Media Reviews: Green Business Writer, Mark Gunther’s Review

By Mark Gunther

But once I began reading, I couldn’t stop. Eric found a way to tell the story by bringing the climate crusaders to life–especially Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund, Jim Rogers of Duke Energy and Al Gore–and by taking readers behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and into the  strategy sessions of the green groups that have labored, not merely for years, but for more than a decade to get the U.S. government to impose a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Hard to believe that a book about Congress, climate policy, utility companies and environmentalists, with Al Gore in a lead role, could be a page turner, but there you have it.

Better yet, even as someone who has paid attention to the politics of climate, I found fresh insights in The Climate War. Among them:

If what you care about is curbing global warming, the whole brouhaha over whether permits to emit CO2 should be auctioned or allocated–a major debating point among politicians, business people and policy wonks–is pretty much irrelevant. That’s because the allocations-auctions debate, besides being hard for the public to grasp, and therefore off-putting, is about who should pay for the transition to clean energy. Should customers of coal companies pay more than those of nuclear power or hydro plants? Should government or private industry finance research into so-called clean coal, or subsidize  high-cost solar power? Those are important political questions but as Eric writes:

The “targets and timetables”–the mandatory declining limit on global warming pollution — was the point of the enterprise, and whether the EPA ended up selling or giving away allowances had no impact on that.

In other words, the attacks on the bill as a giveaway to polluters from the likes of were mostly a sideshow.

People (including me) who complained that Waxman-Markey bill, which stretched to more than 1,000 pages, was laden with favors for special interests, giveaways to industry and needlessly complex missed the point. Time magazine’s Joe Klein, for instance, called the bill “a demonstration of all that’s wrong with the legislative process in latter-day America.” To the contrary, says Eric:

Despite its flaws and contortions, it was a demonstration of much that was right. The bill didn’t get complicated because legislators were cutting unsavory deals with corporate lobbyists. It got complicated because lawmakers and, yes, corporate lobbyists were working together with environmentalists and labor unions to arrive at a grand bargain that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions without punishing consumers or corporations.

Indeed, Henry Waxman, the architect of the measure, emerges as one of the heroes in the book because he was able to win the support of powerful legislators from coal country (Rick Boucher) and Detroit (John Dingell) for his bill. With Ted Kennedy gone, it’s not clear there’s anyone with the skills needed to carry such a complex  bill through the Senate.

Transformational politics, not transactional politics, may be needed to get climate legislation done. In today’s political climate, the compromises and complexities of Waxman-Markey or Kerry-Lieberman, along with the dubious rhetoric of “green jobs” and “energy independence,” may well be the best hope for getting climate legislation passed.

An imperfect bill is better than nothing, Eric says:  “You’ve got to take a step before you can run a race. You need to start.” Even putting a modest price on carbon will unleash investment, and demonstrate that a cap on emissions will not squeeze middle-class families or imperil the economy.

But if the incremental, pragmatic, lets-make-a-deal approach fails yet again–and it’s my belief that it probably will–what’s called for a bigger vision, one that calls upon Americans to sacrifice for the common good and the well-being of future generations. This appeal to our better natures would, of course, have to be accompanied by old-fashioned, grass-roots political organizing in communities, churches and on campuses to build a movement to stop global warming.

Only then will we be able to close what Eric describes as “the gulf between what the science said was necessary and what the politics said was possible.”