Any plans Obama had to move quickly on climate legislation, however, were derailed by the economic disaster he inherited from the Bush administration. As the new president scrambled to bail out Wall Street, keep GM afloat and win approval for a $787 billion plan to stimulate the economy (including $80 billion for clean energy and green jobs), reining in carbon pollution dropped lower and lower on the list of pressing demands. "In the midst of the worst recession in a generation," says Jason Grumet, who served as Obama's top energy adviser during the campaign, "climate change isn't what leaps to mind for the average voter." When it came time to set his legislative agenda, Obama decided to make health care, rather than global warming, his top priority. "Health care has a populist feel to it," explains a campaign insider. "It's much more the kind of meat-and-potatoes issue that Obama feels comfortable with."
The decision to put health care first infuriated some activists, who feared the president would be unable to win climate legislation in time for Copenhagen. "Why not push a climate bill as Green Stimulus, Part Two?" asks one top environmental economist. But leaders in the House had already decided to push through a climate bill on their own — even without strong public support from the White House. Taking the lead on the measure was Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Markey, head of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. As one climate activist close to the administration steamed, "What good is health care on a dead planet?"
Waxman and Markey's bill — the American Clean Energy and Security Act — was hardly a silver bullet aimed at the heart of Big Coal and Big Oil. It set wimpy near-term goals for reducing carbon (only 20 percent by 2020) and included far too many offsets (2 billion tons a year). All in all, it was nowhere near as tough as it needed to be to cut emissions quickly and stave off the most extreme consequences of climate change. But it did contain strong measures to improve energy efficiency, and it represented a crucial first step in creating the framework for a low-carbon economy. "The legislation now on the table isn't the bill we'd ideally want, but it's the bill we can get — and it's vastly better than no bill at all," observed Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize laureate.
If the bill pulled its punches on global warming, that's because it was based in large part on a business-friendly blueprint that had been laid out in January, only a few days before Obama was sworn in as president. Assembled by the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of leading environmental groups and major companies like GE and ConocoPhillips, the plan called for reducing carbon pollution by as little as 14 percent before 2020 — while continuing to allow conventional coal plants to be built. The industry-driven plan prompted the National Wildlife Federation to pull out of USCAP, calling for action that "measures up to what scientists say is needed."
Still, even in its diluted form, the House bill alarmed many coal and oil companies. Foreseeing a showdown over climate change, the energy industry had been busy packing Capitol Hill with lobbyists. By last year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had soared by more than fivefold since 2003, to a total of 2,810 — or five lobbyists for every lawmaker in Washington. "I had no idea this many lobbyists even existed in Washington," says former senator Tim Wirth, now head of the United Nations Foundation. Only 138 of the lobbyists were pushing for alternative energy — the rest were heavily weighted toward the old fossil-fuel mafia, most of whom oppose tough carbon caps. The most aggressive foes were coal polluters like Peabody Energy and the Southern Company, an Atlanta-based utility known for its prowess on Capitol Hill. "They're kneecap breakers," says one congressional staffer.
For Southern and Peabody, as well as for oil giants like ExxonMobil, the Waxman-Markey bill meant war: If they could kill it, they could not only stall action on climate at home, they could also wreck the chances for an international deal in Copenhagen. These companies had spent decades funding studies that undermined the science of global warming, using tactics honed by the tobacco industry to sow doubt and confusion in hopes of staving off regulation. Now, they switched their line of attack. Rather than arguing that global warming isn't real, they tried to shift the fear from climate change to the specter of a massive government intervention. The climate bill, they argued, was nothing more than a national energy tax that would cause energy prices to skyrocket and destroy American jobs. As evidence, they pointed to a study by the Heritage Foundation, long a purveyor of junk science favored by the energy industry. (The conservative think tank has received at least $500,000 from ExxonMobil and $3 million from funders with ties to Koch Industries, a major oil-refining company.) Not surprisingly, the Heritage study predicted economic disaster if the climate bill were signed into law: Electricity rates would jump by 90 percent, gas prices would increase by 74 percent, the average energy bill would rise by $1,500 a year, and as many as 2.5 million jobs would disappear.
This, of course, was complete bullshit. The most credible analysis of the bill, from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, found that the measure would cost most families no more than $175 a year — the equivalent of "about a postage stamp a day," Markey says. But the Heritage Foundation is nothing if not a big, well-greased disinformation machine. "We noticed that every time a constituent came in to talk to us about the bill, they would be quoting the same numbers," says one congressional staffer. "We knew they were a lie, but they were everywhere."
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