We all know what happened. On the very day that China announced a plan to institute carbon emissions trading beginning in 2011, Harry Reid stood in a hallway and delivered a whole lotta nothin' on climate legislation.
Now you know why Tom Friedman wished plaintively in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded that we could be China for just one day.
Let's get the finger-pointing out of the way, then talk over some ways to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Who is to blame?
Obtuse, scientifically illiterate Republicans who successfully branded climate policy as "cap and tax." Thanks, guys and gals, you brought smiles to the petroleum ministries of Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia. Mahmoud, Hugo, and King Abdullah ought to bake a cake for Mitch McConnell.
Mealy-mouthed Democrats who let the Republicans get away with their demagoguery. That finger starts pointing right at the top. In his Dot Earth blog, the New York Times' Andrew Revkin pointed out that President Obama failed to exert leadership and failed to challenge James Inhofe and the other OPEC enablers who see nothing wrong with perpetuating America's overdependence on coal and oil.
The day Reid laid the egg, the White House actually blamed environmentalists for failing to line up enough votes. Enough votes for what? The president never spelled out to Congress exactly what he wanted, didn't knock heads together on Capitol Hill, and didn't brandish consequences if wobbly-in-the-knees lawmakers failed to give him what he wanted. Waiting for lobbyists to gift-wrap 60 votes and hand them to the president and the feckless Reid on a silver platter is not leadership. Somewhere, the ghosts of Ronald Reagan, Harry Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt are shaking their heads.
There are plenty of others who deserve blame bloviating narcissists on talk-radio and on the blogs, mendacious ideologues who manufactured the so-called "climategate" controversy, even citizens who either don't pay attention or let clever merchants of deceit push their emotional buttons and jam their critical thinking circuits.
OK, now that the venting is over, what is to be done? Several things.
First, if and when Republicans win one or both houses of Congress in the fall election, they will have to stand for something besides grasping for power, as conservative commentator Ross Douthat mused in his NY Times blog.
Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who lost his primary to a Tea Party drone, has a suggestion. On the day of Reid's pallid announcement, Inglis told utility executives that climate policy needs a messaging makeover stop dwelling in the weeds of cap-and-trade, offsets, and other wonkery that is chiefly of interest to economics PhD's. That doesn't sell. Instead, sell carbon pricing as a market-based solution for stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship.
Inglis' idea has been heard before, but if Senate Republicans who take climate issues seriously and there are a half-dozen or so are to see their way towards working on a climate bill, they will have to sell it to their constituents in a way that doesn't put them at mortal political risk. Maybe business leaders who want climate policy certainty could send Inglis' idea to some marketing boffins for refinement into a PR campaign.
Second, all of us who care about climate stewardship must fight furiously against any attempt to change one jot or tittle in the Clean Air Act's language empowering EPA to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions. One such attempt was beaten back earlier this summer. There will be more. President Obama should vow, loudly and repeatedly, to veto any legislation that rolls back EPA's authority in this area. Until the Senate is ready to legislate climate policy seriously, EPA is an imperfect but potent arrow that must remain in the quiver.
Third, Big Coal friends like Byron Dorgan should repeatedly administer the cold shower that he and the late Robert Byrd gave Big Coal until Big Coal gets the message that continuing to pretend that energy markets won't change is a fast ticket to palookaville.
By 2016, half the nation's coal-fired power plants will be more than 50 years old. Utilities can rely on those don't-laugh-it's-paid-for coal beaters for only so long before they must be replaced. Impending EPA regs NOx, SOX, mercury, coal ash threaten to speed those plants' trip to the boneyards. Utility bosses have said as much.
By coming to the table, the coal industry could help negotiate a climate bill that gooses R&D aimed at finding economical ways of burying carbon. That would give some cover to senators in coal states.
Without a reasonable prospect that sequestration can work, utilities will be wooed by the fetching message of the strutting gas industry. The gas guys are poking Big Coal in the eye by telling the utilities that switching to gas will allow them to dump their dirty old coal plants, avoid a lot of EPA red tape, and get ahead of the curve if and when carbon is priced.
Fourth, work the flanks of the issue by pushing for a national renewable energy and efficiency standard, broadening the clean cars deal that the administration worked out with Detroit, and long-term extensions of tax incentives for renewables. Find more money for basic energy R&D so that innovators can develop cheaper solar technology, test the promise of modular nuclear reactors, and tap the enormous potential of ocean wave and tidal energy.
Surely, there are more ideas out there. The climate bill's collapse is a bitter pill. Too much is at stake, however, for this setback to be final. Those of us who care must get up and return to the arena.
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