If not now for climate change, when?

If a ghastly oil spill can't convince 60 senators of the dire need for a real climate change bill, nothing will

Published July 23, 2010 1:15PM (EDT)

It’s official: the climate bill is dead for this Senate session, and almost certainly till after the 2012 presidential elections. While the nation was engrossed in two "scandals" drummed up by conservative media hacks, the ever-weakening bill finally succumbed to the pressures of a bad economy, recalcitrant Republicans, and Senate procedural inanity, leaving those concerned with the fate of the planet humanity to place their faith in a laughably minimal energy package and the bureaucratic wrangling of the EPA

American politicians have been talking about energy reform for decades -- though Jimmy Carter is perhaps most (in)famous for exhorting Americans to carpool and turn down their thermostats, every president going back to Nixon has called for energy independence. So in some ways, it’s no surprise that an actual plan for said energy independence has been kicked down the road yet again. And in all likelihood, the bill’s been doomed since last June, when Democratic leadership elected to prioritize healthcare rather than push forward with a Senate climate bill to complement the moderately tough cap-and-trade bill passed by the House.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the combination of a Democratic president, large Democratic majority in Congress, and a fossil fueled ecological catastrophe represented the best shot at passing meaningful climate legislation for perhaps years to come. Yet in a still-faltering economy, with a legislative climate in which it takes two months to pass a fundamentally uncontroversial extension of unemployment benefits, even a moderately ambitious change to our national energy policy stood about as much chance of passing as a snowflake in Arizona circa 2050.

And it’s almost as hard to overstate how absurd it is that a 60-vote super-majority is the de facto requirement for the Senate to pass any legislation whatsoever. It’s nearly enough to make you think the Democrats’ policy goals would be better served if Republicans controlled Congress and the White House -- if you could think of any Republicans who would lead the push even for climate legislation they could take credit for.

It didn’t help that Obama has remained largely silent on the matter, save for a few predictable comments about energy independence. But so long as Republicans are determined to block anything and everything that comes through the Senate, they can continue to abuse the rules of the Senate to do so. The current modus operandi of Senate Republicans is delay, delay, delay, which is bad enough when you’re talking about the restoration of unemployment benefits to families in need, but almost criminally negligent when it comes to climate, where each day of inaction decreases our ability to prevent a catastrophic scenario. So owing to Senate dysfunction, we’re stuck in a situation in which the passage of legislation that is itself extremely politically challenging depends on perhaps the most difficult reform of all -- that of the political institution itself.

Meanwhile, we’ll continue to go about our business as usual, soothing any occasional discomfort with our reliance on fossil fuels by reassuring ourselves that technology will swoop in and save the day -- that with some modicum of research funding, we’ll discover a miraculous new energy source that will power our lavish lifestyles indefinitely while reducing carbon emissions, creating thousands of new jobs, and making children around the world hold hands and sing.

At this point, though, we’re not even going to allocate any funding towards such research. Not only is the bill that will go before the Senate no longer a climate bill, it’s hardly even an energy bill.  It will contain oil spill response measures, including new restrictions on offshore drilling, and allocate $5 billion each for energy-efficient homes; the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which simply preserves recreational parkland; and the development of a fleet of natural gas-powered vehicles, which is essentially pork for the likes of T. Boone Pickens. Forget about cap-and-trade -- there aren’t even any energy efficiency standards in this one. Environmental groups might be able to successfully push for efficiency standards in another bill before the end of the year, but cap-and-trade is off the table at least until after the midterms and probably until 2013.

So what happens after the Senate presumably passes this unobjectionable package? The EPA has declared that it will begin to regulate carbon emissions using its existing powers to regulate harmful substances under the Clean Air Act (powers that 47 senators voted to strip on the basis that such regulation is Congress’s business, never mind that Congress has shown no interest in enacting it). That is, it will attempt to regulate emissions  -- conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and a few states, including Texas and Virginia, are already lining up to challenge the EPA’s authority to do so in court, threatening to tie up the process in litigation for years.

Even if regulation clears the legal hurdles, though, what can we realistically expect the EPA to do, given the inherent constraints of the agency and bureaucratic systems in general? The EPA has the power to enact regulations with real teeth, to be sure, but they will doubtless be more rigid, and consequently more difficult to implement, than a cap-and-trade system would have been -- it’s entirely possible that after a few months of bureaucratic regulation, coal and utility lobbyists will be begging legislators to enact cap-and-trade. EPA regulations could also impose new efficiency standards for yet under-addressed areas like electricity generation, which has significant emissions savings potential.

All of these remaining measures, however, are suboptimal solutions to our energy problem. It’s unlikely that any, or all, of them will have enough impact to avert climate catastrophe. Ironically, Harry Reid declared yesterday afternoon that the energy bill would "put forth measures to prevent a disaster like [the BP oil spill] from ever happening again," even as he announced that the Senate would not be taking meaningful measures to prevent a much greater, even more foreseeable disaster from occurring.

Time after time, we ignore the warning signs, then proclaim to be shocked -- shocked! -- at the disasters that result. Upon surveying the devastation, we get angry and demand that someone pay -- yet when the culprit is us, as it undoubtedly is in the case of carbon emissions, we think it overreaching to assess the costs and figure out a way to pay them.

Meanwhile, we continue to lag behind the rest of the world in adopting a sane, forward-looking climate policy. As Reid explained he didn’t have the sixty votes to pass a climate bill, China, our favorite environmental scapegoat, announced a plan to put a price on carbon within the next five years. Unfortunately for them, our myopic attitudes towards the environment and our dysfunctional institutions may spell their doom as well as our own. So in ten or twenty years when Bangladeshis find their homes under water, or farmers in Niger watch their crops shrivel due to drought, we can just explain to them that a long time ago, some people in Massachusetts elected a guy with a pickup truck and the most prestigious legislative body in the world’s most powerful nation suddenly ceased to function. I’m sure they’ll understand.

By Alyssa Battistoni

Alyssa Battistoni writes about the environment and politics from Seattle.

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