CAP-AND-FADE: While our media alternately raved at and apologized to Shirley Sherrod last week, the prospect of major climate change legislation meant to cap greenhouse gas emissions died without so much as a proper burial. Though national bloggers and columnists are still suffering through the five stages of grief, those watching TV and reading local news would hardly have noticed the bill’s death—the fourth time such a bill has failed in the last seven years. Maybe this is because the media was preoccupied with other matters. Or maybe it’s because most of us thought rumors of the bill’s chances for passage were greatly exaggerated.
The bill started out in the U.S. House as the Waxman-Markey Bill, which would set an economy-wide cap on greenhouse gasses and establish a market for polluters to buy, sell and trade emission permits. The goal was a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. That would amount to a reduction of 1.2 billion metric tons of emissions a year, according to Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein.
That bill passed and went to the Senate, where it was watered down substantially for fear that a nationwide cap would not pass. In the most recent proposal, the cap applied only to electricity producers. It would reduce emissions by 15 percent in that sector, or about 354 million metric tons a year. Not a great bill, but a logical place to start. Progressives hoped that such a bill would prove the cap-and-trade concept and set us on the path towards an economy-wide cap.
But even that proposal was too difficult. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) told the press Thursday that there was no way he could get the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
Some, like Breakthrough Institute co-founder Michael Shellenberger, were not at all surprised. He’s predicted the bill’s failure for a long time, and angered environmentalists by arguing—on the basis of political feasibility—that near-term energy bills should focus on making clean energy cheaper rather than making fossil fuels more expensive. In an interview with Klein, Shellenberger praised efforts to pass the bill, but said the Senate proposal “was impossible for this Congress, and any Congress in recent memory, to pass.”
Cap-and-trade may be gone now for a long time—Shellenberger says for a decade—but hold off on buying ocean-front property in Montgomery. It will come back, and there are lessons to be learned in failure. And there’s hope that we can make it easier for cap-and-trade to pass when it comes back, and even substantially reduce emissions without legislation in the mean-time.
HELL ON THE HILL: The blogosphere and punditry is pinning the blame for cap-and-trade’s death on everyone and everything, from President Barack Obama to the economy. But there are a few clear reasons why it failed.
One obvious reason is the total lack of Republican support. There are 59 Senators in the Democratic caucus, and a 60-vote super-majority is practically required to pass almost any legislation. Without GOP votes, a climate bill was impossible.
One might expect Republicans to embrace a market-based cap-and-trade system, at least over proposals like a carbon tax or straightforward regulation. Cap-and-trade allows polluters to choose how they reduce their emissions and even profit when they do (by selling unused permits). Indeed, Republican President George H.W. Bush instituted a cap-and-trade system—then called “emissions trading”—on sulfur dioxide to reduce acid rain. That system is “one of the most spectacular success stories in the history of the green movement,” Richard Coniff wrote in an August 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article.
We don’t know for certain that no Republicans would have voted for cap-and-trade, but prospects were grim. In this Congress, Republicans have been hell-bent on obstructing any Democratic legislation, and a proposal as thoroughly dogged by misinformation as this one stood no chance.
Democrats—who deserve as much blame as Republicans—would need more than just one or two GOP votes, as several Dems oppose climate change legislation. Some Dem opposition (this is also applicable to some Republicans) is explained by the fact that greenhouse gas emissions vary state to state. “Consequently, any bill that proposes to price emissions is going to have regional implications as well as ideological ones,” blogger Matthew Yglesias says. Indiana, Louisiana and West Virginia are in the top 10 in carbon emissions. It’s no surprise, then, that the Democratic Senators from those states —Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, and Jay Rockefeller, respectively—were three of the six Democrats who voted unsuccessfully to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses. According to Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, when it comes to voting for a climate bill, “It’s almost certain that three or four of those six Democrats were simply unpersuadable.”
To paraphrase James Carville, it’s their states’ economy, stupid. Though they’re not excused (especially Bayh, a lame duck) for not supporting their grandchildren’s chances of knowing what a glacier is, at least they have an excuse.
There was a general lack of enthusiasm and drive among Democrats for this legislation, and blame for that can be laid squarely at Obama’s feet. He has failed to explain this bill to voters, and failed to be its cheerleader. New York Times op-ed contributor Lee Wasserman suggests this may be a matter of administration policy: “At a meeting in April 2009 led by Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, administration message mavens told climate bill advocates that, given the polling, they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence.”
Obama followed that policy in last month’s prime-time oil spill speech when he called for a comprehensive energy bill without saying the words “climate change,” “global warming,” “cap-and-trade,” or “carbon.” Days later, the administration backed off an economy-wide carbon cap and indicated that it would welcome a utilities-only cap.
Perhaps Obama felt he expended too much political capital on health care and the economy, or needs to reserve some bargaining power for the immigration fight. Regardless, the refusal to communicate this bill to the public or put the screws on Congress is one of the clearest agenda failures—or, perhaps, sacrifices—of the Obama administration.
THE FUTURE IN THREE LETTERS: EPA. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ruled that greenhouse gasses pose a threat to human health, and the agency is now capable of regulating such emissions. EPA regulations are likely to be more heavy-handed and arbitrary than a market-based cap-and-trade system—the EPA, not industry, can select the technologies they deem best for reducing emissions, and do so regardless of cost and at the risk of stifling innovation.
Last year former Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV, recently deceased) told his state’s massive coal industry that it needed to retool its strategy of all-out resistance to climate legislation and come to the bargaining table. Like Byrd, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) has been a friend to Big Coal in the past. But he met with his state’s coal industry leaders last week and informed them that a carbon cap may be a better and less costly solution than EPA regulation.
“Big Coal will be back begging for cap-and-trade:
No, really,” Grist.org blogger Dave Roberts wrote Thursday. “Right now there are EPA rules in the pipeline that are going to shut down a third or more of the existing coal fleet. No new coal plants are going to get built—they’re not cost-competitive with natural gas or wind, and every one runs into a buzzsaw of grassroots opposition.” Executives of energy companies around the nation have seconded Roberts’ sentiments.
EPA regulations will hardly make a dent in our long-term emissions reduction goals, but it’s a start.
Next week we’ll more fully explore the future of climate change legislation and return to our coverage of the oil spill.
Madison Underwood is a Birmingham Weekly staff writer. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.