Obama's Energy Failure

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FINALCD-logobugV2.jpgEngulfed by the worst environmental disaster in US history, Barack Obama is trying to change the subject. On May 26 the president pledged to "keep fighting to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation," and on June 2 he declared, "The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean-energy future." Pivoting from oil spill to climate bill makes sense; a mandatory, declining cap on emissions is America's best chance to wean itself off of fossil fuels -- and Obama's best chance to wring some good out of the catastrophe. With the Senate expected to vote today on Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) call to march in the wrong direction -- a resolution stripping the EPA of the power to regulate greenhouse gases -- this will clearly be a battle. But what did the president mean by "keep fighting?" As the campaigners on the front lines of the climate war know, Obama has not yet begun to fight.

In the early days of the administration, Al Gore sent the new president a confidential memo explaining why it was essential for the US to pass a climate bill in 2009, before the UN summit in Copenhagen, where the world was supposed to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. If the US delegation arrived empty-handed in Copenhagen, Gore wrote, the world would have no chance to reach a new global deal. American leadership was the crucial and still-missing ingredient. But except for a few days in June 2009 spent whipping the vote for the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the White House has not pushed for the cap. It has been all talk -- and even the talk tends to get watered down.

As Earth Day 2009 approached, for example, Obama and his strategists decided that a clean-energy event was needed. When the president prepped for the speech, to be held at a former Maytag factory in Iowa that now makes towers for wind turbines, he said he hadn't been talking enough about the specifics of climate policy -- a complaint that the entire climate community shared. Climate czar Carol Browner saw an opportunity. Two months earlier, she had prepared a policy document based on a short-lived interagency process designed to reach an internal consensus on climate policy, but the process got stalled and the document was languishing on Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's desk. Browner wanted to dust it off and use it to prep the president on a deeper level of policy detail, so the Iowa speech could send signals to Congress about his position on the design of a climate bill.

Emanuel and strategist David Axelrod didn't think that was a good idea. Better to stick to our basic clean energy message, they argued, and stay out of the policy weeds. It was the sort of fight that happened all the time in the Obama White House, and the True Believers ended up losing every time. "It was lather-rinse-repeat a thousand times in a thousand ways," said one. "You had this incredible green cabinet of really committed people, but the only thing that really matters is what the president says -- so everyone was trying to get words into his mouth. And Rahm was trying to keep the words out of his mouth. It was just a chronic pattern of infighting." The green cabinet -- Browner, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, and others -- thought there was a strong case to be made for the clean energy economy. With a little effort and focus, they argued, Obama could marshal the arguments, beat back the opposition, and move the needle of public opinion. "But then there were the Washington operatives on the political and economic teams who did not want to waste a bunch of bullets on some weirdo green crusade when the polling numbers weren't there, and it would be a bloody battle to take that hill. They said, 'Let's go take some other hill.'"

On Earth Day in Iowa, Obama used a fairly basic set of talking points for the speech, focusing on the energy provisions in the stimulus bill and the need for a carbon cap. He showed what an effective teacher he could be, explaining that America already placed limits on "sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide and other harmful emissions, but we haven't placed any limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It's what's called the carbon loophole," he said, borrowing a phrase from Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection. He framed the issue nicely, sweeping away a false choice that dated back to Reagan: "The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline." He even gave a mini-tutorial on how a market-based cap would work, while carefully avoiding the term "cap and trade," which Axelrod had declared radioactive.

The administration was sending mixed signals about whether the president would spend political capital trying to pass the cap. Dealing with the White House required a one-day-at-a-time, God-grant-me-the-serenity mindset, especially when it came to Rahm Emanuel. The chief of staff was an obstacle to climate action.

When corporate and environmental leaders from the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) went to the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing for a late spring 2009 meeting with Emanuel, they could see that he didn't much care about climate change. What he cared about was winning -- acquiring and maintaining presidential power over an eight-year arc. Climate and energy were agenda items to him, pieces on a legislative chessboard; he was only willing to play them in ways that enhanced Obama's larger objectives. He saw no point in squandering capital on a lost cause. The White House could claim victory if Congress passed a beefy energy bill without a cap -- never mind that doing so could torpedo Copenhagen and delay serious green house gas reductions, perhaps for many years. At the USCAP meeting, Emanuel made his views clear: "We want to do this climate bill, but success breeds success," he said. "We need to put points on the board. We only want to do things that are going to be successful. If the climate bill bogs down, we move on. We've got health care." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had to move the bill out of committee before the White House would get in the game.

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Eric Pooley is the author of The Climate War and deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

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