The Climate War

A feat of storytelling alchemy, a page-turner, and .. a must-read.” —David Roberts, Grist

Entertaining and sharp.“ — Jennifer Zhang, Newsweek

Read “The Smooth Talking King of Coal-and Climate Change,” an excerpt published in Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Read “Obama’s Energy Failure,” an excerpt published in The Atlantic

Preface to The Climate War

When I began work on this book, in the spring of 2007, the American debate about global warming finally seemed to be shifting from science to politics, from whether climate change was real and caused by human activity to what we were going to do about it. I wanted to understand why it was so hard for our political system to respond to this threat—why Americans, virtually alone among people in the industrialized world, had not agreed to cap their greenhouse gas emissions. So I spent the next three years talking to hundreds of people from all sides of the Climate War, choosing key figures to follow in this narrative.

Somewhat naïvely, perhaps, I hoped to write a story with a happy ending, a chronicle of how America finally knuckled down and started getting the hard work of climate action done. Three years later, the Climate War is still raging, America is still debating whether and how to reduce carbon emissions, and a loud minority continues to insist that global warming isn’t real or caused by man. So what you are about to read is an epic without an ending. It is the story of a group of people who set out to save the planet—or, more precisely, to preserve the planet’s habitability—through political action, and the story of those who stood against them. Their battleground was the American political system, which gave a natural advantage to the opponents of climate action. The U.S. Congress, designed by the Founders to make it diff cult “for colossal tax and regulatory burdens to foxtrot into law without scrutiny,” as the Wall Street Journal phrased it, had become so distorted by special interest dollars and partisan bile that it now seemed to block progress of any kind, no matter how urgent. The system treated climate campaigners as just another special interest group—and an underfunded one at that. And it treated their wealthy foes with far more deference.

Environmentalism was also changing in those years, as it completed its journey into the mainstream. Just about every corporation boasted about its commitment to sustainability. The fight against climate change was mostly portrayed in the media as a lifestyle choice, a matter of righteous consumerism, as if we could stop global warming simply by filling our shopping carts with the right products. Books and magazines were filled with stories of ostentatious self-denial, written by people who proudly evaporated their own sea salt or went without electric lights and toilet paper for a year. Those personal responses may have been valid and enriching, but fighting climate change in an industrial society requires political action at the local and— especially—the national level. This book is about people who understood that, and set out to be effective. It is about people who went to war, and learned what war costs.

—ERIC POOLEY
March 7, 2010

Excerpt from The Big Money by Eric Pooley

Obama Was Against It Before He Was for It — How the President came to believe in off-shore drilling
On March 31, three weeks before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, President Obama announced the end of a longstanding federal ban on offshore drilling in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico. “It turns out,” he said April 2, “that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills.” That ill-timed policy shift, which gave way a drilling moratorium as the BP catastrophe unfolded, had its roots in the 2008 presidential campaign. What follows is excerpted from The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, by Bloomberg BusinessWeek Deputy Editor Eric Pooley.

We, therefore, the undersigned citizens of the United States, petition the U.S. Congress to act immediately to lower gasoline prices … by authorizing the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries.

—PETITION ON NEWT GINGRICH’S “AMERICAN SOLUTIONS” WEB SITE, 2008

As the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States rose past $3.50 in April 2008, heading above $4.00, Newt Gingrich saw an opportunity. The former Republican Speaker of the House had been flirting with what he called  “green conservatism”—even backing a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions at one point—but now he saw an issue with far more political punch. In mid-May, shortly after sitting beside Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a TV commercial for Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, Gingrich launched a campaign called  Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less, with an online petition that gathered 350,000 signatures in its first month, growing to 1.3 million by July. That was galling to Gore, since the Alliance had 1.4 million members at the time. And Gingrich had sat on Gore’s couch! Even the name of Newt’s Web site, americansolutions.org, echoed Gore’s wecansolveit.org.

Gingrich blamed escalating gasoline prices on “liberal politicians [who] have locked up energy in the United States.” His solution: “We could drill here, drill now and pay less. Let’s get the price down, let’s get America off of depending on foreign oil  … and let’s make life better for working Americans.” It was a seductive, all-of-the-above argument—drill, but develop wind, solar, and nuclear so we can also have a lot less environmental damage. Gore thought it was dangerous. America couldn’t drill its way out of the short- or long-term energy crisis; according to the federal Energy Information Administration, opening up offshore drilling wouldn’t lead to new domestic oil production before 2017— and even aggressive production would have an insignificant impact on oil prices in the global market. If the United States exploited all of North America’s resources in a bid to achieve energy independence—if it used all the oil and shale oil and oil sands, if it converted coal to liquid fuel and burned that in its cars—it would only succeed in baking the planet while postponing the clean energy solution it needed. Gingrich knew all of that. But Newt had seen an opening, and he had taken it.

Drill here, drill now was a brilliant diversion, a policy sideshow elevated to the main stage of the presidential debate. It came with a catchy slogan, it tapped into real anger over spiraling prices, and it blamed the Democrats. Soon after Gingrich joined Bush and Cheney at the head of the pro-drilling parade, they had some unexpected company: GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who up until then had been doing everything he could think of (including a firm embrace of cap and trade, staked out in a high-profile speech in May) to distance himself from the unpopular president. But in mid-June, just weeks after he unveiled his cap-and-trade proposal, McCain came out in favor of lifting the federal moratorium on drilling in the outer continental shelf, throwing overboard a campaign plank that dated back to the Straight Talk Express in 2000. The week McCain changed his position on drilling, his campaign launched a new television commercial in 54 swing markets, called Global. It began with rapid-fire black-and-white images—traffic jams with car horns honking, power plants with smokestacks belching, an Arctic ice shelf collapsing into the sea—then a full-color setting sun. A reassuring female voice said: “John McCain stood up to the president and sounded the alarm on global warming five years ago. Today he has a realistic plan that will curb greenhouse gas emissions, a plan that will help grow our economy and protect our environment.” Soon Global gave way to another ad. The same reassuring voice was now talking about gas prices—”$4, $5, no end in sight because some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America. No to independence from foreign oil. Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?” The ad cut to a smiling shot of Barack Obama, soon to be the Democratic nominee.

As McCain’s camp pushed its all-of-the-above energy strategy, Obama accused McCain of political expediency— he had it right the first time, the Democrat said in June—but the polling was saying something else. A survey conducted for the Senate Democratic leadership in early summer showed that unless a politician was for some kind of drilling right now, Americans didn’t want to hear anything he or she had to say about energy. They didn’t want to hear Obama or Pelosi or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid say we can’t drill our way out of this. But they might pay attention to a “grand bargain” that would link expanded offshore drilling and nuclear power to a cap on carbon emissions. So in early July, some Democrats dipped a toe in the drilling waters. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a close Obama ally from the candidate’s home state of Illinois, told the Wall Street Journal that he and Reid were open to drilling and responsible production.

But Obama wasn’t ready to crumble. He sent word to Reid and Durbin: Hold on guys, I’m still not for drilling. “The message was, “We want to think about this a little while,’ said a Senate leadership aide. So we shut up, and the Republicans hammered us for another month.” By late July, Pelosi was blocking Republican attempts to attach offshore drilling amendments to appropriations bills; when asked why, she said she was trying to save the planet. She had it right, but her tree-hugging rhetoric was out of step with the American mood. At last Obama accepted reality. He said he would accept limited drilling as part of a package deal that also included a push for clean energy. “Once we’d done all the damage we could do to ourselves on this issue, Obama buckled,” said the Senate aide. “And then Pelosi buckled. The enviros were pissed about it—they don’t want any drilling. They hadn’t noticed that we’d already lost.”