There were two remarkable aspects of the National Clean Energy Summit:

  1. Federal policy recommendations from the varied speakers — scientists, business types, politicians — were largely in sync. In fact, I got sick of hearing the same policies touted over and over again: renewable tax credits, cap-and-trade, electricity grid improvements, efficiency standards, renewable mandates, increased R&D. It seems that there is broad agreement on what needs to be done.
  2. Nobody so much as mentioned the rather striking fact that this policy consensus has yielded zero actual policies at the federal level. Everyone agrees what ought to be done, but nothing’s getting done.

Now, what explains No. 2? Here’s an answer: The Republican Party.

Yes, plenty of Dems are in the tank for fossil fuel interests too. Yes, Dems haven’t fought back hard enough. Yes, there are plenty of green Republicans at the state and city level.

But here’s a simple test: if Republicans vanished from the Congress and the executive branch, what would Dems do? Well, they would pass renewable tax credits, cap-and-trade, electricity grid improvements, efficiency standards, etc., etc. They would implement the U.S. policy consensus. Your first clue is that they’ve tried to do one or more of these things over a dozen times since they regained majority in Congress. Those bills have been blocked by Republicans, mainly in the Senate via a historically high number of filibusters.

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That’s the situation. But people at conferences like this not only fail to get angry about it or rail against it … they fail to say it. Instead, there’s this constant invocation of bipartisanship — "this isn’t a partisan issue." But look: maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. At the federal level, it is a partisan issue, and it seems to me that figuring out a way through, or around, or over that partisan roadblock is part and parcel of creating the clean energy future. Pretending it’s not there isn’t working.

I asked Center for American Progress head honcho John Podesta what he hoped to accomplish with the summit, and he answered in part that he hoped to show that Republicans like Schwarzenegger and Independents like Bloomberg were embracing this stuff — the idea being to show Congressional Republicans that it’s bad politics to oppose it.

But is it? They block this stuff with impunity. The media calls it "partisan squabbling in Congress." Leading progressive lights like Bill Clinton go up on stage and praise McCain on the issue. The public can’t get a clear sense of who the good guys and bad guys are on clean energy, so they end up cynical, thinking "the system" is broken, tuning out.

Seems to me step one of making it bad politics is exposing it. If it was out in the open that Republicans are purposefully blocking anything except drilling — and quite deliberately avoiding any compromise that might move the issue to resolution — public sentiment might shift. But as it is now, Republican culpability is hidden behind a haze of misleading media coverage and soothing nostrums about bipartisanship from Dems. The people who most care about this stuff refuse to call out its enemies.

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My take-away from the summit is that the U.S. doesn’t need any more policy summits (though apparently this one is going to be annual). The U.S. needs more political summits, where people can come together an talk about practical strategies for getting legislation through Congress. That’s the main barrier, and unlike the policy stuff, nobody seems to know how to tackle it.