Obama: Sitting Out the Climate War

Obama: Sitting Out the Climate War

Obama poster - CC license by Flickr user mak1e

Talking about the Gulf oil disaster in a speech last week at Carnegie Mellon University, President Obama said we need an energy-and-climate bill because

the only way the transition to clean energy will ultimately succeed is if the private sector is fully invested in this future -- if capital comes off the sidelines and the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs is unleashed. And the only way to do that is by finally putting a price on carbon pollution.

Now, many businesses have already embraced this idea because it provides a level of certainty about the future. And for those that face transition costs, we can help them adjust. But if we refuse to take into account the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction -- if we don't factor in the environmental costs and the national security costs and the true economic costs -- we will have missed our best chance to seize a clean energy future.

The House of Representatives has already passed a comprehensive energy and climate bill, and there is currently a plan in the Senate -- a plan that was developed with ideas from Democrats and Republicans -- that would achieve the same goal... the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months. (Applause.) I will continue to make the case for a clean energy future wherever and whenever I can. (Applause.) I will work with anyone to get this done -- and we will get it done.

"We will get it done." Wow. Sounds good. The question is, when will the president's actions match his words?

"He hasn't begun to fight," declares Eric Pooley, the author of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and Fight to Save the Earth (Hyperion, $27.99), a terrific new book on the politics of global warming.

"I hope he will," Eric adds. After spending three years closely following the campaign to get climate and energy legislation through Congress, Eric says: "The missing ingredient here has been presidential leadership."

How true. And even in this speech -- which has won praise from environmentalists -- Obama manages to avoid using the words "global warming" or "climate change," as David Roberts noted in Grist. Bold leadership this is not.

Eric Pooley

Eric (pictured at left) is my former boss at FORTUNE, and he's now the deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He's a good reporter and a smart guy but I have to say that I wasn't planning to read this 481-page book (including notes and an index) about the repeated, failed attempts to get a climate bill through Congress. Why suffer through that again?

But once I began reading, I couldn't stop. Eric found a way to tell the story by bringing the climate crusaders to life -- especially Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Al Gore -- and by taking readers behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and into the strategy sessions of the green groups that have labored, not merely for years, but for more than a decade to get the U.S. government to impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Hard to believe that a book about Congress, climate policy, utility companies and environmentalists, with Al Gore in a lead role, could be a page turner, but there you have it.

Better yet, even as someone who has paid attention to the politics of climate, I found fresh insights in The Climate War. Among them:

If what you care about is curbing global warming, the whole brouhaha over whether permits to emit CO2 should be auctioned or allocated -- a major debating point among politicians, business people and policy wonks -- is pretty much irrelevant. That's because the allocations-auctions debate, besides being hard for the public to grasp, and therefore off-putting, is about who should pay for the transition to clean energy. Should customers of coal companies pay more than those of nuclear power or hydro plants? Should government or private industry finance research into so-called clean coal, or subsidize high-cost solar power? Those are important political questions but as Eric writes:

The "targets and timetables" -- the mandatory declining limit on global warming pollution -- was the point of the enterprise, and whether the EPA ended up selling or giving away allowances had no impact on that.

In other words, the attacks on the bill as a giveaway to polluters from the likes of MoveOn.org were mostly a sideshow.

People (including me) who complained that Waxman-Markey bill, which stretched to more than 1,000 pages, was laden with favors for special interests, giveaways to industry and needlessly complex missed the point. Time magazine's Joe Klein, for instance, called the bill "a demonstration of all that's wrong with the legislative process in latter-day America." To the contrary, says Eric:

Despite its flaws and contortions, it was a demonstration of much that was right. The bill didn't get complicated because legislators were cutting unsavory deals with corporate lobbyists. It got complicated because lawmakers and, yes, corporate lobbyists were working together with environmentalists and labor unions to arrive at a grand bargain that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions without punishing consumers or corporations.

Indeed, Henry Waxman, the architect of the measure, emerges as one of the heroes in the book because he was able to win the support of powerful legislators from coal country (Rick Boucher) and Detroit (John Dingell) for his bill. With Ted Kennedy gone, it's not clear there's anyone with the skills needed to carry such a complex bill through the Senate.

Transformational politics, not transactional politics, may be needed to get climate legislation done. In today's political climate, the compromises and complexities of Waxman-Markey or Kerry-Lieberman, along with the dubious rhetoric of "green jobs" and "energy independence," may well be the best hope for getting climate legislation passed.

An imperfect bill is better than nothing, Eric says: "You've got to take a step before you can run a race. You need to start." Even putting a modest price on carbon will unleash investment and demonstrate that a cap on emissions will not squeeze middle-class families or imperil the economy.

But if the incremental, pragmatic, lets-make-a-deal approach fails yet again -- and it's my belief that it probably will -- what's called for is a bigger vision, one that calls upon Americans to sacrifice for the common good and the well-being of future generations. This appeal to our better natures would, of course, have to be accompanied by old-fashioned, grass-roots political organizing in communities, churches and on campuses to build a movement to stop global warming.

Only then will we be able to close what Eric describes as "the gulf between what the science said was necessary and what the politics said was possible."

The climate war coverWith apologies to Bill McKibben and Al Gore, the person best equipped to lead such a movement is Barack Obama. He has the skill, but he has yet to show that he has the will. One of the most striking things about The Climate War is how not just Obama but Steven Chu, Carol Browner and Lisa Jackson barely get a mention. (Van Jones, now gone, does appear in a cameo role.) Partly that's because Eric didn't get much access to the White House, but mostly it's because they have had little impact on the big job of getting legislation passed.

The Gulf Oil disaster could be the crisis that's needed to galvanize action. We'll soon see. When Eric began working on The Climate War, he expected to write about the passage of a bill sometime before the summit last December in Copenhagen. Now, he says, "maybe there'll be an ending in the paperback."

GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

Obama poster - CC license by Flickr user mak1e