The pursuit of U.S. legislation to address the threat of climate change has been going on for more than 20 years. It has pit entrenched industries against scientists and campaigners, political appointees against agency staff, American diplomats against UN officials, propagandists against journalists, red states against blue states, and John McCain 2010 against John McCain 2008. Drama abounds, and if you believe the latest in climate science, the stakes are very near existential.

So you’d think journalists would take some interest in it. But while the shelves are littered with books about climate science and policy, there’s been virtually no serious journalistic effort to write an insider political history, like Haynes Johnson and David Broder did for the 1994 Clinton healthcare imbroglio with The System, or more recently John Heilemann & Mark Halperin did for the 2008 campaign with Game Change.

The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth
The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth

The reason why is not terribly difficult to understand. It haunts Eric Pooley’s fantastic new book The Climate War like the Ghost of Christmas Future. To wit: it’s a story with no ending. There is no bill, no cap-and-trade system. The idea hasn’t been decisively defeated, but it hasn’t passed; it just keeps climbing up the hill like Sisyphus.

From the Bali climate talks in 2007 to the introduction of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in 2010, The Climate War goes behind the scenes with a key set of players as they hustle, argue, cajole, dodge, bribe, and stumble their way toward political action. Despite the lack of resolution, Pooley manages to pull the events and personalities involved into a narrative that’s not only readable but positively gripping. Momentum rarely sags; even the occasional, unavoidable detours into policy wonkery are crisp and lucid. It’s a feat of storytelling alchemy, a page-turner, and for anyone interested in the quest for an energy transformation, a must-read.

The story derives some of its power from its clear arc: the long slog of the Bush administration gives way to Democratic majorities and a transformative president. But that arc extended rather longer than Pooley had anticipated, and at a certain point he had to stop writing. “Frankly,” Pooley told me, “the hope was that we’d be publishing into a live debate about a live bill that had a shot. It’s just that the Senate still isn’t cooperating.”

To read the book at this particular moment in time — just as the quest it chronicles is poised either to culminate in victory or flop in the dirt — is a peculiar and somewhat unsettling experience. It’s as though the book itself is one of those optical illusions that hasn’t quite resolved yet. Is it two old women or a vase? Is it a story of perseverance rewarded or futility unacknowledged?

The ultimate resolution matters. If there’s one critique of the book to be made, it’s that it spends so much time with insiders, devotes so much space to their perspectives, it ends up obscuring the fact that there’s a decent-sized wing of the environmental movement that thinks the insiders have been completely off track for years now. In the telling, setbacks are treated as exogenous or unpredictable — they happen despite valiant and right-thinking efforts. But the left wing of the movement would say that they are the inevitable results of a strategy founded on negotiating everything away in pursuit of polluter support.

If the climate bill fails this year, will it prove that Pooley followed the wrong people executing the wrong strategy?

He doesn’t buy it. “I wanted to write a book about what was actually happening,” he says. “This is what was happening. EDF, NRDC, and USCAP were at the center of this debate, so they’re at the center of the book. I think I picked the right people.” He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s broadly ideologically sympathetic with inside players like Fred Krupp, and doesn’t buy the notion that their lack of success so far is damning to their strategy: “If somebody comes up with a Plan B that makes sense, I’ll be happy to embrace it. In the meantime, I don’t see a better option than [cap-and-trade], either as policy or as politics. …

There are some fake Plan Bs out there that say, “lets’s not bother doing the difficult work of emission reduction, we’ll just spend a lot of money on clean energy R&D and everything will be fine.” But I think we need a cap and a price on carbon. … Maybe one beneficent administration pays that money and the next one comes along and pulls the rug out from under it. We need a market.

The fact is, Pooley says, modern American lawmaking just ain’t pretty:

This is how the system works. A lot of the deals that were cut in Waxman-Markey had some legitimacy. They were attempts to cushion coal-intensive states and industries from the effect of this legislation. But when you get to Colin Peterson, it’s just naked buying off of interests. [Rick] Boucher made no bones about the fact that even though he seems to understand the science, he wasn’t going to do anything that endangered coal. If he had to choose between the climate and the coal industry, he’d choose the coal industry. That’s the playing field.

On that playing field there will be no culminating battles or final surrender. The only thing to do is keep fighting. “”What I really respect about the climate campaigners,” Pooley says, “is they don’t recalibrate themselves based on every shift in the winds. They just keep getting out there and doing it. They keep trying.”

As Pooley sees it, the bill has gotten as far as it can on its own. Getting it over the final hump will involve Obama taking a more active role toward Congress, which he and his advisers have been loathe do do. (See this excerpt from The Climate War, wherein Rahm Emanual advises Obama against getting too involved in an issue with little political upside.) “Obama’s hands-off approach didn’t destroy things on the House side because Waxman and Pelosi were so good at it,” he says, “but the Senate needed adult supervision in the worst way, and Obama hasn’t provided it.”

He calls Reid’s recent attempt to bump immigration back onto this year’s agenda “incredibly lame” and agrees with Lindsey Graham’s analysis of the situation: Dem leadership wasn’t serious about getting a bill. “Everyone had a reason to fake it except Graham,” he says.

But “we make a mistake focusing too much on the Senate right now,” Pooley insists. “It’s up to the White House. Without presidential leadership, it’s just not going to happen. Is the president going to step up or not?”

Indeed. Sounds like a good subject for a postcript.