Climate Bill: A Missed Opportunity For Obama?
July 25, 2010
Eric Pooley wrote the book on the climate-change battle in Congress. It’s called The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Planet. He tells guest host Audie Cornish this is all a big missed opportunity for the president.
AUDIE CORNISH, host:
We turn now to Eric Pooley. He’s the author of the book “The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Planet.” And he says that not only did the oil spill complicate the political situation, but President Obama missed an opportunity.
Mr. ERIC POOLEY (Author, “The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Planet”): Obama and the Democratic leaders had dreamed of a grand bargain that would include a cap on carbon emissions, as well as expanded offshore drilling, expanded nuclear power subsidies and expanded advance coal technology or so-called clean coal as sweeteners to get the cap through. So after the oil spill took offshore drilling off the table, if you will, that grand bargain became harder to strike.
That said, Obama didn’t tell people directly where they should take their anger and frustration over this bill. In other words, he didn’t say here’s where we need to go to solve this problem, here’s how we have to get off oil because of this sea monster on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico that’s spewing 60 or 70,000 barrels a day. He left out the what-we-need-to-do part.
CORNISH: And it seems as though you didn’t see the same kind of campaign style push for a climate change bill the way you saw it with health care.
Mr. POOLEY: Nothing remotely similar. The president and his political advisers made a decision to pursue what they called a stealth strategy on this issue, even though, I think, they knew it was going to be woefully inadequate.
In order to get this done, Obama would have had to engage on three levels in a very deep and sustained way: on the level of public messaging; on the level of policy to really get down in the weeds, pick a bill, a specific set of proposals and drive it; and then on the level of good, old-fashioned politicking. And he didn’t do any of those three things.
CORNISH: It’s interesting that you talk about the public image part because there was a little bit of an attempt, anyway, at branding. Sometimes you heard energy legislation connected with green jobs. Other times you heard it described as energy legislation instead of climate change. And the only thing that really seemed to stick was energy tax, and that was from the GOP and Republicans and folks who were against what the Democrats were pushing for.
Mr. POOLEY: Well, nobody in support of the bill had the same kind of megaphone that the opponents had other than Obama. The green groups and the senators who were pushing climate action, they can’t compete with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, if you will.
CORNISH: But do they have the same cohesiveness of mission even?
Mr. POOLEY: No. No, they don’t.
CORNISH: I mean, doesn’t energy and climate change and all these different things, don’t they mean different things even to these groups?
Mr. POOLEY: Well, I think the goal is the same, but the approaches are different. And I think you’re absolutely right, Audie. Here on the right, you had sustained, unified opposition. They were all singing from the same choir book.
On the left, you had people who thought a carbon tax would be better than a cap. You had a whole bunch of different opinions, this bill’s not strong enough. You had enviros who wanted to hold out for something stronger, even though that was obviously unachievable.
In fact, I think the environmentalists made a serious strategic error by not waking up and smelling the coffee in the fall of 2009 and pulling back then to the compromise position that they ended up trying to put through in the last few weeks, which was a scaled-down bill that would only cap emissions from the power sector.
If they had started negotiating that a year ago, they might have gotten it done, but they held out for an economy-wide cap until it was too late, and they ended up with nothing.
CORNISH: Eric, at the start of the year, President Obama went to climate change talks in Copenhagen and promised that the U.S. would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 17 percent in the next 10 years. So how can the administration work towards those goals now?
Mr. POOLEY: Well, it’s a tragic moment because the best way to do it was through legislative action, and Obama knew that but wasn’t willing to fight for it.
CORNISH: So what is he left with?
Mr. POOLEY: He’s left with the EPA and the courts. Now, the EPA is moving ahead with regulation of stationary sources. That’s large power plants, et cetera, that emit huge amounts of CO2. And that will end up with what Representative John Dingell memorably called a glorious mess of litigation.
In effect, the utilities decided that they would rather wait and fight this in the courts than have a cap that only applied to the utility industry. And now the environmentalists are saying bring it on. If we can’t solve this in the legislative process, we will fight you in the courts, and what you’re going to see is skirmishing over coal plant after coal plant after coal plant, and it’s going to be protracted and ugly.
CORNISH: Eric Pooley is the deputy editor of Bloomberg Business Week and author of “The Climate War.”
Eric, thanks so much for talking to us.
Mr. POOLEY: Thanks for having me.
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