A Wrong Turn on Climate Change

>This week, Harry Reid unveiled the Democrats' latest attempt at an energy package. Unlike earlier drafts, this legislation has some chance of passing. Trouble is, it will do very little about climate change (rather ironic for something we used to call a climate change bill). It includes no carbon cap, no efficiency benchmarks, no renewable electricity standard--all of which, in some form, were part of the Waxman-Markey legislation that passed the House more than a year ago.

So what went wrong on the road to controlling global warming and getting closer to energy independence?

According to key environmental and political leaders, several mistakes are now clear. One was an obsessive focus on winning the House vote, but not on the message war that followed, according to Daniel Lashof, director of the Natural Resouces Defense Council's Climate Center. Last summer marked the beginning of the Tea Party backlash to big D.C. legislation, and "Democrats were not prepared, and we [in the environmental community] didn't do enough to explain, why this was good policy." The legislation was defined by its opponents as "cap and tax"--higher electricity prices at a time of economic crisis. Senators saw the pain the energy bill's opponents inflicted on members of the House, and were reluctant to experience it themselves.

Another big mistake was a flabby response to the so-called Climategate scandal--even as the fundamental science of climate change was widely re-affirmed. As one environmentalist put it, "we couldn't sell sacrifice even before Climategate, but now that people had a phony excuse not to believe [global warming] was even happening, our job went from hard to impossible."

Key supporters were distracted: health care, financial reform, and stimulus legislation were all given greater attention by Senate leaders and, especially, the White House. Tony Kreindler of Environmental Defense says, "it should be self-evident we haven't seen the level of engagement by the president necessary to seal the deal." Losing the endorsement of Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the only Republican onboard, was a severe blow.

As one Democratic senator remarked, "Lindsey leaving was terrible, and it says something bad about the senators running the process. [Barbara] Boxer and [John] Kerry are totally committed, their hearts are in the right place, but were they really the best people to reach out to the senators who hadn't decided?"

Kreindler also emphasized the lack of support from utilities and manufacturers, without which achieving 60 Senate votes was extraordinarily difficult. "We were close with the utilities, not with the manufacturers ... these agreements are important not because of special interest politics and the influence of big money but because having everyone at the table helps make policies that are durable and effective."    

Where do greens go from here? They have three possible paths:

If, for whatever reason, the Reid bill fails to pass before the Congressional August recess, senators could try again on a utility-specific cap in September. This was the proposal Democrats pushed after a more universal carbon cap failed to move. But electric utilities only generate about a third of greenhouse gas emissions. The other downside to this approach, as Lashof argues, is "a source-by-source program provides less certainty for companies and less of a long-term signal to invest in alternatives."  There is also no guarantee a utility-only bill will be more successful in the fall than it has been this summer.

Second, they could try a comprehensive approach again in the lame-duck session (after the November elections) when several Democrats have lost--and therefore won't feel any political constraint against acting on the basis of what, presumably, they really believe. Yet if any of the lame-ducks want a political future in coal country they might remain opposed.

Third, Democrats could attempt a carbon cap again in the next Congress. Most assume they will face fewer distractions then; no big legislative push--on the scale of financial or health reform--is planned. But they will also face far more Republicans. "Prospects are bleak now, bleaker later this year, and bleakest of all next year," said one environmental lobbyist, "I don't know where the path forward is."  

As it now stands, is the Reid bill worth supporting? Every environmental leader with whom I spoke said yes. The good news is it does nothing to strip the EPA of Supreme Court-approved power to limit carbon pollution on its own. Other agencies (like the Departments of Energy or Transportation) could act in particular sectors. The Reid bill also contains non-controversial provisions that will reduce energy waste and strengthen oil industry regulation.  Neither will it take off the table incentives to approve cap-and-trade at a later date--given that none of the pollution credits and industry subsidies in Waxman-Markey carried over to the Reid bill.

Yet as Lashof concludes, "it's a fine proposal, but this has nothing to do with responding to climate change."


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Brian Goldsmith is a contributor to TheAtlantic.com. A former political producer for the CBS Evening News, he is now a student at Stanford Law School.

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