How Obama Lost Climate Change

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Senate Democrats and Republicans spent much of 2009 wrangling over a climate change bill, known as cap and trade, that looked increasingly likely to make history but died suddenly and spectacularly this summer. The House, for its part, had passed a comprehensive climate change bull in June 2009. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza notes in a lengthy article on the bill's life and death, three senators, a Republican, a Democratic, and an Independent, "had cobbled together an unusual coalition of environmentalists and industries to support a bill that would shift the economy away from carbon consumption and toward environmentally sound sources of energy. They had the support both of the major green groups and of the biggest polluters. No previous climate-change legislation had come so far." So what happened to this initiative, long a campaign plank of President Obama?

  • How the Senate Got Republican Support  The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza details the long process, in which Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman negotiated a dizzying series of bargains and deals with Republican Senators, oil industry representatives, the Chamber of Commerce, even T. Boone Pickens. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins got almost anything they asked for. "The Chamber [of Commerce] was allowed to write the language of its top ask into the bill. ... [The major U.S.] oil companies would get the policy they desired if they agreed to a ceasefire." They even agreed to expand offshore drilling to garner Republican support.

  • ...And How Obama Lost It  Lizza reports that a big moment came when Obama announced that he would open up offshore drilling, which the Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman had planned to use as a bargaining chip to get Republican support. "But there had been no communication with the senators actually writing the bill. ... Obama had now given away what the senators were planning to trade. This was the third time that the White House had blundered [in this way]. ... Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach. Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues." The White House also publicly opposed efforts by Sen. Graham, a Republican, to reduce carbon emissions. Lizza says that "On climate change Obama grew timid and gave up, leaving the dysfunctional Senate to figure out the issue on its own." Ultimately Obama "was in favor of the bill but was not prepared to do more."
  • Obama Failed to Lead Congress  The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz writes, "Any president is unable to accomplish his ends without a hefty bit of leadership down the street at the Capitol; it's hard to obtain the sausage you want if you refuse to involve yourself with the meat grinder. If we want a substantive administration, that means facing the messy reality of legislating. If anything, Lizza's article shows how the Obama team should have been more involved in crafting the climate-change bill, not less."
  • The Senate Is Broken  Grist's David Roberts fumes, "The Senate is dysfunctional and corrupt. I know I keep harping on this, but that's because other people keep harping on the green movement and cap-and-trade and John Kerry and Obama. When liberals turn on each other because of failure in the Senate, the Senate wins. The Senate is not the real world! It's a corrupt, unrepresentative, archaic institution run according to perverse rules, populated with incurious, egotistical, ignorant, wealthy old white men. Nothing good or decent survives there. That's not a problem for good and decent things, it's a problem for the Senate!" Mother Jones' Kevin Drum agrees. Matthew Yglesias writes, "the primary villains here are the US Senate as an institution, and the members of the United States Senate as autonomous moral agents responsible for their own actions."
  • It's About Public Opinion  The New Republic's Brad Plumer writes, "There's a case to be made that major climate policy will never pass so long as it hinges on this or that senator or legislative tactic. Instead, there has to be a major sea change in public opinion before anything will pass."
  • Fox News's Role  Senator Graham wanted to push through the legislation, he said, "Before Fox News got wind of the fact that this was a serious process." The Washington Monthly's Steve Benen reacts, "The fate of the legislation -- and the fate of our efforts to combat a climate crisis -- was dependent on a cable news network not focusing too much attention on legislative negotiations. ... With that in mind, those inclined to blame President Obama for the demise of the bill are overlooking the relevant details here. As Graham saw it, Fox News would have made it impossible for Republicans to go along with the tri-partisan package, and without GOP support, the legislation would be killed. That's what it takes to govern in the 21st century -- quick and quiet negotiations, motivated by fear of a cable news network."
  • Obama Can Work Outside Congress  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias urges, "After the midterms [the wide Democratic majority] is going to be over. And that means the biggest impacts Obama has on the world will be outside the legislative process. ... Pretty much everyone would prefer an economy-wide carbon pricing scheme to an effort that puts EPA regulation in the lead. ... [But we need] an administration that’s much more engaged with the executive branch and it’s powers and less engaged with the ups and downs of the Senate schedule."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.