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Why Obama’s Climate Plan Failed. And How Biden’s Could Succeed

A decade ago, Democrats missed a golden opportunity to address the climate crisis. But if they can learn from that mistake, the next chance may not slip away
Illustration by Daniel Stolle for Rolling Stone

B arbara Boxer was in Greenland in July 2007, watching chunks of ice slide off glaciers into the rising ocean. She had brought Republican senators there with her, hoping a first-person confrontation with climate change would persuade them to take action. And as the newly calved icebergs flowed past, the then-senator thought her colleagues might be persuaded to vote yes on legislation to transform the U.S. from one of the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas polluters into a leader in addressing the crisis. “This was a moment in time,” Boxer tells Rolling Stone, “where I thought, ‘We’re going to do it. It’s going to work.’ ”

She was wrong. She’d find out for sure on July 22nd, 2010, when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gathered his top lieutenants for a private meeting. Democrats had 59 Senate seats and had already passed a major climate bill through the House. But Reid had tough news: He’d conferred with the White House, and they’d decided they were moving on from climate. Environmental groups and climate-friendly Democrats protested, but the truth was that Reid wasn’t killing the Senate bill so much as euthanizing it: After a promising beginning, the climate push had been falling apart for months, and even the bill’s supporters weren’t calling for a vote because they knew they didn’t have the all-important 60 votes to pass it.

A decade later, many of the people who worked on the bill remain haunted by its failure. “If [the climate bill] had become law, we would now be talking about the final phases of what we have to do before 2030 to complete our journey toward net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions,” says Sen. Ed Markey, who was in the House in 2009 and co-authored its Waxman-Markey climate bill. “We would have created millions of new jobs. The solar and wind and all-electric-vehicle revolution would have already taken hold.”

Instead, the past decade has seen dystopian climate fiction become reality: California families driving through blackened skies as they flee a burning paradise; “once in a thousand years” floods becoming near-annual events in the Midwest; superstorms pounding the coast with alarming frequency. And while temperatures keep climbing, the United States keeps pumping climate-cooking greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

After the bill collapsed, the coalition that had backed it became a circular firing squad, as congressional, White House, industry, and environmental partners blamed one another — most notably in a 2010 New Yorker story in which Senate staffers ripped Obama for not doing more. But beyond arguing that someone else was to blame, the dissecting produced little in the way of consensus as to how a popular president, bolstered by big majorities in Congress, failed to deliver on a major campaign promise. The question is newly relevant, with Democrats back in control of government for the first time in a decade and again hoping to address climate change — though this time with a far smaller margin for error.

Hoping to understand what went wrong and how this crop of Democrats could get it right, Rolling Stone interviewed more than two dozen current and former administration officials, lawmakers, staffers, and environmental leaders who were at the heart of Obama’s climate push. With a decade’s worth of distance from the failure, conversations with the officials reveal a different and more holistic picture of what went wrong in 2009-10.

There were outside hurdles (the Great Recession, Obamacare, the BP oil spill), and there were certainly bad actors (ahem, Sen. Lindsey Graham) and officials who failed to rise to the moment (Obama staffers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod were, per multiple sources, indifferent at best to the climate push). But those were all deck chairs on the Titanic: The effort was ultimately doomed by a major misreading of the changing politics of the moment, and particularly by an outdated assessment of who really held the power in the Republican Party.

Democrats spent most of their energy courting corporate CEOs, believing that if they signed on, Republicans would be sure to follow. But the GOP was rapidly mutating into a toxic golem of Tea Party extremism, Mitch McConnell-style cynicism, and megadonor money. “The ground shifted underneath, and it was no longer the case by the spring of 2010 that simply having leading business voices supporting a bill was enough to get Republicans on board,” says the Environmental Defense Fund’s Nathaniel Keohane. And amid the focus on corporate boardrooms and industry concessions, the climate effort’s architects neglected to build the grassroots support they’d desperately need when the Tea Party attacks began.

In criticizing the Obama-era effort, Markey adds the caveat that a lot of what’s obvious now wasn’t then. “You live life forwards, but you understand it backwards,” he says. Sometimes, however, you get a second chance. Democrats are now making even bigger promises on climate, but the same forces that strangled the last climate push are coming for this one, including a Republican Party that has only gotten more extreme. And with zero margin for error in Congress, Democrats need to learn from their past mistakes if they’re going to avoid a failure the planet cannot afford. “The one thing that’s clear,” says David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, “is how we’re just desperately running out of time — how deep into overtime we are.”

Newt Gingrich sat on a love seat with Nancy Pelosi in the spring of 2008. Filming a commercial for Al Gore’s climate campaign, the duo looked into each other’s eyes and agreed on the urgent need for action on climate change. It’s unthinkable today — and indeed by the time he was running for president in 2011, Gingrich was claiming, implausibly, that his real purpose was to make a point that “we shouldn’t be afraid to debate the left, even on the environment.”

But his canoodling with Pelosi is a reminder that in the run-up to Obama’s election, there were some saner climate voices on the rise in the Republican Party. There was still a formidable wacko wing — Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe was claiming climate change was a new-world-order hoax — but seven Republican senators voted for a plan to cap greenhouse-gas emissions that summer, and John McCain won the GOP primary while laying out a climate-change platform that looked similar to the one touted by Obama.

The business world was experiencing a similar shift. There were companies fighting any and all attempts to unfuck the planet, but some corporate CEOs had — with varying degrees of sincerity — come to the table. That sentiment produced the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (CAP), a coalition of industry and environmental groups that, starting with secret negotiations in 2006, aimed to build a climate plan everyone could live with. They settled on a system called “cap and trade,” which would require polluters to obtain permits for their greenhouse-gas emissions and then “cap” the total number of permits available in order to reduce emissions overall. Polluters would also be allowed to sell unused permits (that’s where the “trade” comes in) to emitters that hadn’t found a way to reduce their own pollution, effectively creating a carbon market. Some environmental groups harbored doubts about cap and trade, but it was a political winner: The Obama and McCain campaigns both endorsed it, each touting it as a pragmatic, market-based solution.

After Obama trounced McCain and Democrats won huge majorities in Congress, U.S. CAP members planned to take their big ideas to Capitol Hill. The thinking was that if everyone from the CEO of BP to the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council could agree on cap and trade, Congress couldn’t possibly say no.

That theory was to be first tested in the House, where Markey and Rep. Henry Waxman introduced a cap-and-trade bill in the spring of 2009, a measure that also included a renewable-energy standard and billions in subsidies for creating “green jobs.” The White House hoped the measure would pass in a landslide. Cabinet secretaries were given lists of wavering House members to persuade, and Waxman and Markey spent months working with moderate Democrats to make the bill more amenable to the coal industry and agriculture. Environmental groups weren’t wild about the concessions — Greenpeace withdrew its support in May, saying the bill did too little to cut emissions and gave too much in subsidies for “clean coal” power plants — but most green groups lived with the changes in the hopes of winning over a large block of centrist Blue Dog Democrats.

The eve of the climate vote in the House coincided with the annual Congressional picnic. While lawmakers gathered on the White House lawn, Obama met with swing voters on the climate bill in the Oval Office, asking them what it would take to get to “yes.” It was the type of schmoozing Obama loathed, and a senior White House official says some of the meetings drifted into the absurd: Brought to the Oval Office to discuss a bill aimed at addressing a global crisis, one lawmaker spent the bulk of his time trying to get Obama to autograph various items (the representative got the autographs but voted no on the bill anyway, the official says).

In the end, the bill squeaked by, 219 to 212. Despite the business-friendly framework and the perks added for fossil fuels, Republicans voted against it 168 to 8, and 44 Democrats jumped ship as well. It should have been a red flag that perhaps the corporate-led strategy was missing its mark, but still, it was a victory, and when Democrats left for their August recess, the climate plan was still on schedule.

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Graham, Lieberman, and Kerry (from left) led the “tripartisan” effort to find votes in the Senate, but after Graham bailed it fell apart. Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Then all hell broke loose. Democrats found themselves under siege at town halls from a rising Tea Party movement that raged about Obamacare and, to a lesser extent, cap and trade — calling it a “cap and tax” government takeover of the energy sector that would leave American families paying sky-high electric bills for power that only worked when the wind blew and the sun shined.

Those were nonsense arguments about a market-based bill that aimed to gradually phase out fossil fuels (too gradually, according to many climate scientists) and subsidize renewable energy, but Democrats failed to effectively counter the Tea Party messaging, says Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat who lost his House seat in 2010 after voting yes on cap and trade. “We didn’t tell an integrated story that connected the stimulus, the health care bill, and climate change as being about rebuilding the American dream, making the American dream real and affordable again,” Perriello says. “It seemed like just three large gigantic votes, all with big price tags, all of which the Republicans were able to suggest were going to cost people at the kitchen table.”

Meanwhile, fossil-fuel backers like the Koch brothers were feeding Tea Partiers their climate-change talking points and pouring money into an anti-cap-and-trade campaign. Exactly where that cash was coming from was difficult to track, and today, people involved in the effort suspect that some companies were participating in cap-and-trade bill negotiations while also funding efforts to sink it.

“This was when that political game was changing,” says Perriello. In an earlier era, lawmakers could survive by bringing stakeholders in their districts together and cutting a deal that everyone could live with. But dark money changed that calculus. “Rather than say, ‘You know what, this isn’t everything that we like, but this is a fair way to go forward,’ these [industry] groups got everything they wanted from the bill — a much-watered-down thing that upset the environmentalists for good reason — and then they still went out and spent unlimited amounts of money [to attack it], because they could do it initially through dark money while looking like they were playing ball.”

Another flaw in the pro-corporate strategy was that it turned off some would-be grassroots supporters. Rhetoric about “carbon markets” and “emissions trading” went over poorly with large parts of the Democratic base who’d found themselves on the wrong end of the “free market” for generations. And so legions of cap-and-trade critics overwhelmed supporters at town halls. When Perriello tried to explain his climate vote at one August town hall, he was unable to be heard over the chants of “drill, drill, drill.”

For the next six months, as the Tea Party raged, the two parties were locked in a death struggle over health care, causing a delay that was a disaster for the climate. “The chance of passing both health care and climate change really was contingent on getting health care done in the fall of 2009,” says Phil Schiliro, Obama’s director of legislative affairs.

Despite all that, in the spring of 2010, it looked like the Senate might pass a climate bill of its own. The most promising effort came from “the three amigos” — Democrat John Kerry, Independent Joe Lieberman, and Republican Lindsey Graham, a “tripartisan” trio who vowed to bring left, right, and center together on a climate bill. Graham wasn’t the climate movement’s first choice for a GOP partner. That probably would have been McCain. But the wounds from his 2008 campaign were too fresh. McCain “completely ices us out,” says Carol Browner, Obama’s climate and energy czar. “I have these very painful meetings with McCain about climate change, and he’s just so angry about what happened in the election.”

McCain was frustrated that environmentalists had attacked his record during his contest with Obama, after he’d been a leading Republican on climate change for years. Then, that spring, any chance of him joining the climate effort vanished when he was faced with a Tea Party primary challenger. So instead of McCain, the climate team got his understudy. “Graham called me literally out of the blue,” says Browner. “I answer my phone one day, and it’s Lindsey Graham: ‘I’m going to be your best friend, Carol, because I’m there on climate change.’ ”

After months of planning, negotiations, and delays, they finally set a date for the congressional equivalent of an album-release party: April 26th. The plan was for the trio to stand united on Capitol Hill and unveil their own version of a cap-and-trade bill that could get the 60 votes needed to overcome an inevitable Mitch McConnell-backed filibuster.

Except it never happened. Within two days, it all fell apart. The high-water mark of the entire congressional effort might have been April 23rd, when Kerry triumphantly announced corporate support for the bill: Three major oil companies and the nation’s leading utility lobby group were on board, and the American Petroleum Institute had generously agreed to hold off on running attack ads. Kerry had to agree to a host of pro-industry provisions — including a delay for when the emissions caps would take effect — but he finally had the corporate support Democrats were counting on for GOP votes.

Graham abandoned the climate effort the next day. His official reason was that Reid had killed the bill’s chances by promising to take up immigration reform — and he was still furious that a White House source had anonymously (and largely falsely) told Fox News that Graham was trying to get a gas tax included in the bill. But others, then and now, doubted those excuses. “We gained momentum until a major coal enterprise unleashed a major assault on Lindsey Graham in his home state,” Kerry tells Rolling Stone. “That’s when things got harder.” (Graham’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Environmentalists still fume at the time and energy spent trying to win Graham’s support. “I don’t think he was ever going to vote for a bill. I never took Senator Graham’s words to heart, and I don’t think that he actually was close to voting for the bill,” says Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “As a result, I think some of the negotiators lost months and months and months of time and a world of momentum.”

Kerry and Lieberman continued scrambling to find the bill its 60 votes. They released a measure in May, but no Republicans signed on. Graham didn’t even support it, saying that it put too many restrictions on offshore drilling — at a moment when the Deepwater Horizon spill was gushing 200 million-plus gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmental groups “kept leaking word to the press that the numbers for this bill were going up when the numbers were going down,” says Jim Manley, Reid’s communications director at the time. “Privately, members were raising doubts to Reid.” By late July, Reid told lawmakers he was moving on. The bill would never get a vote. “There was official public happy talk that day” about coming back to climate soon, says Darren Goode, the longtime congressional reporter who broke the news of Reid’s climate decision. “But pretty much everyone knew that that had been [Democrats’] only real chance.”

Is there any hope now? Can Joe Biden’s Democrats do with 50 Senate votes — one of which belongs to West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who once ran an ad of himself shooting a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill — what they couldn’t when they had far larger majorities under Obama?

If they again put their hopes in Republican hands, the answer is almost certainly no. “The reality is that the Obama administration desperately wanted bipartisan support for everything that they did. Unfortunately, that’s like waiting for Godot. It never shows up,” Markey says. “Today, people reflect upon what happened, and they realize that the Republicans will drag out each negotiating process for as long as they can, and then ultimately not be there with sufficient numbers in the end.”

The risk of going it alone with such a narrow majority, however, is that Democrats will eschew sweeping changes and instead aim for incremental reforms that have a better chance of succeeding. That may be easier politically, but it’s a compromise the planet cannot afford, says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a leader in the Democratic Party’s climate push. “Nature has told us what the test is,” he says, “and if we make all the politicians and all the groups happy but don’t pass that test, then we flunk.”

Hoping to succeed this time, Democrats are revisiting their last effort and changing, well, almost everything. For starters, they’ve recognized they need to talk more about what their climate plans can do for people, rather than how they work. “I think we sort of talked ourselves into thinking, ‘Boy, we can point to this great policy mechanism,’ rather than leading with all the great things that are going to happen if we address climate change in this country,” says Keohane, the Environmental Defense Fund economist. “It was sort of like we were leading with our chin.”

This time around, lawmakers are leaving behind the Obama-era obsession with free markets and adopting climate plans that better align with a more diverse and progressive movement that sees protecting the climate as part of a broader effort toward environmental, economic, and racial justice. Markey, a 74-year-old senator who first came to Congress almost 50 years ago, has adopted the language of a new generation of activists to talk about the current climate movement, saying it’s bolstered by “intersectional activism from Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, Indivisible, indigenous and native organizations, and peace groups, who are going to be pushing leaders to be as ambitious as possible.”

Democrats are also not pinning all their hopes to a single, do-or-die stand-alone climate bill this time, but rather looking to infuse climate provisions across their legislative agenda. “Anybody who is serious will get their stuff ready and just look for opportunity,” says one congressional staffer. In December, Democrats managed to pass $35 billion in funding for renewable energy, including a plan for the EPA to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas. It was one of the most significant legislative windfalls for green energy in the nation’s history, and it wasn’t even the headliner of the legislation, which was principally about Covid relief. Keeping climate out of the headlines can help bills pass with a bipartisan vote, says the staffer. His dream scenario for a climate bill is that “it goes through just getting a story on page A-6 of The Washington Post on the day it’s enacted — and never before and never after.”

One of the first big opportunities for Democrats during this Congress is the infrastructure bill they plan to push later this spring. The details are still being worked out, but what’s taking shape is effectively a domestic Marshall Plan — both for workers and the climate. In the package, Democrats hope to beef up the nation’s aging power grid; mandate utilities to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral sources of electricity; expand public transit and high-speed rail; fund the infrastructure needed for an all-electric vehicle fleet; and make a massive investment in green energy and green jobs.

Democrats would welcome GOP support for their agenda, but they’ve made clear that they’re going forward one way or another. In practice, that means passing legislation through reconciliation, a provision in the Senate’s byzantine procedural code that allows some measures to pass with a simple majority — rather than the typical 60 votes needed to beat a filibuster. But even with reconciliation, Democrats would still need their full caucus on board, including Manchin. Democrats can build that support by making the benefits of climate action obvious and spread them everywhere, says Faiz Shakir, who managed Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign: “One of the most powerful ways that FDR’s New Deal operated was that it thought about projects in every congressional district in America, and I think that that’s the way we should be thinking as we do green infrastructure investments and green jobs.”

They’ll also have to rebuild credibility with people who’ve suffered under past policies supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. “If you are a coal miner and you are being told, ‘Oh, there will be a nice job after five years of a just transition in the renewable sector,’ you would understandably be skeptical, because your experience over the last 20 or 30 years has been that when politicians promised that there would be jobs after outsourcing occurred in America, there weren’t jobs,” Shakir says.

Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota is preparing a “clean electricity standard” bill that would require utilities to ramp up their transition to carbon-neutral energy sources like wind and solar. Manchin has thrown cold water on renewable energy mandates, but his voting calculus might change on a clean electricity standard if it were combined with legislation he introduced in March to give tax credits to green energy companies that invest in areas that are losing coal jobs.

But even the best-constructed climate plan is going to come under assault from Republicans, most of whom continue to be in thrall to fossil-fuel interests and to Donald Trump, who spent four years doing everything he could to ensure oil-and-gas dominance and strangling any last vestiges of climate sanity from the party. To beat that, climate advocates are openly depending on what they say is the biggest change this time around: The public is demanding climate action in a way it never has before.

A decade ago, Americans as a whole were in favor of climate action, but they didn’t feel particularly strongly about it. When surveyed, the issue consistently ranked near the bottom on their list of priorities. That was part of what drove Democrats in 2010 to beg for industry support in their bid to attract moderate lawmakers. They needed cover from the middle, because they lacked a groundswell from an organized grassroots effort, which can demand action and impose political consequences on lawmakers who refuse to take it.

A decade of climate horrors, combined with a resurgent progressive wing of the Democratic Party that has rallied around a Green New Deal, has changed all that. Climate consistently polls at or near the top of the list for Democrats, particularly young ones. Vocal efforts from groups like the Sunrise Movement have already yielded dividends: They pushed Biden to campaign on climate, and he launched his presidency with a slew of pro-climate executive actions.

Markey says the strength of the climate movement — and lawmakers’ willingness to listen to it — could be the critical difference from last time. “The Waxman-Markey bill was an inside-out effort, born of a congressional timeline that demanded we move quickly,” Markey says. “Now, we have an outside-in force with the movement of engaged and mobilized young people. Now, we have an army.”