Death of a Climate Bill

The climate bill is officially dead.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced that he does not have the sixty votes necessary to pass comprehensive energy reform.  So, no chance of a carbon cap in the near future.

This concession marks a significant moment: Our government is failing to act on a defining issue of our time — and, in doing so, is neglecting to respond to the will of the people.  A George Mason University poll found that 77 percent of Americans support CO2 regulation. For that matter, most Senators might very well support a carbon cap.  But the minority party, along with several Democrats, has successfully obstructed action through the threat of a filibuster.

In the end, Senate obstructionists on both sides murdered the climate bill.  But the underlying problem is that, in the American government, partisan interests always come before the greater good.  Even among its supporters, energy reform is often just another political goal to check off on the agenda.  As a moral responsibility, cutting pollution is a major issue.  But as a political goal, it’s easily superseded by more important goals, such as getting re-elected.

Maybe this is one reason why Democratic leaders — including the President — did not fight to keep the energy reform alive.  Remember that the healthcare bill nearly died, but Obama and Pelosi revived it with some arm-twisting and deal-cutting.  They also had a moral rallying point (“Millions of people don’t have health insurance”).  The gulf oil spill, tragic as it was, could have served the same purpose (“This is the cost of our oil addiction”).  But the Administration missed that chance.

While I’m attributing blame, I can’t, unfortunately, leave out fellow enviros.  For years, many mainstream environmental groups have told us that, if we just write letters, sign petitions, and buy fluorescent light bulbs, everything will be all right.  Each person who types their name and clicks “send” is another reason for Congress to save the world.  But how many angry letters does it take to equal a six-figure check from an oil company?

Our focus on the carbon market may be what resigned us to letter-writing in the first place.  Cap-and-trade has been deemed the best market-based option for curbing global warming pollution.  Better yet, it doesn’t require drastic lifestyle changes.  But that system requires top-down regulation; average people can’t do much besides write letters.  And the best chance for Congress to act on those letters has already passed.

Maybe the climate movement needs a new approach.  It’s not too late for meaningful change to take place, but letter-writing alone isn’t going to help.  If Congress won’t pass a response to climate change from the top, we can still build solutions from the bottom up.

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