Why the Climate Bill Died

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Expects lots of forthcoming post-mortems on comprehensive climate and energy legislation, which effectively died (for now) last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided not to include a carbon cap or renewable energy standard on the stripped-down bill he intends to introduce this week. I’ve already had my say—today in the New York Times, Rockefeller Family Fund director Lee Wasserman has his.

Wasserman deftly identifies three “threads” (he has four, but two of them are virtually identical) that explain why the Senate has come up short on ambitious climate legislation. (The House of Representatives, of course, managed to pass an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill a year ago.) Here they are:

-The White House insisted on crafting its message around green jobs, rather than climate change—in fact, in April 2009 White House climate and energy czar told environmentalists that they should avoid actually talking about global warming, and instead focus on green jobs and energy independence. The idea was—accurate, most likely—that Americans would respond better to a positive economic message than frightening warnings about the dire impact of global warming. Republican pollster Frank Lutz gave credence to this approach in January when he released an influential poll arguing that while most Americans did believe in climate change, they weren’t going to support legislation just based on the science alone. Focusing on energy independence and energy security would garner much broader support than focusing on climate alone. It was like Fight Club—the first rule to passing climate legislation was that you could not talk about the climate.

Wasserman points out the problem here—if climate change really is an existential threat to humanity, it seems disingenuous at least to confine advocates to hyping green jobs. Referencing the civil rights era, Wasserman writes:

Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling, he would have told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realize after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King’s response.

And as Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations showed in a blog post today, the green jobs argument might never have had the power its advocated believed. Shifting to a low-carbon economy is going to be disruptive—we’ll need to pull out of polluting industries like coal as we invest in renewable power and energy efficiency. But even if a well-designed climate bill led to a net increase in jobs, it introduces an element of economic uncertainty, and people don’t like that—especially during a recession:

Voters who currently have jobs will focus on the downside risk, and they will really not like it. The fact that a climate bill is a net job creator will not matter to them. Voters without jobs might like the deal, but they are much fewer in number.

Levi also notes that the green jobs case isn’t as bipartisan as it seems. Conservatives—who generally believe that the only government action that can create jobs is a tax cut—were never really going to buy the argument that introducing a new level of government regulation would lead to net job creation.

-Wasserman argues that the cap-and-trade bills on the table—the already passed Waxman-Markey bill in the house, and the legislation John Kerry and Joe Lieberman were working on in the Senate—were essentially giveaways to the biggest corporate carbon polluters. That’s arguable—mainstream environmentalists believed the best of the bills outweighed the negatives—but there’s no doubt that this legislation was put together with the input of industry, not against it. As Eric Pooley has argued in his book The Climate War, those sort of compromises were necessary—because coal is such an important part of the electricity supply in most midwestern and southern states, the transition to a cleaner economy was going to cost far more there. Those corporate allowances for the coal industry and other heavy carbon polluters were the only way cap-and-trade would ever be passed.

That’s almost certainly true—except, of course, the bills still died. And the giveaways came at a political cost—to outsiders, cap-and-trade looked like what White House budget director Peter Orzag called it: “the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States.” By the time it was voted on, Waxman-Markey was more than 1,200 pages long, full of provisions for favored corporations, complicated offset schemes and loopholes for existing coal plants. By the end Campbell’s Soup even demanded a deal for the carbon-intensive process of making soup, as Wasserman writes:

This rush to the trough was inevitable once President Obama ditched his plan to push a simple market-based bill that would have required polluters, rather than citizens, to pay for switching from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy.

As a result, liberal enthusiasm for cap-and-trade was never very strong. Greenpeace and other more left-wing environmental groups actually opposed the Waxman-Markey bill, and today The Hill is reporting that liberal groups are actually happy cap-and-trade is dead:

“The reality is that the base didn’t have a lot at stake in the climate bill,” said [Charles] Chamberlain [political director of Democracy for America].

“After the BP disaster, all we’ve heard from our members, the No. 1 issue is climate change and offshore oil drilling and oil,” he said. “But we polled our members about whether we should be fighting for the bill and it wasn’t even close. The answer was no.”

-And that leads directly to Wasserman’s last thread: cap-and-trade died because the public ultimately wasn’t engaged in the fight:

Citizens wouldn’t support an approach they couldn’t understand to solve a problem our leaders refused to acknowledge. Even the earth’s flagging ability to support life as we know it couldn’t stir a public outcry. The loudest voices insisted that leaders in Washington do nothing.

They obliged.

Just as Reid knew a carbon cap couldn’t get the 60 votes now needed to get anything passed in the recalcitrant Senate, ultimately the threat of global warming didn’t galvanize the public to the point where they would demand change. There are lots of reasons for this—disinformation campaigns by fossil fuel interests, the overblown controversy of “climategate,” a media corps that too rarely puts global warming in the right context. But until that changes—and the public demands change—ambitious climate legislation will remain dead.