Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lessons from Maryland for the climate movement

pretty good year for Gov. O'Malley
by Nick Cunningham

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and the Maryland legislature have tallied quite a series of progressive achievements over the last few years. Last year, Maryland legalized same-sex marriage and passed the DREAM Act. Gov. O'Malley will soon sign a bill that repeals the state's death penalty. The state will subsidize the development of offshore wind power in the Atlantic Ocean. The legislature is set to approve broad new gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban. A 5-cent tax on plastic bags may be the nation's first at the state level. To increase funding for transit, the Governor has proposed a 2% tax on wholesale gasoline (although this one looks a bit more contentious).

An impressive list no doubt. I think over the past few years Maryland has made a strong case for being the leader of the Progressive movement nationwide

However, I think the bag tax in particular offers interesting lessons for the climate movement, and tie into the ongoing debate about how to build the political support for climate action.

There has been a very interesting debate within the environmental community that we have been following closely on this blog. Theda Skocpol sparked controversy over her paper that concluded that the cap-and-trade campaign failed in 2009-2010 because environmentalists focused too much on the "inside game," while it failed to generate broad grassroots public support. Her paper led to some self-reflection and internal analysis of what went wrong. Her recent article in Grist talked about what needs to be done to build political support for action:

"reformers should be building broad center-left organizational alliances and broader public support to prepare for the next opening for possible congressional action, perhaps in 2017. To be effective, these inter-organizational alliances will have to stretch far beyond environmental activists, reaching community groups, unions, churches, organizations of healthcare providers, women’s organizations, and many other kinds of associations with deep roots and actual constituents."

While not the sweeping climate legislation we are looking for, one Maryland action provides interesting parallels to Ms. Skocpol's conclusion: the potential 5-cent tax on plastic bags. Last year, the General Assembly considered the bag tax, but it died because of what was seen as an unacceptable burden on low-income residents. This has been the main hurdle for the environmental community for years, as Ms. Skocpol has noted. Environmental actions are often seen as at odds with anti-poverty measures; environmental action is the purview of white, well-off elites. The environmental community must broaden its coalition.

However, Miranda Spivack of The Washington Post looks at the broad coalition that has been put together to push the bag tax over the goal line, something the Governor failed to do in prior attempts: 

"But bag-charge advocates said they have knit together a broad coalition that is framing the debate as a matter of economic and environmental equity, something they failed to do last year when the House delegation from Prince George’s was divided about a county bag bill." 

Instead of being seen as a tax that hurts the poor, supporters have convinced people that the poor, in fact, suffer disproportionately from local pollution. The tax therefore is a not just an environmental measure, but also an anti-poverty measure. And later in the article, "Dottie Yunger, a minister trying to rally religious leaders in Maryland, said some lawmakers from predominantly African American communities remain wary of a bag charge because some view environmental advocates as elitists uninterested in the impact their proposals have on low-income residents. But Yunger, who is white, and other advocates of the bag charge have won over many by pointing to the potential to expand recreation in a cleaner Anacostia and the prospect of resuming river baptisms, abandoned years ago when the river became too polluted."

As I said, the bag tax is surely a small measure, but if it is to be successful, the support from religious, minority, and anti-poverty communities - that are not necessarily engaged in environmental debates - will be critical. And, as Ms. Skocpol has talked about, the same will be true for the climate movement. 

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