This is not for lack of trying. Democrats have struggled to formulate a post-Obama climate policy because substantive political obstacles stand in their way. They have not yet identified a mechanism that will make a dent in Earth’s costly, irreversible warming while uniting the many factions of their coalition. These problems could keep the party scrambling to face the climate crisis for years to come.
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The roots of this crisis go back to 2009, when Democrats held unified control of the White House and Congress. The end of the last decade was a unique moment in climate politics: Thanks to a string of intense hurricane years, and the unexpected success of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, public support for addressing climate change through legislation was higher than it had ever been.
Democrats responded with the American Clean Energy and Security Act, widely known as “Waxman-Markey,” after its two sponsors, Congressmen Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts. The bill proposed creating a carbon-emissions trading market across the United States. Under its terms, the government would have distributed a number of “right to emit carbon” credits to companies, which they could then have bought and sold to each other. As the years passed, the government would allot fewer credits, forcing the price of emitting carbon to increase, which would—in theory—ultimately decrease the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
Though more than a little technical, a pollution market was a proven idea in U.S. environmental law: George H.W. Bush established a similar “cap-and-trade” system during his presidency to reduce the pollutants that create acid rain.
In June 2009, Waxman-Markey passed the House. But as that summer wore on, the bill’s prospects floundered. By August, the Tea Party rose to command more media attention, and public opinion turned against Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—focused on passing what would become the Affordable Care Act—declined to take the climate bill to the Senate floor. By the middle of the next summer, Waxman-Markey was effectively dead. Only a few years after it opened, the window to pass climate legislation had already shut.
Even in defeat, Waxman-Markey cost the party dearly. More than two dozen congressional Democrats who had supported the cap-and-trade bill lost in the 2010 midterm election. The casualties included Rick Boucher, a 14-term veteran of Congress whose district included much of southwest Virginia’s coal country. Boucher had negotiated concessions for local coal companies into Waxman-Markey, but this could not save his seat. Ten House Democrats, including Boucher, voted for Waxman-Markey and against the Affordable Care Act. Six of them lost their seats in 2010.
Indeed, Democrats seemed to prevail only when they ran against the climate bill. Joe Manchin, then the Democratic governor of West Virginia, won a special election that year to serve in the Senate, but only after he ran an ad that showed him shooting a pile of paper with a rifle. “I sued EPA, and I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill,” he said in the commercial, which received wide media coverage.