, and immigration.
Last month, in its first foray into changing the national conversation, Organizing for Action sent out an e-mail blast and Web video directly attacking Republicans as climate-change deniers. "If we want to make progress on climate change, we need everyone in Congress on board for a solution. It's our job to show them there's a price to pay for being a climate denier," the release said.
"We put a premium on the denier conversation," Frishberg said. The strategy could put some Republicans in awkward positions. As recently as 2008 the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, campaigned on a plan to fight climate change—and many moderate Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, went on the record supporting his views.
Since the House moved to the right after 2010, many moderates have been put in the position of recanting or recalibrating their positions, or simply staying silent on the issue. A campaign highlighting those views could make some moderates uncomfortable.
One Republican strategist dismissed that effort. Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist who has worked closely with House Republican leaders to craft energy and climate-change talking points, called Organizing for Action's focus on climate deniers "curious," and said he believes it will backfire.
"I understand the impulse to attack and attempt to discredit either the motives or the factual foundation of your opponents, but it seems to me that the OFA crew is missing two central, crucial points in the whole conversation," McKenna wrote in an e-mail. "The folks on their side of the discussion have argued for quite some time that the science is settled. I think that is an oversimplification, but it is a legitimate point of view. By taking these actions, the OFA gang is alerting everyone who may not have been watching closely that the science may in fact be less settled than originally suspected…. By feeding into the controversy and the noise, the OFA is inadvertently pouring kerosene on the very fire they are hoping to douse."
But Republican denials of climate science could be a Democratic issue that resonates with young voters, said Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary for Obama who ran a pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, during the 2012 election and is now a consultant to environmental-advocacy groups such as the League of Conservation Voters.
"If you consider the most important voting demographic to be millennials, for a 22- or 23-year-old voter, being a climate denier is like opposition to gay marriage in the way it paints Republican politicians as completely out of touch with how they see the world," he said.
Organizing for Action will also target lawmakers who have quietly signaled their support for climate policy, but haven't been vocal about it. "We're going to work to create opportunities for them to talk about climate.… Where [members of Congress] believe in it, but aren't supporters of a policy, we want to push them," Frishberg said.
Events and outreach will be tailored to the profile of each congressional district. In districts that have been hit hard by extreme weather events, such as droughts or hurricanes, OFA will hold events aimed at linking the local impact to the broad global problem of climate change, and at starting conversations about adapting to future extreme weather.
"Weather is the thing we talk about the most," Frishberg said. "There's lots of work to be done on connecting the dots between climate change and droughts and wildfire…. What's going to change public opinions over the near term is weather and the facts. People's response and their understanding is so driven by their local experience. We can help that along and shape it."
Meanwhile, Organizing for Action intends to push back against an ongoing campaign to overturn state renewable-energy laws. Over the past year, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has taken funding from Koch Industries, the oil conglomerate that helped fund the tea-party group Americans for Prosperity, has lobbied state and local legislators to bring up bills that would roll back state laws mandating production of electricity from wind and solar sources. OFA will campaign against those bills and send workers to go door-to-door in those communities to talk about the virtues of renewable energy.
The group has also sent out a toolkit to all its local chapters outlining how organizers can spur clean-energy projects such as adding solar panels to churches, an effort strategically designed to link clean energy and community-building in voters' minds.
One issue on which Organizing for Action has not engaged: the Keystone XL pipeline. While a massive grassroots environmental movement has grown up around urging President Obama to reject the pipeline, which would import heavily carbon-polluting tar sands oil from Canada, OFA hasn't voiced a view on the pipeline. People close to the president say they believe he'll approve the controversial project, and OFA has taken heavy criticism from environmental groups and green-minded donors for holding back its organizational muscle on the issue.
While prospects for congressional action on climate change are grim, Obama is expected—nobody knows when— to use his executive authority to roll out two massive, controversial climate-change regulations reining in pollution from coal-fired power plants, which are the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. If those rules stand, they'll likely be the cornerstone of Obama's climate legacy.
The rules will be met with immediate push-back from congressional Republicans. Specifically, it's expected that Senate Republicans will use a procedure called the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to repeal an executive regulation within 60 days of its issuance.
For OFA, the endgame will be to ensure that the Congressional Review Act votes fail by building up enough voter support in the home states of key lawmakers, particularly Democratic senators facing close elections in 2014. That will be a tough assignment; two of the vulnerable Democrats, Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Begich of Alaska, hail from oil states. But Frishberg said those votes on an obscure procedural tactic could determine whether the new climate campaign succeeds or fails.
"We're focused on ensuring Congressional Review Act rollbacks don't pass," Frishberg said. "We're trying to build up an army of supporters—and we'll activate them for the Congressional Review Act."