A Democratic president was in the White House. The Democratic Party held a majority of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But a single senator — a moderate Democrat from West Virginia — blocked the White House’s preferred climate plan.
No, this wasn’t 2021 — the year was 1993: Jurassic Park had just been released, Bill Clinton was president, and atmospheric carbon dioxide was only 357 parts per million (it’s 415 ppm today). Senator Robert Byrd of fossil-fuel laden West Virginia was the chair of the Senate Appropriations committee, and without his support, the Clinton administration couldn’t pass a tax on carbon emissions to address climate change. The White House opted to support an energy tax instead, which passed the House but, faced with substantial opposition and fossil-fuel lobbying, never became law.
It was the first climate policy failure of many. Four years later, Byrd spearheaded a resolution that prevented the U.S. from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Other efforts to pass climate legislation stalled nearly every year after. Indeed, the last three decades of U.S. climate policy look like a graveyard of failed bills: Carbon taxes have died on the Senate floor and been torched by attack ads. Cap-and-trade systems have been endorsed — and then abandoned — by Republicans and Democrats alike.
According to the Climate Change Performance Index, the U.S. is 55th in the world when it comes to climate policy; another analysis by Yale University and Columbia University ranked the country 24th for environmental performance. Now, as Democrats struggle to regroup after current West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s refusal to support President Joe Biden’s landmark climate and social welfare bill, it seems to be happening again. The U.S. is within reach of passing climate policy, but perilously close to falling short.
Biden’s giant climate bill — known as the Build Back Better Act — is still in play. Democrats have vowed to try and pass it regardless of Manchin’s stance, while the West Virginia senator has said publicly that the climate sections of the bill may be easier to reach agreement on than, say, the Child Tax Credit. But earlier this week, Manchin also claimed that there have been “no negotiations” about the bill. For the moment, Build Back Better looks like a grim bookend to decades of inaction on climate change.
So what’s wrong with the U.S. political system? Is American democracy uniquely incapable of tackling global warming?
“In most countries around the world, it is extremely difficult to pass climate reform,” said Matto Mildenberger, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But, he added, there are a few things that make dealing with global warming uniquely difficult in the United States; not impossible, but very hard.
In his book, Carbon Captured, Mildenberger argues that the most difficult part about passing climate policy is that fossil fuel interests enjoy something he calls “double representation.” That means that they are represented on both the left, through labor unions and industrial workers, and on the right through business interests. This “double representation” has been the death knell of climate policies.
That’s because in most democracies, it’s easier to block change than to create it. And the United States government, with its separation of powers baked into the Constitution, offers many more opportunities for blocking than other democracies. “The United States has a lot of what in political science are called ‘veto points,’” Mildenberger explained. “There’s a lot of different individuals in different places that can block a policy, all the way from having a majority in the House of Representatives to having a really conservative Supreme Court.”
Those “veto points” have been visible in many of the U.S.’s major climate flops to date. In 2009, a cap-and-trade bill, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate strategy, died in the Senate after it became clear that Democrats could not rustle up 60 “yes” votes to overcome the filibuster. (The filibuster: a veto point.) Later, Obama’s back-up plan — an order to require utilities to switch over to clean sources of electricity — was challenged in the courts and never implemented. (The courts: another veto point.) Then, in 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, even though the treaty was non-binding. (Executive action: yet another veto point.) Every time climate advocates have tried to push through change, the story has been distinctly American: veto point, veto point, veto point.
The U.S. electoral system doesn’t help much either. The United States has a presidential system, rather than a parliamentary system — meaning that the president, or head of state, does not necessarily belong to the same party as the majority of Congress. That means two branches of government are often pulling in different directions, dooming bills to a no man’s land of inaction. Studies have shown that parliamentary systems are generally quicker to establish climate-friendly policies: Many parliamentary democracies like the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany have already managed to establish carbon prices or similar carbon-cutting measures, but there are exceptions, like the climate policy-averse Australia.
Then there’s the U.S.’s single-member House districts which create Congresspeople more focused on representing their geographical areas than toeing the party line. Taken together, the system creates what Roger Karapin calls “centrifugal” forces that separate and divide legislators. “We have 50 states, a huge territory, and a huge population,” said Karapin, a professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York. “By their nature, members of Congress are appealing to their base back home — and those bases are far apart.”
Karapin says the makeup of Congress tilts the country toward fossil fuel interests: Two senators per state means that states dependent on oil and gas or coal have disproportionate weight while less populous states gain outsized representation in Congress. Several of those less populous states — Wyoming, Alaska, the Dakotas — also have substantial fossil fuel reserves.
Combine those barriers with an extremely polarized political system and a powerful fossil fuel industry that can use cash to influence politicians, and the United States’ idea of democracy doesn’t look like a great place to enact positive climate policies.
But veto points and double representation are not inexorable. In the right hands, they can even look like benefits. Separation of powers means a struggle to pass national climate laws, but it can also allow certain states, like California or Washington, to create climate policies without federal support. The Supreme Court can shut down executive actions to clean up the electricity sector, or can give the president increasing powers to curb greenhouse gas emission, as in Massachusetts v. EPA.
There’s a stochastic element as well — random political events that can make or break the future of the planet. The last three decades look like an endless string of “what ifs.” What if Democrats had won the Senate seat in North Carolina last year, giving them a pathway around Senator Manchin? What if the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — which destroyed burgeoning attempts at bipartisanship cooperation around Obama’s climate plan — had never happened? What if the Supreme Court had just one more liberal justice who supported the president’s back-up climate plan?
All of that is to say that a U.S. failure on climate change isn’t guaranteed. Today, global warming garners more attention than it has at any point in the last three decades. In the last few years, climate advocates have figured out how to bypass the filibuster and build a large activist network for change. Mildenberger argues that — if everything goes right — the U.S. also has opportunities to do much more on climate than many other countries. Everything just has to line up for one instant, for one vote. “There’s a capacity for transformative change that there may not be in other countries,” he said. “It’s just hard to get that recipe right.”