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."