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Big Trouble on Climate Change: President Obama and the Loss of Momentum

Climate Justice

This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a terrific piece by Matt Bai on the Obama White House and how it is “taking” Capitol Hill, one battle at a time. After extolling the team of congressional insiders Obama has assembled, and emphasizing the importance of their attentiveness to key players on the issue du jour — health care reform — Bai predicts that Obama will be compelled to wade up to his neck in the messy details of the legislation because only his personal power will be enough to guide this behemoth through. This prediction, which has already begun to come true — note the stories last week saying he’d be willing to consider taxing benefits — could spell disaster for a different issue: climate change legislation.

Allow me to pause for just a moment, in fairness to the Obama team, to lament congressional gridlock, which has yet to be resolved by the Democratic leadership, especially in the Senate. Because Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is unwilling to play even the mildest hardball with his recalcitrant Republican opposition on even the smallest issue (see, e.g., closing Guantanamo), the “wisdom” has taken hold there that everything declared controversial by the minority will have its content decided by whoever holds the 60th available vote — or put another way, the 41st least oppositional senator. Not only is Reid unwilling to allow actual talk-all-night filibusters to proceed on issues that would affirmatively help Democrats politically, he has managed to send the signal that his own members can act up at will. So, for example, Sen. Evan Bayh, a Midwestern moderate, is suggesting that the United States should not act on climate change until China steps up with reductions of its own.  This kind of destructive fracture in the ranks was apparently one of the reasons House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) went to China last week to see what she could do to coax that giant into saving her party from its members.

In his New York Times piece, Bai notes the perils of relying so heavily on a strategy built around Obama’s popularity. The public does not stay in love with new presidents forever and soon the complaint that Obama inherited a mess will begin to fade and the mess will seem more like one he shaped and rightfully should own. On both health care and climate change, Obama will be fighting an enormous phalanx of well-paid and highly skilled lobbyists for special interests who disguise their true agendas in either seemingly noble language (patient-centered care and its climate change equivalent — ending our dependence on foreign oil) or sheer terror that the fragile economy will be wrecked by whatever the president advocates. And when Obama becomes embroiled in legislative details, he will inevitably have to accept some compromises that screw the vulnerable or that do not work.

Right now, the word among the climate change cognoscenti is that Obama will turn his full attention to the issue in 2010, after he finishes health care. Everyone should bide their time and get off his back, goes this argument, trusting in the President to pull out all the stops when the time comes. Meanwhile, I have a Google search running that updates me on the phrase “cap and trade” every day. The first several hits are always op eds or blog posts in regional papers excoriating environmentalists for proposing this expensive and unnecessary “regulatory” program. I rarely see any one answering back. So, for example, see June 10, 2009 offerings. So while White House energy czar Carol Browner is busy preparing for the Big Push in 12 months, I worry that she and her colleagues are ignoring the momentum they’re losing every day.

This piece would not be complete without a shout-out to veteran lawmakers Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA.), the Democrats making a credible effort to push a bill to the House floor before the August recess. On its way through the Energy & Commerce Committee, the bill suffered some serious body blows. The vast majority of allowances that industrial plants need to generate coal-fired electricity will be handed out rather than sold on an open market, losing billions of dollars in revenue that environmentalists had hoped to spend on jump-starting efforts to reduce carbon emissions and on alleviating the impact of high energy costs on the poor.

Senate Democrats don’t have a bill yet, with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the key Committee on Environment and Public Works, issuing an anemic set of principles and least-common-denominatoring her way toward that 60th vote.  Speaking of the Republicans, they turn every hearing on environmental or public health and safety regulation into a discussion on climate change and how we don’t know enough to act.

Waxman and Markey compromised on reduction goals too — the bill would hit a 17 — as opposed to 20 — percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020.  Waxman and Markey had little choice but to cut these deals given their disparate, heavily blue dog-laden committee. But if the legislation is the high water mark for this urgent issue, things get substantially worse on the House floor and in the Senate, Congress plays its usual game of pronouncing the problem solved and refusing to return to the issue for 20 years, and China continues to stonewall, the human dimensions of what will happen as a result would be catastrophic.

The bright spot in this darkening universe is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “little engine that could” persistence in writing its own regulations on climate change.  Even if she is determined to hoard political capitol until the time is right, Czar Browner should do everything possible to support those efforts. So far, we’ve viewed EPA’s impending regulatory action largely as a political prod to force Republicans, Blue Dogs, and industry to accept a cap-and-trade bill. But as things bog down on the Hill, it’s looking more and more as if EPA’s assertion of its regulatory mandate under the Clean Air Act could end up being an insurance policy that at least the feds will do something meaningful.

Climate Justice

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