There is no way to paint a pretty color on the bad news: the Democrats have abandoned any hope of passing a climate bill this year. If the Republicans pick up seats in November, as everyone expects them to do, this effectively postpones any serious action until 2013 at the earliest. Carbon targets will have to be pushed back, and the cost of meeting them will rise.
What can we learn from this?
Above all, that the strategy of the national green groups—the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, etc.—simply failed. They wanted to bring business, and especially the energy sector, along as partners by cutting backroom deals. Let’s put forward a united front, they said, and we will cut you some free carbon permits, ease up on some regulations, shovel you some pork. You’ll make your money and we’ll save the planet.
The deal-making happened; just scan the Kerry-Lieberman text if you have a spare day or two. What didn’t happen was the partnership. The climate “allies” courted so assiduously by the green groups funneled money to deniers and obstructionists. They took giveaways and demanded more. They never really shouldered any of the burden of pushing this bill through. And with each retreat to a fallback position the effort had less to offer and less traction.
In my dreams, the leaders of the green groups stand before the microphones and say, Enough! No more beltway BS! We are going to draft a bill that meets the criteria of science and ask the public to force the politicians to pass it.
In real life, I know that these groups have their eyes on their side of the deals: the funding for mass transit, energy research, renewables, efficiency retrofits. They don’t want to give this up, so they will be the last to recognize that the deal is really, truly dead.
Whatever the composition of congress, the need for legislation remains urgent, and it is still possible for the public, if organized and focused, to push the politicians into it. What’s needed is a strategy that’s exactly the opposite of what we’ve seen for the past two years:
1. No deal-making to win over business “allies”.
2. No disappearance into the minutiae of complex energy bills.
3. A single environmental demand: to put an economy-wide price on carbon.
4. A single economic demand: to collect the full price and rebate it back to the public.
Yes, there are details that can make a big difference, but if you want a popular movement the emphasis has to be on the core ideas. If you say that the stringency of the targets is essential, I won’t argue. If you say we need gobs of investment in research and infrastructure and retrofitting to get us to a decarbonized economy, I will agree completely. But job one is getting an architecture in place as soon as possible. Once there’s a price on carbon, and once the public starts getting money from it, the political environment for everything else we have to do will become more favorable.
At this point, what’s needed more than anything else is leadership to galvanize this movement.