The top five stories of the year for climate hawks
1. Cap-and-trade is dead
Cap-and-trade is deader than dead. Everyone in Washington officialdom knows that. Virtually no one in Washington officialdom understands how it would work or how much economists think it would cost, but they’re certain it’s bad, bad, bad and had to die.
Polluting industries and wealthy right-wing oligarchs, aided by a well-funded grassroots army, sympathetic conservative politicos, and a major cable TV news network, cast cap-and-trade as a plague of socialist cooties that would destroy the economy. The left’s Purist Brigade wove florid tales of corruption and plutocracy. The reality — a long, opaque, technocratic bill burdened with several high-profile side deals — inspired no one. All the passion, all the anger, was found on the side of opponents.
In the end, the bill was done in by a dysfunctional, sclerotic Senate. Its enemies were many, among them the miserable economy itself, but special contempt must be reserved for the Senate’s “moderates,” virtually all of whom have revealed themselves as temporizing invertebrates.
Despite the fond hopes of its critics on the left, cap-and-trade won’t likely be replaced with a carbon tax or a tax-and-dividend system or massive investments in R&D. Far more likely is that energy policy will limp along as it has for decades, an incoherent, inconsistent system of tax breaks and credits — an incumbent protection racket that is both ineffectual and a magnet for rent-seeking.
Climate hawks often forget that a majority of the country, a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress, and a majority of other countries in the world are on their side. It’s just that in America in 2010, that’s not enough.
2. The Senate is dead
In the 111th Congress, the Nancy Pelosi-led House of Representatives was extraordinarily productive, passing strong progressive legislation on everything from college loans to consumer credit protections to tobacco (and, oh yeah, climate change). Some major legislation, like health care and financial reform, went to the Senate to be weakened and made foul with deal-making. Other bills just went nowhere — withered and died from lack of consideration, with no debate and no vote. That sorry fate befell not only climate legislation but an incredible 419 other bills.
National JournalIt’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the U.S. Senate is no longer a viable governing institution. The now-routine abuse of the filibuster — an historical accident, not a deliberate choice or a constitutional right — means that a lockstep minority, in many cases even a sufficiently truculent individual, can grind the entire institution to a halt. Just last week, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) admitted that Republicans’ goal is to “run out the clock” … and then complained about being forced to work through the holidays.
That mix of laziness, entitlement, and cluelessness is typical of an institution that has fallen profoundly out of touch with the average American. The median age in America is 37; in the Senate it’s 63 — today’s Senate is the oldest ever. Roughly 1 percent of Americans are millionaires; the median wealth of a U.S. senator is nearly $2.38 million. Some 13 percent of Americans are black; there are no black senators. The institution has been utterly captured by the narrow perspectives and pecuniary interests of an entitled class.
Add functional oligarchy to procedural dysfunction and an already unrepresentative body becomes embarrassingly unequal to the country’s challenges. Earlier this year, David Obey (D-Wis.), one of the titans of the House, announced that he was leaving public life in disgust, saying “all I know is that there has to be more to life than explaining the ridiculous, accountability-destroying rules of the United States Senate to confused and angry and frustrated constituents.” Tell me about it.
Addendum: Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is the Senate’s leading champion for reform. He’s got a simple plan to fix the rules, which you can read about on his site. Here he is presenting it:
3. California zags
As national political tides pushed in the direction of ignorance and delay, California pushed back, reaffirming its commitment to a bright green future. Prop 23, which would have destroyed the state’s pioneering climate program, AB 32, was resoundingly rejected by voters. The campaign against Prop 23 had everything the national campaign for cap-and-trade lacked: a simple story of good guys vs. bad guys, competitive funding, and a coalition both broad and deep.
Not only did Golden Staters reject 23, they reelected climate champion Barbara Boxer and Governor Moonbeam himself, Jerry Brown, who’d been out of the governor’s mansion since 1983. They put green champ Gavin Newsom in the lieutenant governor’s office and gave a thumbs-up to Prop 25, which would give Cali’s legislature the long-overdue power to pass a state budget on a majority vote.
The only turd in California’s green punchbowl was the passage of Prop 26, which would put a supermajority requirement on any attempt to raise fees in the state — depending on who you ask, that might cripple efforts to implement AB 32.
Voters also rejected pot-legalizing Prop 19, so anti-23 campaigners weren’t able to spark up to celebrate their victory. Oh, who are we kidding, of course they did.
4. The BP Gulf oil spill kills energy reform
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, killing 11 workers and triggering the largest oil spill in U.S. history, nobody could have predicted what would follow … except, perhaps, for the most soul-blackened cynic.
The spill triggered a collective wringing of hands that lasted exactly as long as the “spillcam” was on the teevee. Then it was gone, and it left not a ripple. There was no sustained uprising, no renewed environmental movement, and no demand for legislation.
It didn’t help that less than a month earlier, Obama had announced a bunch of new offshore drilling. That bit of political malpractice insured that he had full ownership of the Gulf spill, rather than blame being traced to the Bush administration’s abysmal mismanagement of the Minerals Management Service. It also didn’t help that his Oval Office speech on the spill was flat, boring, and included no call whatsoever for a broad legislative response.
Still. It’s pretty clear that BP was grossly negligent in the run-up to the spill (to say nothing of Transocean and Halliburton). The company and its PR/lobbying army worked relentlessly to downplay the disaster, including the amount of oil involved. Then they started jerking around affected residents. BP CEO Tony Hayward said, “I’d like my life back.” BP’s chairman of the board said, “We care about the small people.”
Um, America? What does it take to get you pissed off?
In the Senate, where offshore drilling was one of the sweeteners meant to attract Republicans and wavering Dems to a deal on climate legislation, the spill had the effect of making a bill less likely. Indeed, it appears likely that Congress will adjourn without doing anything at all about the biggest environmental disaster ever in the U.S. (At least the administration is suing BP. That’ll show ‘em.)
Much like Hurricane Katrina, the BP Gulf oil spill was going to “change everything” and instead changed, well, nothing. Will the next disaster be any different?
5. The U.N. climate process saves itself
The run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009 set expectations absurdly high, with a frenzy of apocalyptic rhetoric (“the last chance to save humanity!”) and the attribution of almost magical powers to Barack Obama. When those talks dissolved into a farce of back-biting, secret meetings, and paralysis — limping out, just barely, with a non-binding, much-disputed set of commitments labeled an “accord” — many observers predicted that the U.N. climate process was done for good and that small groups like the G20 would be the site of any real progress.
Negotiators arrived in Cancun with Copenhagen weighing heavily on them, fully aware that another failure could mean the end of the effort entirely. To everyone’s surprise, and thanks in large part to the deftness and transparency of the Mexican negotiators leading the meetings, the process ended with something that looks like success. Modest success, yes. Success that leaves many tough questions unanswered, yes. But forward motion for a process desperately in need of it.
In coming years, after decades of rhetoric, the world’s nations will put in place practical, measurable policies. Pragmatism will replace poetry — a less inspiring foundation, but a sturdier one. In many ways, the U.N. climate process has undergone the same whiplash process as the Obama administration over the last two years: inflated expectations, bitter disappointment, and at last the resolve to press forward with slow, slogging, but steady steps.