(This essay by Asher Miller, executive director of the Post Carbon Institute, a San Francisco think tank, was originally posted at the PCI website on July 27, 2010, under the headline What Now? Redux.)
By Asher Miller
Back in December in blisteringly cold Copenhagen, tens of thousands of activists, government workers, lobbyists, and world leaders came together for what many hoped would be a diplomatic breakthrough. Though the weather was cold, conditions seemed ripe: Environmental groups across the globe had worked hard to generate a strong display of public will, culminating in 350.org’s Day of Action earlier in October, which CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.” Bolstered by the announcement that President Obama would attend the talks personally, hopes were high for meaningful engagement on the part of the United States after more than a decade of inaction.
It seemed to many environmental organizations and their supporters that their international strategy might finally pay off. They were mistaken and left Copenhagen only with questions: What had gone wrong? Why did world leaders punt on the biggest crises facing our planet? And the most important of all: What now?
At Copenhagen, representatives from the Obama Administration told activists straight to their face: You’ll have to make us do this. And your movement is just not big enough.
Fast forward seven months, to blindingly hot Washington D.C., and we have the same result—though this time it was Congress’ turn to punt, despite a great deal of behind-the-scenes negotiations. Senator Kerry (D-MA) said, “We believe we have compromised significantly, but we’re prepared to compromise further.”
Despite that display of, um, generosity, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) explained, this time they were just not big enough. Unable to get the 60 votes needed to break a Republican filibuster, no climate legislation will move forward in the Senate this year. Since they’re likely to have even fewer votes after the midterms, this does not bode well for hopes of a national policy any time soon.
This is a double blow because the one outcome of COP 15—the Copenhagen Accord—is predicated on countries voluntarily setting and meeting domestic targets. So the lack of national climate legislation also means that our only hope for meeting our 2020 reduction targets is the EPA’s authority, which is likely going to be challenged in court for as long as the delayers can manage. That, or further steep declines in economic activity, like what has happened recently in the UK.
Gladly, I’m no Beltway insider, and my assumptions should be read as just that. But the way I see it, this result (or lack thereof), is not much of a surprise. Four of what are likely many reasons:
1. The Kerry-Lieberman bill was so badly flawed that not even the Big Green environmental groups could hold their noses enough to back it. Though they had staked their strategies, dollars, and reputations on getting something, anything passed before the likely loss of Democratic Party majorities in Congress, they saw that this bill could in fact be worse than no bill.
2. Our leaders’ allegiance to the mythical god of growth trumps their concern over the proven chemistry and physics of global climate change. The irony is rich, of course, considering that even after a veritable iceberg of evidence corroborating anthropogenic global warming, fabricated “scandals” like climate gate still somehow send the media into paroxysms of doubt and politicians diving for the nearest rock (likely to be underwater in about 30 years). In the meantime, there’s a wholly unsubstantiated belief shared by politicians, pundits, and plebeians of all stripes that without endless economic growth our entire universe would spontaneously implode.
And so, anything that could be viewed as putting our economic “recovery” at risk is simply a bridge too far, particularly in the run-up to mid-term elections.
3. Senate Republicans determination to block any bill that hit the floor. You’ve got to give Senate Republicans credit for their single-mindedness, and ability to wholly divorce their legislative positions from the love I’m sure they feel for their children and grandchildren. That takes a special level of determination and obstinacy.
4. The Obama Administration is simply not serious (enough) about our energy and climate crises. That was made abundantly clear in his oval office speech on June 15th when in the midst of the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history, his tepid response was this:
So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party—as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development—and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead.
No specific call to action, no plan offered up. Just an invitation to explore ideas. It was clear in that moment that President Obama was not prepared to stick his neck out for substantive energy and climate policy. Not even when Americans were shaking with anger over the ongoing Deepwater Horizon Gulf spill.
And so here we are again, asking, “What Now?”
More and more in my conversations with environmental groups, activists, and funders, it seems their focus is shifting from the international to the national to, now, the state and local level. For several reasons, I think this is a smart strategy.
In my next post, I’ll touch on the politics and possibilities of local action. Then, I’ll toss out an idea for getting Sarah Palin to serve as the ultimate spokesperson for national climate legislation. Trust me, she won’t like it.