Climate change: a hot play for lobbyists

Climate change is not a new issue, but it has achieved new status on Capitol Hill due principally to two developments.

First, the increasing public attention being paid to the issue — evidenced so clearly in the popularity of “An Inconvenient Truth” — forced the subject over a pivotal threshold. Many lawmakers see potential political harm in avoiding the topic altogether, and thus have come to embrace its momentum (and accompanying visibility).

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Second, the Democratic takeover of Congress created the political opportunity that the issue lacked under Republican control of elected government.

For lobbyists, this climate-change tipping point triggered great demand for policy expertise and services from clients in a host of sectors, including transportation, energy, manufacturing and international trade. We have seen climate change, as a political issue, achieve a rapid horizontal spread to greater numbers of stakeholders — groups overlooked in the traditional “smokestacks-versus-environmentalists” view — who realize they can shape outcomes when it comes to changing how they do business or framing the agenda.

These policy players are a diverse group, comprised of everyone from green-group veterans, regulators, chief executives (both wary and applauding) and start-ups in fields from alternative fuels to energy-saving technologies convinced their time has come.

Their divergent ideas and priorities are sifted amid a near-deafening buzz. Each day brings a new climate-change headline. One day, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases makes the news. Another paper covers a gloomy United Nations forecast of extinctions and conflict following rising temperatures. Diverse companies make statements in favor of mandated emissions reductions.

As if further urgency were required, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked for climate-change legislation by this summer, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) before Memorial Day.

While such deadlines seem to be slipping, no one denies that climate-change activity on the Hill is advancing more rapidly than anyone expected. The stars are aligning for certain action on the climate-change front in the near future, and point to several areas where lobbyists can provide invaluable contributions.

First, helping to keep the big picture in view is critical. Climate change easily lends itself to fragmented perspectives. Clients understandably have an inclination to focus on issues specific to their region or industry, but keeping an eye on the larger landscape is critical. Climate change is one facet in the increasing focus on building a sustainable economy — perhaps the biggest in that arena, but still just one. Being mindful of this lets us advise clients where they can exert influence beyond traditional issues where they may be “typecast.”

Second, climate-change policy management puts a premium on alliances, and those who can help to form and maintain those alliances. Forging coalitions is crucial in achieving outcomes for debates of this scale, which pull in players faster than many can keep score. How do manufacturers’ views square with exporters, for example, or those of automakers with oil companies, given that both court drivers? What relationships can holders of new, hard-fought patents for zero-emissions technologies forge with green advocacy groups? Clients must honor their missions first and foremost, but tapping into related camps is a tactic we stress at our firm, largely because my colleagues work on a lot of issues adjacent to climate change in the course of our litigation, regulatory and transactional matters.

A third major opportunity is seizing on the relationship between U.S. action and similar efforts overseas. The global nature of climate change is obvious. Many in the U.S. have concerns about whether the U.S. can make any dent in greenhouse gases without reciprocal efforts from China, India or other developing nations. That is an important question, but by no means the only international angle.

For example, many clients want to know what the U.S. can learn from policies enacted overseas to stem climate change, such as the European Union’s experience with “cap–and-trade” approaches to emissions on its continent. A U.S. company could bolster its key messages in Hill offices and newsrooms if it recounted its European counterparts’ thoughts on cap and trade, in addition to its own.

In short, climate change is no different from the many issues for which entities hire lobbyists. Collecting and presenting information, building relationships and challenging assumptions go with the territory.

What makes climate change interesting is the speed with which it has shaped the public discourse and influenced our country’s collective views on moral obligations, economic competitiveness and global responsibilities. Congress may well deal with no more important issue in our lifetime, and lobbyists of all stripes will exercise a crucial role as this debate moves forward.

A former acting deputy administrator and chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Peter Robertson is a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Washington, where he manages the firm’s public policy practice and serves as a member of Pillsbury’s Climate Change and Sustainability group. He can be reached at peter.robertson@pillsburylaw.com.

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