How Big Oil and Big Coal Blocked Global Warming Progress - Rolling Stone
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As the World Burns

How Big Oil and Big Coal mounted one of the most agressive lobbying campaigns in history to block progress on global warming

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This was supposed to be the transformative moment on global warming, the tipping point when America proved to the world that capitalism has a conscience, that we take the fate of the planet seriously. According to the script, Congress would pass a landmark bill committing the U.S. to deep cuts in carbon emissions. President Obama would then arrive in Copenhagen for the international climate summit, armed with the moral and political capital he needed to challenge the rest of the world to do the same. After all, wasn’t this the kind of bold move the Norwegians were anticipating when they awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Dark Lord of Coal Country

As we now know, it didn’t work out that way. Obama arrived in Copenhagen last month without any legislation committing the U.S. to reduce carbon pollution. Instead of reaching agreement on how to stop cooking the planet, the summit devolved into bickering over who bears the most blame for turning up the heat. The world once again missed an opportunity to avert disaster — and the delay is likely to have deadly consequences. In recent years, we have moved from talking about the possibility of climate change to watching it unfold before our eyes. The Arctic is melting, wildfires are turning into infernos, warm-weather insects are devouring forests, droughts are getting longer and more lethal. And the more we learn about climate change, the more it becomes apparent how enormous the risks are. Just a few years ago, researchers estimated that sea levels would likely rise 17 inches by 2100. Now they believe it could be three feet or more — a cataclysmic shift that would doom many of the world’s cities, including London and New Orleans, and create tens of millions of climate refugees.

Our collective response to the emerging catastrophe verges on suicidal. World leaders have been talking about tackling climate change for nearly 20 years now — yet carbon emissions keep going up and up. “We are in a race against time,” says Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington who has fought for sharp reductions in planet-warming pollution. “Mother Nature isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get our political act together.” In fact, our failure to confront global warming is more than simply political incompetence. Over the past year, the corporations and special interests most responsible for climate change waged an all-out war to prevent Congress from cracking down on carbon pollution in time for Copenhagen. The oil and coal industries deployed an unprecedented army of lobbyists, spent millions on misleading studies and engaged in outright deception to derail climate legislation. “It was the most aggressive and corrupt lobbying campaign I’ve ever seen,” says Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic consultant.

The Vanishing Ice Sheets

By preventing meaningful action in Copenhagen, the battle to kill the climate bill provided the world’s biggest polluters with a lucrative victory — one that comes at the rest of the world’s expense. “In the long term, the fossil-fuel industry is going to lose this war,” says Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But in the short term, they are doing everything they can to delay the revolution. For them, what this fight is really about is buying precious time to maximize profits from carbon sources. It’s really no more complicated than that.”

Q&A: Bill Gates on How to Stop Global Warming

For the nation’s dirtiest carbon polluters, the election of President Obama was not good news. Big-energy interests had a real pal in George W. Bush, but during the 2008 campaign, Obama put the fate of the planet above the fate of the fossil-fuel industry. America’s oil addiction, he declared, is “one of the greatest challenges of our generation.”

Even before the election was over, those who had the candidate’s ear were urging Obama to move quickly to enact climate legislation. In a lengthy memo to the campaign, an experienced veteran of the climate wars advised that the incoming president would “be able to claim a mandate to lead boldly” on carbon pollution. The memo recommended that Obama take immediate steps to design a plan of attack by setting up a SWAT team of key advisers and congressional leaders. “The president must seize the debate,” the memo warned, “before others hijack or derail it.”

Obama’s first moves on the climate front were encouraging. He appointed Carol Browner, head of the EPA under Bill Clinton and a close confidante of Al Gore, as “climate czar,” and he named Steven Chu, a respected scientist who understood the need to confront global warming, as energy secretary. A month after taking office, he also moved to implement a 2007 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court empowering the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. The threat to Big Coal and Big Oil was implicit: If energy interests balked at working with Congress to create a new system to curb carbon pollution, the administration would simply unleash federal regulators. “If Congress does nothing,” warned Sen. Barbara Boxer, who was spearheading climate legislation as chair of the Senate environment committee, “we will be watching EPA do our job.”

Obama also had something else going for him: The man he had defeated for president was one of the chief backers of a bipartisan plan to rein in climate-warming pollution. It was widely assumed that John McCain, who had co-sponsored a plan known as “cap and trade” with Democrat Joe Lieberman back in 2003, would be a crucial ally in selling tough, effective carbon limits to his GOP colleagues in the Senate. At root, cap-and-trade is a fairly simple idea: The government sets an economywide cap on carbon-dioxide emissions by issuing a fixed number of permits for carbon pollution each year. Those permits can then be traded on the open market, enabling polluters to decide for themselves whether it’s cheaper to cut emissions or buy permits. The same approach worked spectacularly well in curbing acid rain two decades ago, reducing sulfur dioxide pollution far faster and cheaper than anyone had anticipated. Celebrated as one of the great success stories of the environmental movement, the program has spawned a number of imitators, including a European market for carbon emissions that got under way in 2005, as well as a statewide carbon-trading system under development in California. That’s not to say there aren’t problems with cap-and-trade; tracking CO2 from millions of sources poses a daunting challenge, and granting too many loopholes known as “carbon offsets” could render the entire system meaningless. But the plan enjoyed wide support among environmentalists, economists and business leaders as the fastest, cheapest and most politically viable way to cut climate-warming pollution. “The most important thing,” Chu told Rolling Stone last spring, “is to get the architecture in place and to begin to move in a new direction.”

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.”

Energy lobbyists found a willing ally in the Republican Party, which had decided to deny any legislative victory to President Obama — even if it meant cooking the planet in the process. Rep. Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas who had been replaced by Waxman as chair of the House energy committee, pledged to launch “crafty” attacks on the climate bill, comparing the GOP’s battle plan to “guerrilla warfare.”

“I talked to Joe Barton as this process began, expressing a desire to work together with him on this,” recalls Waxman. “He told me he didn’t believe in the science of global warming, didn’t think it was a problem and didn’t want to try to solve it.”

A key element of the “crafty” tactics employed by the Republicans involved a simple approach: lying. Cap-and-trade, they argued, should really be called “cap-and-tax.” Throughout the debate, GOP members of the House cited a study by MIT that, they claimed, showed the climate bill would “cost every American family up to $3,100 per year in higher energy prices.” John Reilly, an MIT professor and one of the authors of the study, called House Republicans and protested that they were distorting his findings. But a week later, House Minority Leader John Boehner used the $3,100 figure again, and the National Republican Congressional Committee employed it in dozens of press releases. Reilly sent a blunt letter to Boehner and Markey’s committee, noting that $3,100 was actually “ten times the correct estimate, which is approximately $340.”

But deception wasn’t the only card that House Republicans had to play. As the climate bill moved through Waxman’s committee, Barton and his troops fell back on tactical games to stall the measure. Before the committee voted, Barton threatened to have the entire 900-plus-page bill read aloud, hoping that Democrats would get sick of the delay and simply walk out. When Barton discovered that the committee had brought in a speed-reader to tear through the bill, he relented. But as the ranking Republican on the committee, he tied up the process by introducing 400 amendments designed to weaken or stall the bill. By the time the measure came to a vote last June, however, it had become clear that Barton and his fellow Republicans weren’t the only ones listening to lobbyists from the energy industry.

Rep. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from the coal fields of southern Virginia, is a dapper little guy with a large forehead and big round glasses. He wears nice suits and well-polished shoes — you could easily mistake him for a Wall Street analyst. With Boucher, however, the smell of money comes not from swapping derivatives but from burning carbon. Boucher is the House’s top recipient of cash from Big Coal, raking in nearly twice as many contributions — more than $144,000 last year — as any other congressman. The climate bill was his moment to shine. “The negotiations between Boucher, Waxman and the coal industry were the crucible in which this deal was done,” says Jason Grumet, Obama’s energy adviser. “Without it, there would be no legislation.”

For the Democrats, passing the climate bill came down to a simple equation: how many favors they were prepared to shovel out to Boucher’s pals in the coal industry. Without support from Democrats in key energy states, the bill didn’t stand a chance. Waxman and Markey, both of whom had recently backed what amounted to a moratorium on new coal-fired plants, were hardly friends of the industry. But now they were willing to cut a deal — and so was Big Coal. Instituting a system to curb carbon pollution, the industry knew, would reveal coal for what it is: the nation’s single biggest contributor to global warming, and a source of air pollution that kills 24,000 people each year.

To shift the focus of the debate, the industry launched an all-out effort to rebrand its product, spending $18 million on a high-profile ad campaign to sell Americans on the virtues of “clean coal.” The campaign — paid for by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a front group for coal companies and utilities — was vague about how coal could actually be cleaned up, relying instead on images of hip hardware like Mac computers to suggest that technology could somehow solve the problem. What the ads failed to note was that the technology behind “clean coal” — known as carbon-capture-and-sequestration — is still a pipe dream. There is not a single commercial coal-fired power plant in the world that captures and buries its carbon emissions, for a very simple reason: The process is far too complicated and expensive. But the coal industry knew it didn’t need to have a real solution — it could just tout the promise of new technology, without actually changing a thing.

To drive home its message on Capitol Hill, the coal industry spent $10 million on lobbying — far more than any other special interest devoted to climate change. (ACCCE says the figure includes advertising and grass-roots advocacy that most groups don’t report.) And to make sure congressmen were paying attention, ACCCE’s member firms and their employees, including top executives, contributed more than $15 million to federal campaigns.

The money proved to be well-spent. Shortly after the climate bill was introduced in the House, Boucher spent six weeks locked in backroom negotiations between his friends in the coal industry and key members of the House energy committee, where the bill was being marked up. Boucher had been chair of the energy subcommittee during the previous Congress, and he knew where the bodies were buried. “Boucher is a very tough, very smart negotiator,” says a committee staffer who participated in the negotiations. “He knew exactly what he could get and what he couldn’t from both sides.”

In the end, Boucher emerged with a sweetheart deal for Big Coal. The climate bill was amended to include more free permits for carbon polluters, as well as $1 billion a year to support “clean coal” research. (That was on top of the $3.4 billion in research funds already included in the president’s stimulus plan.) All told, the climate bill now contained $60 billion in support for coal — far more than the aid given to wind, solar and all other forms of renewable energy combined.

Even more striking, Boucher succeeded in switching a single word in the legislation that could potentially save the coal industry billions of dollars. When a draft of the bill was first released in late March, it stipulated that coal plants “finally” permitted after January 1st, 2009, would be subject to new regulations, which was likely to include a requirement that they capture and store carbon emissions. But in the final version of the bill, the word “finally” was changed to “initially” — instantly exempting the 40 or so coal plants currently under construction from the new regulations.

The polluter-friendly measures won the support of some big coal burners, including American Electric Power, the nation’s dirtiest utility. But even with all the handouts, the industry’s most conservative factions continued to oppose the climate bill. In the final hours, the lobbying went into overdrive. ACCCE spent $545,000 on what turned out to be a fraudulent “grass-roots” campaign, using a Washington consultant called Bonner and Associates to bombard undecided congressmen with fake letters, supposedly from the NAACP, demanding that they vote against the climate bill. The blatant deception — and the use of forged documents — was not discovered until after the vote. “It was old tobacco tactics, pure and simple,” Rep. Inslee says.

By that point, the months of backroom deal-making had succeeded in diluting the climate bill and loading it up with tax breaks and subsidies for industry. By the time it came to the floor on June 26th, the measure clocked in at more than 1,400 pages. The all-important target for reducing carbon pollution by 2020 had been cut from 20 percent to 17 percent. The goals for boosting renewable energy were cut nearly in half. The EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions had been gutted. And instead of auctioning off all pollution permits, as Obama had promised during the campaign, the bill gave 83 percent of them away for free — up to half of them, in the near term, to industrial polluters. According to an analysis by Stanford University economists, polluters received $134 billion in allowances that weren’t necessary to ensure America’s industrial stability. The nation’s dirtiest corporations, the ones most responsible for global warming, had just been given a huge government handout.

Still, even with all its flaws, the climate measure was the first bill Congress had ever seriously considered that placed a comprehensive cap on carbon pollution. And if the bill failed, it might be years before supporters had another shot. “We didn’t make a single compromise we didn’t have to to get the bill passed,” Markey says. With the help of President Obama, who met with undecided members, the climate bill squeaked through the House by a vote of 219 to 212. Even with the president’s efforts, 44 Democrats voted against the measure.

Markey believes the legislation will ultimately be seen as groundbreaking: “In 100 years, we’ll look back on this moment and realize that 2009 was the year the United States finally decided to take the problems on our planet seriously.” And with all its industry giveaways, the bill should have appeased opponents; Waxman, who has a reputation as a pragmatic deal-cutter, notes that the measure “represents a broad diversity of concerns and points of view.”

But even in its watered-down form, the climate bill drew fierce attacks from Republicans. The eight GOP congressmen who voted for the measure were labeled “cap and traitors” by party loyalists, and several were told they will face primary challenges next year. The National Republican Congressional Committee also ran ads targeting a dozen or so vulnerable Democrats who supported the bill, including Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia, who had won his seat by only 727 votes. The ads — foreshadowing the fight to come during this year’s midterm elections — accused Perriello of voting for the “Pelosi Energy Tax,” falsely claiming that the climate bill would raise energy costs for his constituents by $1,870 per family.

To Perriello, this was the final insult. “It wasn’t enough that the fossil-fuel industry got millions of dollars worth of subsidies and benefits from the bill — they then had to act as if the passage of the bill were Armageddon,” he says. “If anyone should have been unhappy about that legislation, it was the environmentalists.”

In the hours after the House vote, while Markey was celebrating with staffers on a rainy night in Washington, his cellphone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, calling to congratulate him. “I didn’t think you could do it,” Emanuel told him.

The truth is, the climate bill’s passage caught the White House off-guard. There was no strategy in place to advance the bill through the Senate, no plans for a prime-time address from the president on the urgency of confronting climate change. “They were surprised by the bill’s speed,” says one insider. “They suddenly had to focus on where to place their political bets.” Bogged down in the fight over health care, Obama faced a dilemma: prodding senators to get moving on climate change might derail health care even further, but waiting too long risked missing the deadline for Copenhagen. “The world was waiting for the Senate to act,” says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The White House wasn’t the only one scrambling to regroup. The energy industry and its Republican allies realized that their scare tactics on climate change weren’t working: To crank up the opposition, they needed to crank up the fear. To do that, they adopted both the rhetoric and the infrastructure of the burgeoning Tea Party movement that had been formed to fight health care reform. Cap-and-trade, the Republicans began to argue, was part of Obama’s master plan to strip Americans of their freedom. “The government is going to monitor where you set your thermostat, how much plane travel you do,” declared Marc Morano, a former Republican staffer on the Senate environment committee who now runs Climate Depot, a clearinghouse for disinformation about global warming. “It’s a level of control we’ve never even contemplated in America.”

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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