Cap and Trade is Dead (Really, Truly, I’m Not Kidding). Who’s to Blame?

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The headline has been written countless times, but this time it is true: carbon cap-and-trade of any sort will not come out of this Congress—and perhaps it never will. Instead of comprehensive economy-wide carbon cap that Senator John Kerry had urged—and that the House had already passed a year ago—or even the compromise utility-only cap bill that had been suggested as an alternative, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced today that he would move forward next week on a bill that only deals with the BP oil spill and a few other low-profile energy policies. The reason was simple, according to Reid—politics:

It’s easy to count to 60. I could do it by the time I was in eighth grade. My point is this, we know where we are. We know we don’t have the votes [for a bill capping emissions]. This is a step forward.

That Reid couldn’t get a filibuster-beating super-majority to pass climate and energy legislation surely seems to be the case—after all, the Majority Leader can indeed count. But the idea that such an unambitious bill—even after the shock of the oil spill—represents anything but treading water is a joke. According to Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico—who had pushed an earlier compromise energy bill out of his committee—Reid’s bill won’t include a carbon cap or even a renewable energy standard, which would require utilities to source a certain percentage of their electricity from clean sources. Instead it’s likely to contain energy efficiency upgrades for home appliances and measures to push the nation’s trucking fleet to use cleaner natural gas. (Something the Texas oil-turned-wind tycoon T. Boone Pickens has been advocating for years, as Bradford Plumer of the New Republic points out—so at least a Texas billionaire who made his money off petroleum is having a good day.) It’s possible that the Democrats will be able to put some form of a carbon cap back into the bill after the August recess or even during the lame-duck session following the November elections—but that has about a snowball’s chance in midtown Manhattan (after global warming) of coming true.

So what happened? How did a Democratic President who came to office talking up climate change and promising a strong carbon cap, plus a Democratic Senate and House of Representatives, plus the late impetus of the oil spill, somehow come away with barely more than nothing? As a stunned environmental community sifts through the wreckage, they’ll find no shortage of perpetrators.

-The filibuster and the Republicans: It should go without saying at this point, but the increasing reliance on the filibuster has made the U.S. Senate a deeply, deeply dysfunctional body—and the Republicans, who were nearly lockstep against any climate legislation with a cap, were only to happy to abuse it. It was always going to be difficult to get any kind of carbon cap passed in the Senate. (It took a heroic effort from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to force a cap-and-trade bill through the House last year—and the vulnerable Democrats who voted for it may get BTUed this November in response.) An accelerated transition to a cleaner economy—and the accelerated phasing out of dirty fossil fuels—is going to disproportionately hit southern and midwestern states that depend disproportionately on coal. The Senate by its very composition gives disproportionate power to rural states in the midwest and the south—so  getting 51 votes was going to be tough, even with 59 Democrats in the Senate. The fact that all bills must now get 60 votes to pass thanks to the filibuster—which wasn’t always the case—meant that any climate and energy bill needed at least a few Republicans.

But the Republicans never even played a constructive role in the shaping of the bill, with the exception of Senator Lindsey Graham—who abruptly dropped out of his alliance with John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman shortly before their cap-and-trade bill was due to come out, ostensibly because of his annoyance over immigration reform. Otherwise the Republican party seemed happy to ignore one of the most important long-term threats facing the human race, pleased to follow the example of colleagues like Senator James Inhofe, he of the “climate change is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” quote. There was plenty of room for debate over how we should choose to address climate change and energy, and conservative ideas would have been helpful—but nothing substantial was forthcoming.

-The Democrats: While it’s true that the filibuster present a high barrier for any climate and energy action, the reality is that Reid may have struggled to get even 51 votes for a stronger bill, because a number of Democrats were almost as obstructionist as their Republican colleagues. Coal state Democrats like Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and George Voinovic Evan Bayh of Indiana were almost certainly never going to vote for a bill with a carbon cap, knowing what it might do to the coal industry. Farm state Democrats like Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska weren’t any better.

The truth is there weren’t enough Democrats willing to support a carbon cap, let along Republicans. Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute—a think tank that is highly skeptical of cap and trade—told me that his group spoke to environmental lobbyists back in 2008 who were working on a cap-and-trade bill in the Senate then, the Warner-Lieberman bill. Though it never went to a full vote, Shellenberger believes that a carbon cap bill in 2008 would have received no more than 35 votes. Now there are more Democrats in the Senate than there were then, and political realities change with a Democratic president in the White House—but that’s still a huge gap.

-The White House: It’s all Obama’s fault—that’s the message that many more liberal greens are coalescing around. For all his talk in the campaign about climate change and the need to get a price on carbon (during the campaign he called to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050), Obama seemed generally detached from the Congressional fight over climate legislation. Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth noted that Obama never gave a substantial speech focused on the need for the U.S. to face up to the long-terms of climate change and truly take energy innovation seriously; never brought climate researchers to speak to his White House staff; never challenged conservatives like Inhofe who willfully lied on climate issues. It’s true he took office in the teeth of the worst recession in modern memory—which by itself might have killed any ambitious legislation on climate—and has juggled countless crises, but this never seemed to be a priority for him, or his top political staff at the White House. After nominating the greenest Presidential cabinet ever—including Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary Steven Chu—Obama seemed to think his work was done. Characteristically, when Obama gave his first Oval Office speech last month, on the oil spill and energy, he didn’t even mention a carbon cap.

Tim Dickinson, in a just published piece in Rolling Stone, lays out the case against Obama:

The failure to confront global warming – central not only to Obama’s presidency but to the planet itself – is not the Senate’s alone. Rather than press forward with a climate bill in the Senate last summer, after the House had passed landmark legislation to curb carbon pollution, the administration repeated many of the same mistakes it made in pushing for health care reform. It refused to lay out its own plan, allowing the Senate to bicker endlessly over the details. It pursued a “stealth strategy” of backroom negotiations, supporting huge new subsidies to win over big polluters. It allowed opponents to use scare phrases like “cap and tax” to hijack public debate. And most galling of all, it has failed to use the gravest environmental disaster in the nation’s history to push through a climate bill – to argue that fossil-fuel polluters should pay for the damage they are doing to the atmosphere, just as BP will be forced to pay for the damage it has done to the Gulf.

-Environmentalists: Over the past few years, most environmental groups have made climate change their number one priority. And within that—led by wonky organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and especially the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)—shooting for an economy-wide carbon cap was the number one tool. A price on carbon was the only way, the market-oriented way, to reduce emissions and fight climate change. Put a cap on carbon and businesses would respond, changing the way they used energy, funding innovative new cleantech startups and ushering in an era of green jobs. That was the great green pitch—trust me, I’ve been getting it almost every day, in various ways, for the past two years.

That pitch failed. It failed because the filibuster makes legislation nearly impossible to pass. It failed because Republicans don’t take climate change seriously and conservative Democrats won’t put themselves on the line. It failed because a busy White House never made it a priority. But at the end of the day, the pitch failed—after November it’s hard to imagine we’ll soon get back to a more positive political  atmosphere for climate action—and it might be time for a new one. When a pitcher can’t close the game—I know this, I’ve been watching Brad Lidge for two and a half years—you give him the hook. “It’s hard to see cap-and-trade coming back anytime within the next decade,” Shellenberger told me.

I’ll have more in the days ahead about alternative ways to deal with energy and climate change—most of which focus on vastly increasing research money for cleantech innovation, focusing public purchases on renewable energy and improving energy efficiency standards. Hopefully that angle would be less politically divisive and easier to pass—though in this toxic political climate, who can be sure? But we need to try something else. We just lived through the hottest month on record, on track for the hottest year ever. Climate change is frightening. As Al Gore said in a statement today: “The truth about the climate crisis—inconvenient as ever—must be faced.” He’s still right.

Update: As many people pointed out to me, George Voinovich is a Republican. I had meant to write Evan Bayh—got my Midwestern senators mixed. Many apologies.