Climate Bill, R.I.P.

Instead of taking the fight to big polluters, President Obama has put global warming on the back burner

President Barack Obama climate change
Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Barack Obama
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A comprehensive energy and climate bill – the centerpiece of President Obama's environmental agenda – is officially dead. Take it from the president's own climate czar, Carol Browner. "What is abundantly clear," she told Rolling Stone in an exclusive interview on July 8th, "is that an economy-wide program, which the president has talked about for years now, is not doable in the Senate."

The Spill, The Scandal and the President

But the failure to confront global warming – central not only to Obama's presidency but to the planet itself – is not the Senate's alone. Rather than press forward with a climate bill in the Senate last summer, after the House had passed landmark legislation to curb carbon pollution, the administration repeated many of the same mistakes it made in pushing for health care reform. It refused to lay out its own plan, allowing the Senate to bicker endlessly over the details. It pursued a "stealth strategy" of backroom negotiations, supporting huge new subsidies to win over big polluters. It allowed opponents to use scare phrases like "cap and tax" to hijack public debate. And most galling of all, it has failed to use the gravest environmental disaster in the nation's history to push through a climate bill – to argue that fossil-fuel polluters should pay for the damage they are doing to the atmosphere, just as BP will be forced to pay for the damage it has done to the Gulf.

Top environmental groups, including Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, are openly clashing with the administration, demanding that Obama provide more hands-on leadership to secure a meaningful climate bill. "We really need the president to take the lead and tell us what bill he's going to support," says Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund. "If he doesn't do that, then everything he's done so far will lead to nothing."

The Vanishing Ice Sheets

But Obama, so far, has shown no urgency on the issue, and little willingness to lead – despite a June poll showing that 76 percent of Americans believe the government should limit climate pollution. With hopes for an economy-wide approach to global warming dashed, Congress is now weighing a scaled-back proposal that would ratchet down carbon pollution from the nation's electric utilities. It has come to this: The best legislation we can hope for is the same climate policy that George W. Bush promoted during the 2000 campaign. Even worse, the "utilities first" approach could wind up stripping the EPA of its newfound authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.

BP's Next Disaster

Although the president is receptive to the utilities-first approach, he has also made clear that he'll settle for much less, including a watered-down bill that would increase investments in clean energy without tackling carbon emissions directly. "He recognizes the challenge of 60 votes," says Browner. "If there's another way to get started to move forward, he's open to that." Sen. John Kerry, whose comprehensive climate bill with Joe Lieberman is now dead, emerged from a meeting at the White House on June 29th sounding an even stronger battle cry of capitulation. "We believe we have compromised significantly," Kerry declared, "and we're prepared to compromise further."

Indeed, the president has made no concrete demands of the Senate, preferring to let Majority Leader Harry Reid direct the bill – a hands-off approach that is unlikely to produce a measure of any substance. "You have two camps right now in the Senate," says a top congressional source. "One is the camp of 'Let's put something together, put it out there, whip it really hard and get to 60.' And then you have the Harry Reid model, which is 'Let's wait until we know we have 60 votes.' " Climate advocates are furious at the least-common-denominator approach, saying it takes victory off the table. "You can't run up the white flag," Sen. Jeff Merkeley of Oregon said in June, "until you have the fight."

From the start, Obama has led from behind on climate change. Shortly after he took office, the White House seemed inconvenienced when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made climate change a top priority, moving swiftly to push a cap on carbon pollution through the House. Rep. Henry Waxman, who played an instrumental role in the legislation, was frustrated by the White House's refusal to come up with specifics to guide the effort. "Browner tried to produce a detailed policy position," says Eric Pooley, author of the just-published The Climate War, a definitive account of the legislative fight. "But that effort was blocked." Obama's top political advisers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, pointedly avoided the legislative battle, viewing it as politically unwinnable.

So Waxman moved on his own. Working with Rep. Ed Markey, he caught the White House off guard by cutting the difficult political compromises that were necessary to gain the support of coal-state Democrats and bringing the bill to a vote. It took Al Gore sitting down with Emanuel and going over voting lists, name by name, to persuade the White House to throw its muscle behind the bill and pressure congressional holdouts to fall in line. On June 26th, the measure passed by the narrowest of margins, 219-212.

But despite having a climate bill in hand, the White House decided to put its muscle into passing health care reform. Emanuel promised climate advocates that the administration would return to global warming in early 2010. By then, however, the drawn-out fight for health care was on life support, and Democrats no longer held a 60-vote edge in the Senate. The momentum on climate legislation had been squandered. "It's a shame, because the window really was 2009," Pooley says. "It wasn't going to be easy, but if you don't even try, you're not going to get it done – and they didn't even try."

By waiting until after the health care fight, the Obama administration also allowed the energy industry and its conservative allies to mobilize their troops and hone their anti-climate rhetoric. Taking a page from the "death panel" lies, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and energy-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity waged an all-out campaign against the climate bill, indelibly branding common-sense penalties on climate polluters as "taxes." With no one making an effective pitch for economy-wide carbon limits, "cap and trade" quickly became the bill that dare not speak its name.

The climate bill finally got back on the rails late last year, when the Senate trio of John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham – a Democrat, Independent and Republican – tried to pursue a "tripartisan" approach to global warming. There was plenty to like about their bill. It would have slashed climate-warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050, at a cost to consumers of less than 40 cents a day. In an age of soaring deficits, it would also have reduced the nation's red ink by $19 billion over the next decade.

Once again, however, the administration applied the same backroom approach it took to health care reform. Instead of waging a public debate to pit the American people against the corporate polluters, Obama gave the polluters a seat at the negotiating table. In private, big energy firms were offered sweetheart deals to acquiesce to the climate bill, including expanded offshore drilling for oil giants like BP and taxpayer subsidies for coal and nuclear interests that outstripped those for clean energy. "Kerry-Lieberman read like an industry wish list," says a top Senate environmental staffer. "The bill invests heavily in coal and nuclear, but doesn't do a heck of a lot for efficiency and renewables."

The White House was deeply engaged in the negotiations. "There have been almost 200 meetings or calls between Cabinet members, White House officials and senators on this issue," says Browner. "We've got everyone from [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu to [Interior Secretary] Ken Salazar to [EPA administrator] Lisa Jackson engaged. I've probably been up there in the Senate on this issue 50, 60, 70 times during this Congress, talking to both Republicans and Democrats."

At first, climate advocates were resigned to the backroom deals, figuring they were necessary to achieve a greater good. "It looked like the only way to pass a bill," says a Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations, "was to make all of these horrendous compromises." But then the strategy backfired. "What that bill did was essentially write nuclear and coal into U.S. energy production for the next 10 to 20 years, instead of phasing them out," says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. "And it didn't pick up any Republicans whatsoever." In fact, the tripartisan approach lost its only Republican supporter when Harry Reid tried to appease his home-state constituency in Nevada by placing immigration ahead of climate change in the Senate. Graham, who felt betrayed by the about-face, bowed out on April 24th, threatening to filibuster his own bill.

In one respect, the timing proved fortuitous. Graham, Kerry and Lieberman had been set to officially unveil the details of their climate bill – including its expansion of offshore drilling – at a press conference on April 26th. According to one insider, the senators would have been flanked at the event by BP and other big energy players. "The press conference was canceled at the last minute because Graham pulled out," says the insider. That same week, BP's oil rig in the Gulf had exploded, killing 11 workers and unleashing the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. The oil spill sealed the fate of the Kerry-Lieberman bill, making any push to expand offshore drilling untenable in the short term. "You had a major part of the legislation blow up, literally," says a House source close to climate negotiations. "And that somehow meant people said, 'Well, we should shut down the entire bill.' That's the logic of the Senate."

By another logic, the disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming. Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout. Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress. In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act.

But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away. On June 15th, the president – a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan – sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words "carbon" or "emissions" or "greenhouse" – not even the word "pollution." The president's sole mention of "climate" came in a glancing description of the "comprehensive energy and climate bill" that the House passed. In a moment that cried out for direction-setting from the nation's chief executive, Obama brought no concrete ideas to the table. Restating the need to break our addiction to fossil fuels, he stared at the camera and confessed that "we don't yet know precisely how we're going to get there." He didn't challenge Americans to examine their own energy habits. He didn't rally his fellow Democrats into a fight with the Republican Party of "Smokey" Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who later apologized to BP. Far from offering a clarion call for action, Obama said, meekly, that he would listen to give senators from both parties a "fair hearing in the months ahead." Then he asked us to pray.

Climate advocates were stunned. "That speech wasn't anything different than Bush gave in an energy address," says Pica. "There was nothing new about climate and energy – it didn't move the debate forward. If he was going to recycle the same old talking points, maybe he should have just let Robert Gibbs give a little talk about it to the press corps."

In the aftermath of Obama's speech, environmental advocates seemed to wake up to the idea that the president doesn't have the spine for this fight. Al Gore tried to sound the call to action that Obama failed to deliver: "Placing a limit on global-warming pollution and accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies is the only truly effective long-term solution to this crisis," Gore said. "Now it is time for the Senate to act. In the midst of the greatest environmental disaster in our history, there is no excuse to do otherwise."

But the president never picked up on the calls for action. Fed up, nine high-profile environmental groups – including Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists – wrote a scathing open letter to the White House, pleading with Obama not to fumble away this opportunity. "A rapidly growing number of our millions of active members are deeply frustrated at the inability of the Senate and your administration to act in the face of an overwhelming disaster in the Gulf, and the danger to our nation and world," the letter warned. "The Senate needs your help to end this paralysis. With the window of opportunity quickly closing, nothing less than your direct personal involvement, and that of senior administration officials, can secure America's clean-energy future."

Obama's refusal to fight for meaningful climate legislation in Congress is all the more disappointing given the significant progress his administration has made on its own. Under Obama, the EPA had pushed forward with plans to regulate climate pollution under the Clean Air Act. The president's stimulus package included unprecedented investments in clean energy and green jobs, and on July 3rd the administration unveiled $2 billion in new spending to support solar power. The administration used its leverage over the bankrupt auto industry to secure a historic increase in fuel efficiency. And top Cabinet officials from Browner to Chu to Jackson – even Salazar, who greenlighted the nation's first offshore wind farm – have walked their talk on global warming. The president himself has made six major speeches on the need for climate legislation, and last December he flew to Copenhagen to help salvage international climate talks from a complete crash-and-burn.

Browner is quick to point out that the administration still holds a trump card: the EPA's new power to crack down on carbon emissions, without the help of Congress. "Everyone understands that we've got an EPA with authority," she says. "They've been thinking very carefully, very thoughtfully, on how they would exercise that authority."

If the president doesn't have his heart in taking the lead on climate change, it's clear that he's still willing to play defense. In June, a bipartisan group of senators led by Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, backed an amendment to prohibit the EPA from regulating climate pollution from utilities, manufacturers and other stationary sources. The measure would also have instructed the agency to ignore the Supreme Court decision last year that requires the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 53-47, despite support from six Democrats – Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

"We worked very hard to beat the Murkowski amendment back," Browner says, adding that this was one legislative battle Obama didn't duck.

The president," she says, "was engaged on that."

This article is from RS 1110, on newsstands July 23, 2010. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via All Access, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here for the archives. Not a member? Click here to learn more about All Access.

From The Archives Issue 1110: August 5, 2010
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