Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How to fight climate change

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
February 18, 2013 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT