Who Killed the Climate Bill?

We asked the experts who is to blame.

This is how a climate bill dies. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the bad news: “We don’t have the votes.” Without a single Republican backing the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the Senate's version of a comprehensive energy bill, there was no point taking it to the floor, he explained. For now, there was no way to move forward.

Reid’s announcement dealt a devastating blow to those hoping the United States would lead the way in aggressively curbing the greenhouse gases that scientists say are dangerously warming the planet. With time running out before 2012, when the current global climate treaty expires, negotiating a new agreement just got much harder.

So who’s to blame? Was it just a poorly crafted bill? Was there ever a chance Republicans would sign on to cap and trade? Did Barack Obama’s administration drop the ball? Or was it environmental groups themselves, who failed to persuade the public that now was the time to act?

FP asked five experts who have closely followed the debate for their verdict. Here’s what they told us:

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Bill McKibben:

This was never going to be an easy task. Dealing seriously with climate change means damaging the business model of the most profitable business the world has ever seen -- fossil fuel -- as well as disrupting the lives of every citizen to one degree or another.

Given that, we in the environmental community have made a mistake over the years in assuming that it would take an essentially "inside game" to win. That is, most of the big groups focused most of their efforts inside the Beltway, with expert lobbying of all kinds. The theory, I think, was that the simple fact that scientists explained we faced the worst problem ever, and that economists explained that we could deal with it, would be enough to win that action. But it wasn't.

We also needed -- and still need, more than ever -- an outside game, a big mass movement to get lots of people involved across the United States (and the world, since the dynamic is the same everywhere) in pushing for change. We took a first stab at it last year with our Global Day of Action and showed it wasn't impossible -- 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries on the same day, "the most widespread day of environmental action in the planet's history." But that was just a start -- we're glad that people from around the broader movement are joining in on 10-10-10 (Oct. 10) for a big Global Work Party. It's an attempt to send a message to our leaders: "We're getting to work; what about you?" And in the United States this year that message will be delivered in an indignant tone. The Senate acted shamefully, but not surprisingly. We need to change the power equation, and since we'll never match ExxonMobil for cash, we'd better do it with bodies and spirit.

Bill McKibben is an environmentalist and scholar in residence at Middlebury College. He is author most recently of The Bill McKibben Reader.

Christine Todd Whitman: 

The failure to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year was the result of both a tenuous political climate and a failure on all sides of the issue to negotiate.

Among the earliest stumbles was when Barack Obama's administration tried to get a carbon cap through in the omnibus spending bill last year. Obama's backhanded action spooked a number of people who had previously shown willingness to listen. The "Climategate" email debacle then gave the naysayers an opening that, combined with the downturn in the economy, was enough to make the average person question the need for any action that might cost them a job or simply cost them more.

Adding to the fracas, environmentalists have hurt the cause by overreaching and implying that the sky is falling, so to speak. While the effects of climate change are certainly worse in some parts of the world, activists' warnings did not equate with what people were seeing here in the United States.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Obama's slow response reduced the president's credibility in addressing the broader problem, leaving the appearance that he was using the spill as another backdoor approach to pass cap and trade. Unfortunately, the combination of all these factors turned the debate from focusing on good policy to playing politics, with neither side willing to give the other a win.

It's a shame that we find ourselves in this stalemate, as business leaders have not resisted capping carbon as some might assume they would. In fact, business leaders joined with environmental leaders before President George W. Bush's 2007 State of the Union address to ask him to create consistent federal rules on carbon emissions.

A straightforward energy bill that emphasized clean energy and conservation had a chance of passing and would have started the process of reducing America's greenhouse gas emissions. One thing is for sure: We need a comprehensive energy plan for our nation. The United States is energy dependent, and our needs are only increasing. To halt the national energy conversation because of the oil spill or public mistrust is a disservice to our country. It is incumbent on members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to look past the political third rails and move forward with a comprehensive energy policy.

Christine Todd Whitman is president of the Whitman Strategy Group and co-chair of the Republican Leadership Council. She served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January 2001 until June 2003 and governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Bruce Babbitt:

Our congressional system is broken. Cap and trade is dead, the victim of Republican scaremongering. But nature does not negotiate; our Earth will continue to warm, and eventually, an aroused public will force our representatives to act.

Meanwhile, my advice to environmentalists is: Let’s head out into the cities and states where residents and voters are making real progress. You don’t read much about it in Washington, but cap and trade is in effect and working in the New England states and California. More than 30 states (including my state, Arizona) have enacted "portfolio mandates" that require utilities to meet targets for producing carbon-free sustainable energy. Let’s build on these examples in every city and state in the country.

We have neglected the grassroots. Lets get out there and build on programs that are already underway. Sooner or later, Congress will have to wake up and act.

Bruce Babbitt is former chairman of the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund and was U.S. interior secretary from 1993 to 2001.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi

Stuart Eizenstat: 

What happened to the climate bill is a result of a combination of forces.

Among these forces, the most important was the state of the economy, which the opposition has -- incorrectly -- used to argue that this legislation would be a job killer and would raise costs at a delicate time in the recovery.

The second force was an indirect result of the financial crisis. Securities markets have gotten a bad name, and a remarkable number of senators with whom I have met with, including Democrats, have become so suspicious of market forces that the cap-and-trade concept -- which I helped develop when I was chief negotiator at the Kyoto process in 1997, and which the United States insisted on as condition for signing the Kyoto Protocol -- has been turned on its head by the very people you would expect to support it. That includes both Republicans and moderate Democrats who, before the financial crisis, would have embraced market solutions to reduce costs and government involvement.

Third, Barack Obama's administration made a decision early on that, after the stimulus bill, it wanted its priority to be health care rather than climate change. We then had the ironic situation in which the House and Senate were working on different priorities. The key priority for the House was climate change, through the Waxman bill. But the Senate was engaged with a very long and ultimately unsuccessful bill, Kerry-Lieberman. All that lost precious time during which we could have gotten the administration to focus on climate change early in Obama's term, when the president's popularity was highest.

The last factor is that a lot of us academics and economists, people like Richard Cooper, the influential Harvard University economist, moved away from the idea of cap and trade. These experts were in favor of legislation but felt that the most-efficient method was a carbon tax. So some of the intellectual firepower behind cap and trade evaporated.

There are a couple of ways to go from here. There has always been debate about whether to push a green-energy law separately. If you can push separately for standards for alternative energy, for example 15 percent biofuels by 2020, and put all sorts of incentives in for alternative energy, but lose the sweetener to climate change, do you go forward with that and get the electricity standards? I don't think it can be done before Congress's next break, but it might be possible before the recess. A lot of environmental groups will object to that; they will say it is the death knell of climate-change legislation.

The other thing that could be a game-changer would be if the Environmental Protection Agency says: We have authority from the Supreme Court to regulate carbon dioxide, and we're going to go industry by industry and source by source. In the end, businesses and industries will dislike that approach much more than legislation, and that may end up changing the congressional dynamic.

Stuart Eizenstat is partner at Covington and Burlington LLP. He served as deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury from 1993 to 2001, during which time he was lead negotiator on behalf of the United States for the Kyoto Protocol.

Note: This contribution is an interview with FP.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Paul J. Saunders:

Who killed the climate-change bill? Lots of people. At a tactical level, Senate Republicans, with help from coal-state Senate Democrats. At a strategic level, President Barack Obama, who decided to make health-care reform his No. 1 priority. At the most fundamental level, however, the American people killed the bill.

Elected leaders don't always act on the basis of voters' preferences, but they are normally careful not to stray too far from what their constituents want. There is little evidence that Americans supported significant climate-change legislation at any level deeper than the purely declarative -- especially at any level that involves their pocketbooks.

Some might argue that this reflects a failure of the scientific establishment, activists, and/or the media to adequately explain what may be at stake. While all doubtless have their shortcomings, and all humans and human institutions are imperfect, the real issue is that it is a difficult case to make -- not because climate change isn't real and won't have real consequences, but because it is what political scientists would call a classic problem of collective action.

Stopping climate change requires collective action not only in the United States, but at a global level. And both domestically and internationally, the costs and benefits are not evenly distributed. This complicates efforts at consensus. At the same time, climate policy is inherently energy policy by another name, and energy touches every aspect of daily life -- which makes everyone pay attention to the personal impacts of legislation.

As a result, the limit-based approach underlying both the dead bill and the ongoing United Nations negotiations on climate change is fatally flawed because the effectiveness of emissions limits is inversely proportional to their popularity and political viability. The deep cuts needed to prevent climate change are politically impossible, and even rather mild cuts (in comparison with what is needed) have failed. The lesson here is that any limit-based climate bill that could be passed in Congress would be inherently ineffective in meaningfully addressing the climate problem.

There is still a strong case to be made for investment in innovation, which is a much simpler political argument to make and can slow emissions growth (or, in the case of a genuine but extremely unlikely breakthrough, have transformative effects). But if I were running the government, I would start thinking hard about how the United States should adapt to rising temperatures.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Nixon Center. He served as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Michael A. Levi:

The U.S. economy killed the climate bill. Its main accomplices were congressional Republican obstructionism, an anemic White House effort, and misplaced reliance on industry and environmental interest groups to deliver votes.

In January 2009, when President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the smart money on cap and trade was betting on a climate bill just as soon as U.S. employment recovered. That, in most people's minds, meant that we'd have to wait until 2011 or so for a bill. That basic logic hasn't changed. Indeed, things have only gotten worse. Unemployment is more painful than originally predicted. Democratic efforts to reframe cap and trade as jobs legislation, meanwhile, have largely failed. Americans wants assurances, not experiments, and cap and trade doesn't do that for them.

Why, then, the apparent surprise at the climate bill's demise? People have forgotten the economic fundamentals that were so obvious 18 months ago. The House-passed Waxman-Markey bill gave advocates too much hope, even though the bill actually passed with fewer votes than most had once anticipated. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added another shot of optimism when he teamed up with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) late last year -- but he has been gone from the picture for months. Climate advocates figured that the oil spill might push things over the top, but no one really explained why paying more for coal-fired electricity would prevent underwater blowouts.

Nor did the main players help much. Republicans settled on a destructive strategy of denying Obama any big bipartisan accomplishments and stuck to that strategy well. The only major exception was the financial-reform bill, something that, unlike cap and trade, the public actually demanded. The White House never made a big public push for climate legislation, either after Waxman-Markey passed or when the oil spill focused people's attention on energy.

Most peculiarly, perhaps, supporters of the bill placed extraordinary faith in the ability of interest-group negotiations to deliver political results. But the big environmental groups wield less influence with voters than they like to think. They failed to deliver a single Republican vote. More strikingly, so did big business. Senator Graham spent months negotiating with utilities, manufacturers, and oil companies. He was able to strike a deal with them -- and that did not get him a single Republican vote either. Yet in the waning hours, all eyes were inexplicably, once again, on environmental groups and utility executives as they tried to hammer out yet another compromise that the public at large was inevitably uninterested in buying.

The big lesson, though, is the economic one. Until the U.S. economy recovers considerably, the best legislative bets are going to be ones that people intuitively connect to their own economic well-being. Cap and trade doesn't seem to fit that bill.

Michael A. Levi is senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Click here for: Bill McKibbenChristine Todd Whitman, Bruce Babbitt, Stuart Eizenstat, Paul J. Saunders,  and Michael A. Levi.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Soccer Explains Nothing

Stop looking to the World Cup for history lessons. It’s just a game and, frankly, that’s good enough.

One night in Johannesburg during the World Cup, I was chatting with an English friend over a bottle of South African red about the impending England-Germany game. My friend is an august figure, a well-traveled political commentator, never happier than when weighing the chances of war in Iran. At first, he made some ironic remarks about the England team. But pretty soon, he couldn't resist the temptation: He stuck out his arms in imitation of the outstretched wings of a Royal Air Force plane from World War II. He was an England fan preparing for a game against Germany, and that's what England fans do.

If you had to pick a game during the 2010 World Cup that looked freighted with political meaning, it was England-Germany. This is still the encounter English fans care about most, and this time again, some fans and newspapers swathed it in the language of conflict. In truth, some treated England's entire campaign as a reliving of World War II. Even before the England-Algeria game, the Sun newspaper's headline invoked Winston Churchill: "Their finest hour (and a half)."

All this talk was fodder for wannabe sociopolitical commentators like me. But we shouldn't be fooled. The teeth have been taken out of the England-Germany rivalry, as out of almost all rivalries in international soccer these days. Back home after a breathless month in South Africa, it's plain to see: The sorry truth is that the World Cup is losing its geopolitical meaning altogether. To twist the title of Franklin Foer's famous book: soccer is ceasing to explain the world. There were still some political observations to make about the host country, South Africa, and the winning country, Spain. But for the most part, this tournament exemplified how everywhere on Earth is becoming the same place.

That's quite a shift indeed, because the World Cup used to be a festival of geopolitics. The tournament began in 1930, just as fascism was getting going. Then, after a decent interruption for World War II, the World Cup resumed in an era of hysterical nationalism. Postwar European countries still nursed resentments -- chiefly, against Germany -- that came out on the turf. Meanwhile, Latin American countries were often still experimenting with fascism or hypernationalism, sometimes both. When the Africans entered the tournament in the 1970s, their regimes also often sought to milk soccer for national status.

During these decades, geopolitics gave the World Cup spice. And similarly, the World Cup spiced up politics. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras actually fought a "Soccer War" after playing three keenly disputed qualifying games for the next year's tournament. For many European countries, the game that truly mattered was the one against West Germany. The Dutch defeat to the Germans in the final in 1974 was certainly Holland's worst sporting trauma. One Dutch midfielder, Wim van Hanegem, had lost his father, 10-year-old brother, and six other van Hanegems to a wartime bombing of the family's home village. And the lyrics of Three Lions, the unofficial anthem of English soccer, is mostly about defeats to Germany.

World Cups in these good old days featured all sorts of other bitterness too. Part of hysterical nationalism was the supposition that the other guys cheated. "Animals," England's coach Alf Ramsey called the Argentines after beating them in 1966. The Argentines and Portuguese later exited that tournament spouting conspiracy theories about the English, whom they still fondly imagined to rule the world. In the 1982 cup, Polish fans under Soviet rule carried a banner to the Poland-USSR game reading only "Solidarnosc," a reference to the Polish trade union that had been banned after Poland’s communist rulers had imposed martial law six months earlier. Sweetly, Poland managed to tie -- enough for them to advance to the next round. As Holland's coach, Rinus Michels, supposedly said (though in fact never did), "Football is war."

No longer. And certanily not in South Africa. Few foreign fans flew down for the tournament, but many of those who did came from new soccer countries, short on ancient bitter rivalries. Fans of opposing teams sat happily side by side in the stands, blowing vuvuzelas in unison (if not in harmony), often after having swapped scarves. When the TV cameras lit upon them, they waved like starry-eyed fans at the NBA All-Star game.

The World Cup has gone from nationalist frenzy to universal carnival, a sort of cheesy "We Are the World" video brought to life. Nobody seems to hate Germany anymore, and anyway, the country had the most multicultural team in the tournament. There were barely any colonial occupiers playing (a U.S.-Afghanistan game would have been interesting but the Afghans have never yet played a World Cup). The only crazed hypernationalist state represented at all was North Korea. Pyongyang reportedly sent Chinese people to South Africa to pose as North Korean fans, but aside from that, barely a peep was heard from the Hermit Kingdom, especially after it lost 7-0 to Portugal. No country exited this World Cup crying conspiracy.

So why have the geopolitics drained from soccer? First, because the world has changed. The era of dictatorships, hypernationalism, country vs. country wars, and festering resentments held over from World War II is passing. Most wars today are civil wars.

Crucially, soccer is changing too. The World Cup used to set different national styles against each other. The Dutch attacked, the Italians defended, the Germans played badly and won, the Latin Americans dribbled, and the English huffed and puffed and screwed up. Inevitably, everyone felt that everyone else's style was somehow immoral, even evil.

These days, however, the World Cup rewards globalization, and the homogenization of styles helped make this a post-nationalist World Cup. Everyone plays much the same way now (with the exception of the English, who still huff and puff and screw up.) Teams like the United States, Paraguay, and Japan have doubled down on boring, athletically honed, well-organized Western European soccer in recent years. In South Africa, the Dutch defended, the Germans played well and lost, and the Latin Americans mostly stopped dribbling. The key to success in modern soccer seems to be to dilute your inherited national style. Spain, for instance, won the World Cup playing a version of Dutch passing soccer that had been brought into the country by generations of Dutch players and coaches at clubs in Barcelona. It was the countries that refused to learn much from abroad, countries that still played in distinctive national styles -- dumb long-ball England, paceless Argentina -- that lost. There was still some nationalism about, but mostly, winning a game doesn't prove that your race is superior to other races. It's just a good excuse to dance on the streets.

In fact, the only real exception comes not from any of the top teams but from South Africa itself. It's becoming a tournament tradition for the host country to go on a voyage of self-discovery. In 2006, for example, Germans used the World Cup to define their own new brand of "carnival nationalism": a way for millions of Germans to gather in public squares chanting, "Deutschland!" without scaring anybody, including themselves.

In 2010, much was made of how the World Cup united South Africans of all colors behind a common project. And it wasn't all hype. My parents are both from Johannesburg, and a 70-something aunt of mine there, a conservative lady, told me that when she drove around town in her car with South African flag, black people would cheer her on with cries of, "Gogo, gogo!" ("Grandma, grandma!") For once, almost all south Africans were cheering for and embracing a shared country.

Certainly, a place as divided as South Africa needed this sort of thing. Still, a bigger legacy of the World Cup there may be black pride. Many South Africans had been nervous about hosting beforehand, partly because the country's black population had been told for centuries that it wasn't up to a task like that. Apartheid had proceeded from the notion that blacks were inherently less intelligent than whites. They were educated only for jobs as servants or unskilled laborers. They were educated to lack confidence.

During the World Cup, something changed. I saw it when my newspaper, the Financial Times, gathered five smart South Africans around a table in Johannesburg to argue about the World Cup's impact on the country. The five were instinctive critics, not flag-wavers. Most were appalled by the money South Africa had wasted on world-class stadiums in non-football-going towns like Cape Town or Nelspruit.

Still, one point kept returning to the conversation: "I think expressly black people feel proud," said the black author and academic William Gumede. "Even if you don't have a job, even if you don't have a house, even if the new transport infrastructure is not serving you, there is still that sense of reverence around it." Ferial Haffajee, a newspaper editor of Indian-Malay origin, added: "The subtext of the South African narrative is one of how [blacks] can't do it, look how they are messing up the government. And in fact, [during this World Cup] I see great moments of pride: We can do it."

Had the World Cup been worth it, we asked them? "I think rationally and fiscally, absolutely not," replied Haffajee. "But emotionally, I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

It seems that the main geopolitical significance of the World Cup now lies in the logistics of organizing it. The soccer is just for fun (although in truth most of the games were dull). The World Cup no longer means much. And that's a relief.