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As the World Burns

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Never mind that cap-and-trade would cut climate pollution by harnessing the power of the free market — the virtues of which Republicans have been preaching for decades. The climate bill and its market-based solution was now transformed into an instrument of government control and communist bureaucracy. "They are going to take our financial systems, and then they are going to nationalize industry, and then they are going to nationalize energy," Glenn Beck said. Those who support the measure, he added, "have exposed themselves quite honestly, I think, as treasonous."

The trouble was, people weren't buying such nonsense: Polls show that only one in three Americans believe that addressing global warming will hurt the economy, and three in four support some kind of climate legislation. To create the illusion that ordinary voters oppose action on global warming, Big Oil once again relied on outright deception. Last summer, the American Petroleum Institute — the lobbying arm of the oil and gas industry — coordinated a series of "Energy Citizen" rallies in 20 states to protest limits on carbon pollution. In an internal memo leaked in August, API urged its nearly 400 member companies, including oil giants like Shell and Exxon, to quietly pack the rallies with their own employees. "Please treat this information as sensitive," the memo warned. "We don't want critics to know our game plan."

Americans for Prosperity, which was busy organizing town-hall brawls over health care, also lent its support to the industry's campaign to kill climate legislation. AFP — co-founded and supported by David Koch, an executive of Koch Industries — conducted a "Hot Air Tour" of America in which its president, Tim Phillips, would appear with a hot-air balloon and warn whatever sparse crowds the group had been able to bus in about the threat of "global-warming alarmism." The climate bill, Phillips insisted, would lead to "lost jobs, higher taxes and less freedom."

In at least one case, however, such hot-headed and misleading rhetoric backfired. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was working closely with energy companies to stop the climate bill, sparked an internal revolt when one of its vice presidents called for the science behind climate change to be put on trial — a public spectacle he predicted would represent "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century." The statement was so idiotic that it inspired eight major companies, including energy giants Exelon and PG&E, to quit the Chamber. In his resignation letter, CEO Peter Darbee of PG&E denounced the Chamber for its "extreme position" on global warming and its "disingenuous attempts to distort the reality" of climate change.

While Big Oil and Big Coal worked to whip up public hysteria, their Republican allies moved to block the climate bill in the Senate. The most unexpected and influential voice proved to be John McCain, who had long been a champion of climate legislation. The Arizona senator was highly respected by environmental and business leaders for his grasp of both the science and economics of global warming. Even while he was busy selling his soul to the far right during the presidential campaign, he called climate change "a test of foresight, of political courage and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next." But when the opportunity to show some political courage of his own arrived, McCain executed a bizarre about-face. The industry-friendly bill passed by the House, he now declared — a measure modeled on the cap-and-trade bill he had co-sponsored with Joe Lieberman — was "the worst example of legislation I've seen in a long time."

Senate veterans were stunned. "McCain is still licking his wounds from the election," says one insider who recently met with the senator. "He may eventually do something on this, but he wants Obama to come to him and ask for help."

The only Republican who has demonstrated any courage on climate change is McCain's old pal from South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham. In October, Graham partnered with Sen. John Kerry to write an op-ed for The New York Times, calling for Republicans and Democrats to work together to pass climate legislation. It was a bold move for Graham — and it prompted an immediate backlash from his own party. Republicans in his home state formally censured him, and front groups for the oil industry paid for ads attacking Graham. In one ad, a narrator talks about how the economic recession has "pushed local businesses to the brink" and raised unemployment to 11.6 percent: "So why would Sen. Lindsey Graham support new energy taxes — called cap-and-trade — that will further harm our economy and kill millions of American jobs?"

As they had in the House, Republicans in the Senate decided to obstruct the climate bill at every turn. Leading the charge was Sen. James Inhofe, the former chair of the Senate environment committee, who has not let the fact that the Arctic is melting before our very eyes stop him from continuing to proclaim that global warming is a "hoax." When Boxer, the committee's new chair, tried to advance the climate bill, Inhofe launched a number of procedural maneuvers designed to stall the bill, such as calling for more analysis from the EPA. "We all knew it was a game," says one Senate staffer. When Boxer finally forced a vote on the bill in November, Inhofe and his fellow Republicans on the committee didn't even bother to show up.

Democrats from energy-producing states — including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Jim Webb of Virginia and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas — also tried to put the brakes on climate legislation, siding with Republicans who demanded that the bill earn a 60-vote supermajority for passage. By last fall, the Obama administration was forced to acknowledge that the battle was lost. "Obviously, we'd like to be through the process," Browner, the new climate czar, conceded in October. "But that's not going to happen. We will go to Copenhagen with whatever we have." Inhofe put it even more bluntly. "We won, you lost," he boasted to Boxer's face. "Get a life."

The Senate's failure to act helped torpedo the talks in Copenhagen, which not only failed to produce a binding treaty but postponed meaningful action until 2015. It has also left Obama with no clear strategy of how to move forward. "We're staring into the abyss," says Dan Dudek, chief economist for the Environmental Defense Fund. The best hope is that Democrats manage to pass a climate bill this spring, paving the way for an international treaty that will cut carbon pollution before rising sea levels engulf low-lying nations. "It's really about getting people to focus on fact and not fiction," says Sen. Kerry, who will play a key role in guiding legislation through the Senate. "As long as we can argue this on real science — not on phony numbers trumped up to scare people — I believe we can get to the place where people realize that curbing climate change will strengthen America's economy and enhance our security."

Maybe so. But the most disturbing achievement of the energy industry in the battle over global warming is its success in lowering our expectations. Climate activists like to talk about mobilizing all of America's resources, as we did during World War II, to fight global warming. But as the failure to pass the climate bill reveals, it may be easier to defeat a dictator like Hitler than to overcome internal threats to our future as powerful as Big Coal and Big Oil. Despite the near-certainty of a climate catastrophe, there are no crowds marching in the streets to demand action, no prime-time speech from President Obama. Even the most aggressive climate legislation the Senate might pass — something on par with the House bill — will still fall tragically short of what climate scientists tell us needs to be done to avoid the looming chaos and destruction. In that sense — the only one that ultimately matters — the battle over global warming may already be over.

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