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Democrats’ Augustinian Impulses on Climate

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

President Obama’s election raised unprecedented expectations among climate advocates—and yet their unconditional devotion allows him to get away with giving little more than lip service to the issue.

Time magazine’s Joe Klein spoke for many Democrats—particularly those in the White House and the Senate, apparently—when he expressed his appreciation for the “big favor” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham did Democrats by withdrawing his support for the tripartisan climate bill he had been scheduled to unveil April 26. Graham’s move was driven by his understandable frustration with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s last-minute, out-of-left-field decision to take up immigration reform ahead of climate. Reid’s decision effectively doomed the climate legislation just before its unveiling—but Graham’s move allows Democrats to avoid tough votes on the bill while blaming Republicans for its demise. Reid’s spokesman quickly put out a statement complaining that it was “unfortunate that Sen. Graham chose to take the tack that he did.”

A climate bill was supposedly a top priority for President Obama—and Klein was likewise quick to reassure readers that “I’m all in favor of combating global warming”—before confessing, however, that “I'm thinking Augustinian thoughts: Lord, make me energy independent, but not just yet.”

Why doesn’t Klein want to pass a bill he claims to support?

Because the public has had quite enough, thank you, of government activism this year ... and, after Wall Street reform is passed, any further attempts to pass major legislation will add to legitimate conservative arguments that the federal government is attempting to do [too] much to do any of it well. Healthcare and Wall Street reform were certainly worth doing—but only if caarefully [sic] managed and it remains to be seen whether the Obama Administration, which has succeeded in legislating, will have equal or better luck when it comes to actually governing. In any case, public skepticism about the Democratic Party is bound to increase if another humongous piece of legislation, which effectively guarantees higher energy prices, is passed this year.

If no climate bill moves through the Senate this spring, it’s unlikely one could pass before the November elections; it’s anyone’s guess when the next window of opportunity will open.

According to the Rasmussen poll released this week, 58 percent of likely voters favor repealing the healthcare bill, with just 38 percent opposed. I wonder, though: If the 38 percent understood that a cost of the healthcare bill was the loss of the last, best chance for bipartisan climate legislation in this term, would that number be smaller? I suspect it would.

For those who voted for Obama inspired by his promise of swift action on climate, it must be particularly galling to see him let Reid kill the bill for such nakedly political reasons. Congress isn’t expected to actually pass immigration reform this year—no bill has even been drafted, and Senator Graham is (was?) a key Republican vote in that coalition as well—but fighting the battle will earn Obama and Reid one thing they do need: support from Hispanic voters who might otherwise stay home in November. On Monday, Obama launched his 2010 congressional campaign, seeking to reconnect with “young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women” who voted for him in 2008. No mention of environmentalists.

Climate policy and politics are rich with paradoxes. Obama’s election raised unprecedented expectations among climate advocates—and yet, ironically, their unconditional devotion allows him to get away with giving little more than lip service to the issue. Obama, like Klein, is “all in favor of combating global warming”—so it’s all right if he always has something else to do first.

Obama famously campaigned on a promise of hope and change—but on climate policy, there’s been little change, and hopes are fading fast. If no bill moves through the Senate this spring, it’s unlikely one could pass before the November elections; it’s anyone’s guess when the next window of opportunity will open. Even if Democrats retain control of Congress in the fall, a (presumably) narrower majority will be poorly positioned to pass a strong climate bill.

On Monday, President Obama launched his 2010 congressional campaign, seeking to reconnect with ‘young people, African-Americans, Latinos, and women’ who voted for him in 2008. No mention of environmentalists.

The international picture is no better: Obama’s election was supposed to signal America’s triumphant return to the Kyoto fold, paving the way for a new, more ambitious international climate treaty to be negotiated in Copenhagen. Instead, Obama settled for a weak, non-binding accord that promises relatively little and seems likely to deliver less. And the demise of domestic legislation will only further complicate the prospects for progress on the international front.

On the day the accord was announced, I remarked to a journalist that I thought it was ironic that Obama could get away with failure when former presidential candidate Senator John McCain would have been excoriated if he had negotiated such a weak agreement; it’s easier to be sold out by your friends than your enemies. True, the journalist said, environmental advocates are cutting Obama a lot of slack now—but they still expect him to deliver for them down the road, and they’ll be twice as mad if he doesn’t. That may still prove to be the case—but so far, greens seem willing to settle for defeat.

The promise of progress on climate policy is giving way to the reality of surprising continuity: Karl Rove may have left the West Wing, but when it comes to climate, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel apparently don’t see things all that differently. During a time of economic anxiety, it’s not easy to ask Americans to pay higher energy bills to help address a problem they recently ranked 21st on their list of priorities. Americans, according to the Pew Center’s January poll, are more concerned about trade policy than global warming.

And, of course, the crucial battleground for controlling rapidly rising global emissions is the developing world, where affordable, reliable—and predominantly carbon-intensive—energy constitutes the engine of economic opportunity for millions of people desperate to improve their standard of living. Not surprisingly, when the leaders of those nations consider their priorities, they tend to share Democrats’ Augustinian impulses.

Americans, according to the Pew Center’s January poll, are more concerned about trade policy than global warming.

The greatest irony of all is that, despite many signs to the contrary, I still believe there is an opportunity for bipartisan action on climate, and Obama, in many respects, is perfectly positioned to provide the leadership that could bring it about. It would require two unlikely things, however: Environmentalists would have to hold Obama’s feet to the fire on climate, insisting on action—and he, in turn, would have to respond with a set of creative, centrist policies that challenged orthodoxies on the left and right.

One place to start: While climate ranked 21st on Pew’s poll of public priorities, energy was 11th. Rather than seeing climate change as a pollution problem, we should see it for what it really is: an energy innovation problem of unprecedented scope and duration. Decarbonizing the global economy is a far different task than merely phasing out a conventional air pollutant such as CFCs or dialing down emissions of sulfur dioxide. Seen from that perspective, there are opportunities to craft a centrist set of energy and climate policies that could serve the nation’s environmental and economic goals reasonably well. Obama has already shown some centrist instincts in this area with recent decisions to extend loan guarantees to nuclear power plants and permit some offshore oil and natural gas exploration, but these have been baby steps around the edges of the core policy questions. A coherent vision for America’s clean energy future—and a realistic plan to achieve it—is long overdue.

Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and codirector of AEI’s Geoengineering Project.

FURTHER READING: Thernstrom also discusses “What Role for Geoengineering?”“The Quiet Death of the Kyoto Protocol,” and “soft” geoengineering proposals in “White Makes Right? Steven Chu’s Helpful Idea.”He wrote that current energy ideas present “No Solutions, But Some Progress” and suggested “Engineering Our Attitudes” on geoengineering.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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