Who Killed the Climate Bill?

We asked the experts who is to blame.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

This is how a climate bill dies. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the bad news: “We don’t have the votes.” Without a single Republican backing the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the Senate’s version of a comprehensive energy bill, there was no point taking it to the floor, he explained. For now, there was no way to move forward.

Reid’s announcement dealt a devastating blow to those hoping the United States would lead the way in aggressively curbing the greenhouse gases that scientists say are dangerously warming the planet. With time running out before 2012, when the current global climate treaty expires, negotiating a new agreement just got much harder.

So who’s to blame? Was it just a poorly crafted bill? Was there ever a chance Republicans would sign on to cap and trade? Did Barack Obama’s administration drop the ball? Or was it environmental groups themselves, who failed to persuade the public that now was the time to act?

FP asked five experts who have closely followed the debate for their verdict. Here’s what they told us:

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Bill McKibben:

This was never going to be an easy task. Dealing seriously with climate change means damaging the business model of the most profitable business the world has ever seen — fossil fuel — as well as disrupting the lives of every citizen to one degree or another.

Given that, we in the environmental community have made a mistake over the years in assuming that it would take an essentially "inside game" to win. That is, most of the big groups focused most of their efforts inside the Beltway, with expert lobbying of all kinds. The theory, I think, was that the simple fact that scientists explained we faced the worst problem ever, and that economists explained that we could deal with it, would be enough to win that action. But it wasn’t.

We also needed — and still need, more than ever — an outside game, a big mass movement to get lots of people involved across the United States (and the world, since the dynamic is the same everywhere) in pushing for change. We took a first stab at it last year with our Global Day of Action and showed it wasn’t impossible — 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries on the same day, "the most widespread day of environmental action in the planet’s history." But that was just a start — we’re glad that people from around the broader movement are joining in on 10-10-10 (Oct. 10) for a big Global Work Party. It’s an attempt to send a message to our leaders: "We’re getting to work; what about you?" And in the United States this year that message will be delivered in an indignant tone. The Senate acted shamefully, but not surprisingly. We need to change the power equation, and since we’ll never match ExxonMobil for cash, we’d better do it with bodies and spirit.

Bill McKibben is an environmentalist and scholar in residence at Middlebury College. He is author most recently of The Bill McKibben Reader.

Christine Todd Whitman: 

The failure to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year was the result of both a tenuous political climate and a failure on all sides of the issue to negotiate.

Among the earliest stumbles was when Barack Obama’s administration tried to get a carbon cap through in the omnibus spending bill last year. Obama’s backhanded action spooked a number of people who had previously shown willingness to listen. The "Climategate" email debacle then gave the naysayers an opening that, combined with the downturn in the economy, was enough to make the average person question the need for any action that might cost them a job or simply cost them more.

Adding to the fracas, environmentalists have hurt the cause by overreaching and implying that the sky is falling, so to speak. While the effects of climate change are certainly worse in some parts of the world, activists’ warnings did not equate with what people were seeing here in the United States.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Obama’s slow response reduced the president’s credibility in addressing the broader problem, leaving the appearance that he was using the spill as another backdoor approach to pass cap and trade. Unfortunately, the combination of all these factors turned the debate from focusing on good policy to playing politics, with neither side willing to give the other a win.

It’s a shame that we find ourselves in this stalemate, as business leaders have not resisted capping carbon as some might assume they would. In fact, business leaders joined with environmental leaders before President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address to ask him to create consistent federal rules on carbon emissions.

A straightforward energy bill that emphasized clean energy and conservation had a chance of passing and would have started the process of reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions. One thing is for sure: We need a comprehensive energy plan for our nation. The United States is energy dependent, and our needs are only increasing. To halt the national energy conversation because of the oil spill or public mistrust is a disservice to our country. It is incumbent on members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to look past the political third rails and move forward with a comprehensive energy policy.

Christine Todd Whitman is president of the Whitman Strategy Group and co-chair of the Republican Leadership Council. She served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January 2001 until June 2003 and governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Bruce Babbitt:

Our congressional system is broken. Cap and trade is dead, the victim of Republican scaremongering. But nature does not negotiate; our Earth will continue to warm, and eventually, an aroused public will force our representatives to act.

Meanwhile, my advice to environmentalists is: Let’s head out into the cities and states where residents and voters are making real progress. You don’t read much about it in Washington, but cap and trade is in effect and working in the New England states and California. More than 30 states (including my state, Arizona) have enacted "portfolio mandates" that require utilities to meet targets for producing carbon-free sustainable energy. Let’s build on these examples in every city and state in the country.

We have neglected the grassroots. Lets get out there and build on programs that are already underway. Sooner or later, Congress will have to wake up and act.

Bruce Babbitt is former chairman of the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund and was U.S. interior secretary from 1993 to 2001.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi

Stuart Eizenstat: 

What happened to the climate bill is a result of a combination of forces.

Among these forces, the most important was the state of the economy, which the opposition has — incorrectly — used to argue that this legislation would be a job killer and would raise costs at a delicate time in the recovery.

The second force was an indirect result of the financial crisis. Securities markets have gotten a bad name, and a remarkable number of senators with whom I have met with, including Democrats, have become so suspicious of market forces that the cap-and-trade concept — which I helped develop when I was chief negotiator at the Kyoto process in 1997, and which the United States insisted on as condition for signing the Kyoto Protocol — has been turned on its head by the very people you would expect to support it. That includes both Republicans and moderate Democrats who, before the financial crisis, would have embraced market solutions to reduce costs and government involvement.

Third, Barack Obama’s administration made a decision early on that, after the stimulus bill, it wanted its priority to be health care rather than climate change. We then had the ironic situation in which the House and Senate were working on different priorities. The key priority for the House was climate change, through the Waxman bill. But the Senate was engaged with a very long and ultimately unsuccessful bill, Kerry-Lieberman. All that lost precious time during which we could have gotten the administration to focus on climate change early in Obama’s term, when the president’s popularity was highest.

The last factor is that a lot of us academics and economists, people like Richard Cooper, the influential Harvard University economist, moved away from the idea of cap and trade. These experts were in favor of legislation but felt that the most-efficient method was a carbon tax. So some of the intellectual firepower behind cap and trade evaporated.

There are a couple of ways to go from here. There has always been debate about whether to push a green-energy law separately. If you can push separately for standards for alternative energy, for example 15 percent biofuels by 2020, and put all sorts of incentives in for alternative energy, but lose the sweetener to climate change, do you go forward with that and get the electricity standards? I don’t think it can be done before Congress’s next break, but it might be possible before the recess. A lot of environmental groups will object to that; they will say it is the death knell of climate-change legislation.

The other thing that could be a game-changer would be if the Environmental Protection Agency says: We have authority from the Supreme Court to regulate carbon dioxide, and we’re going to go industry by industry and source by source. In the end, businesses and industries will dislike that approach much more than legislation, and that may end up changing the congressional dynamic.

Stuart Eizenstat is partner at Covington and Burlington LLP. He served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury from 1993 to 2001, during which time he was lead negotiator on behalf of the United States for the Kyoto Protocol.

Note: This contribution is an interview with FP.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Paul J. Saunders:

Who killed the climate-change bill? Lots of people. At a tactical level, Senate Republicans, with help from coal-state Senate Democrats. At a strategic level, President Barack Obama, who decided to make health-care reform his No. 1 priority. At the most fundamental level, however, the American people killed the bill.

Elected leaders don’t always act on the basis of voters’ preferences, but they are normally careful not to stray too far from what their constituents want. There is little evidence that Americans supported significant climate-change legislation at any level deeper than the purely declarative — especially at any level that involves their pocketbooks.

Some might argue that this reflects a failure of the scientific establishment, activists, and/or the media to adequately explain what may be at stake. While all doubtless have their shortcomings, and all humans and human institutions are imperfect, the real issue is that it is a difficult case to make — not because climate change isn’t real and won’t have real consequences, but because it is what political scientists would call a classic problem of collective action.

Stopping climate change requires collective action not only in the United States, but at a global level. And both domestically and internationally, the costs and benefits are not evenly distributed. This complicates efforts at consensus. At the same time, climate policy is inherently energy policy by another name, and energy touches every aspect of daily life — which makes everyone pay attention to the personal impacts of legislation.

As a result, the limit-based approach underlying both the dead bill and the ongoing United Nations negotiations on climate change is fatally flawed because the effectiveness of emissions limits is inversely proportional to their popularity and political viability. The deep cuts needed to prevent climate change are politically impossible, and even rather mild cuts (in comparison with what is needed) have failed. The lesson here is that any limit-based climate bill that could be passed in Congress would be inherently ineffective in meaningfully addressing the climate problem.

There is still a strong case to be made for investment in innovation, which is a much simpler political argument to make and can slow emissions growth (or, in the case of a genuine but extremely unlikely breakthrough, have transformative effects). But if I were running the government, I would start thinking hard about how the United States should adapt to rising temperatures.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center. He served as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Michael A. Levi:

The U.S. economy killed the climate bill. Its main accomplices were congressional Republican obstructionism, an anemic White House effort, and misplaced reliance on industry and environmental interest groups to deliver votes.

In January 2009, when President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the smart money on cap and trade was betting on a climate bill just as soon as U.S. employment recovered. That, in most people’s minds, meant that we’d have to wait until 2011 or so for a bill. That basic logic hasn’t changed. Indeed, things have only gotten worse. Unemployment is more painful than originally predicted. Democratic efforts to reframe cap and trade as jobs legislation, meanwhile, have largely failed. Americans wants assurances, not experiments, and cap and trade doesn’t do that for them.

Why, then, the apparent surprise at the climate bill’s demise? People have forgotten the economic fundamentals that were so obvious 18 months ago. The House-passed Waxman-Markey bill gave advocates too much hope, even though the bill actually passed with fewer votes than most had once anticipated. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added another shot of optimism when he teamed up with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) late last year — but he has been gone from the picture for months. Climate advocates figured that the oil spill might push things over the top, but no one really explained why paying more for coal-fired electricity would prevent underwater blowouts.

Nor did the main players help much. Republicans settled on a destructive strategy of denying Obama any big bipartisan accomplishments and stuck to that strategy well. The only major exception was the financial-reform bill, something that, unlike cap and trade, the public actually demanded. The White House never made a big public push for climate legislation, either after Waxman-Markey passed or when the oil spill focused people’s attention on energy.

Most peculiarly, perhaps, supporters of the bill placed extraordinary faith in the ability of interest-group negotiations to deliver political results. But the big environmental groups wield less influence with voters than they like to think. They failed to deliver a single Republican vote. More strikingly, so did big business. Senator Graham spent months negotiating with utilities, manufacturers, and oil companies. He was able to strike a deal with them — and that did not get him a single Republican vote either. Yet in the waning hours, all eyes were inexplicably, once again, on environmental groups and utility executives as they tried to hammer out yet another compromise that the public at large was inevitably uninterested in buying.

The big lesson, though, is the economic one. Until the U.S. economy recovers considerably, the best legislative bets are going to be ones that people intuitively connect to their own economic well-being. Cap and trade doesn’t seem to fit that bill.

Michael A. Levi is senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

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