Climate Change, A Missed Opportunity?

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Ryan Lizza, the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker magazine, talked about the failure of climate change legislation this year and where it stands in the current political debate.


Lizza's recent piece for The New Yorker, titled As The World Burns, presents a depressing step-by-step rundown of "how the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change."

It traces how even with bi-partisan support in Washington for cap-and-trade legislation, buy-in from some of the major energy industry interest groups, and the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, nothing happened.

There was a mandate for change when Obama was elected, but Lizza says the coalition around health care was stronger than the coalition around climate change, and that's partially why it happened first.

If there's one moral to the story it's the incredible power in Washington right now of major economic interests, and when you're trying to move legislation that affects as many sectors of the economy as cap-and-trade does, it makes it extremely difficult for the White House and Congress to move forward with that kind of regulation.

The way Lizza tells it, the powerful trio of climate change bill sponsors—Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman—tried desperately to build bridges with industry executives (including Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips) who will be forced to restructure their businesses under cap-and-trade. Then, they tried to convince members of Congress of the potential boon of a 'grand bargain,' in which Republicans would get an increase in domestic energy production (natural gas, off-shore drilling, and nuclear energy) in return for a cap-on-carbon emissions.

They tried, and they were close, but they didn't get a cigar.

The talks broke down when Senators tried to squeeze earmarks and exemptions into the bill. Notably, Lizza says that Maine moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe strung the trio along, repeatedly making special requests for her constituents, including an exemption on home heating oil.

What these guys were trying to do was stop runaway global warming−not to be dramatic about it—but something that affects the future of mankind, right? And you get into these negotiations with the Senators and the concerns can be extremely parochial.

Not to mention the failures of communication between the Senators and the White House. Senator Lindsey Graham, in particular, felt sabotaged by the administration when the White House went ahead and made policy announcements that pleased the energy industry, without conferring with the Senators−essentially giving away their bargaining chips for free. The final straw was when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would try to bring an immigration reform bill to the floor before a climate change bill.

Graham felt that neither the White House, nor the Senate leadership was any longer bargaining in good faith, and he abandoned the talks, and no Republican stepped up to replace him, and that really was the end.

Yet considering the opposition Congress has demonstrated to the President's agenda over the past year, it's unclear how close the climate change legislation ever really was. Lizza ended the interview by painting a dire portrait:

The sad thing in this is that Congress doesn't move unless there's an immediate emergency, and what's really frightening about the global warming problem is that by the time we're looking at an immediate emergency, most scientists believe it'll be too late to do anything about it.

Listen to the full interview on The Brian Lehrer Show here.