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Senate Climate Change inAction: Postmortem thoughts continued …

August 5th, 2010 · No Comments

The abysmal failure for US Senate movement forward on climate change mitigation legislation has many fathers and mothers, many to blame. And, the blame game is moving around … along with lots of CYA discussions. To a certain extent, the pointing fingers and ‘who me’ exercises can get a bit exaggerated because while there is lots of blame to go around, there are people and interests and organizations that merit direct responsibility and many others who have some indirect play in the ‘blame’ game. To a certain extent, this can be like focusing the discussion of why the fire set by a pyromaniac burnt down the house and killed the pet really was the fault of everyone but the pyromaniac — sure, if there had been a nearer fire station, sure if there weren’t speed bumps on the road, sure if the homeowner had installed sprinklers, sure … Thus, there is lots of blame to go around when it comes to the failure of the Senate to act that include President Obama’s faltering (at best) engagement in the issue and unwillingness to leverage the hottest year on record plus the BP oil disaster to force through clean-energy legislation, Obama advisors like Rahm Emanuel who find clean energy action a losing political issue, Blue Dog Democrats, substantive disagreements on how best to act, pollsters who argued that talking about climate change is bad, environmental organization strategy and tactics, … those, however, are all secondary ‘fault’ issues. If these were “the” players on the table, the debate and battle would have been reality-based — what is the best way forward, what should we do, not ‘whether’ we should do something.

No, the fact is that fossil-foolish interests are heavily influencing American politics and with Anti-Science Syndrome suffering Haters Of a Livable Economic Society are utterly dominating one of America’s two major political parties (with some tendrils into the other).  That is where “the” blame lies — that there is a massively resourced group that is willing, no matter what it costs, to fight tooth-and-nail against reality-based policy making They reject the entire notion that political reality should have anything to do with physical reality beyond the money going into their own pockets.

Even so, even though we can identify the root cause, that root cause is a reality. Thus, the “failure to act” debate turns to who might have been able to do something different to achieve (to drive) legislation action in the face of this obstinate, reality-denying set of interest groups and allied politicians?

For a long time, I (and may others) have been critical of the strategies and tactics of “the” Green Groups: the large, establishment environmental organizations.  Again, to be quite clear up front, if the anti-reality crowd weren’t in the equation, this would be a discussion as to best measures to take with people with which my disagreements are, mainly, on the margin in terms of understanding of the world and what we can and should do in terms of energy efficiency, renewable energy, ecosystem restoration, and climate adaptation.  I like and respect many within these institutions even while, sometimes vehemently, disagreeing with their political strategies and approaches.   Environmental Defense, for example, seemed ready to do nearly any background deal so as to get some form of cap on carbon — no matter how weak, no matter the payoffs to traditional polluters, no matter …  Get a deal and, well, over the decades to come, it can be improved. (Sort of like those old coal electricity plants grandfathered in under the Clean Air Act were okay to have grandfathered since the utilities would retire them … well, those plants are still out there belching massive amounts of mercury into our ecosystem and CO2 into the atmosphere.)  On fundamental goals, our differences are marginal — on tactics and strategies to get there, our disagreements can be fierce.

While remembering who bears primary fault, the backroom actions from many in the Green Group bears critiquing.  They made deals with polluters before legislative activity even began. They told Members of Congress that inadequate targets were adequate. They ‘pre-compromised’ with polluters, thinking that that would enable getting through legislation, rather than stating forcefully what was really necessary and making it clear — crystal clear — that the politically palatable action was, at best, a down-payment as to what actually would be required to turn the tide on Global Warming’s rising tides.  Too many backroom games seemed to be played, abandoning economic justice issues (paying off polluters) to try to eek out some form of climate bill.

To reemphasize again, while this is more than discussing the number of angels dancing on the head of pin, this is an ‘argument’ among friends who have tremendous amount of agreement as to what can and should be done. If we were in a reality-based world, rather than with too many in our political system operating in a la-la land where scientists are conspirators and science isn’t to be trusted, much of the disagreement about political tactics and approaches would fall to the wayside.

And, while I disagreed with their approaches, that disagreement really came down to what was in the bill.  There are those who sought to blame Green Groups for the failure to move even watered-down legislation through the Senate:

“They didn’t deliver a single Republican,” an administration official told POLITICO just hours after Reid pulled the plug on the climate bill. “They spent like $100 million, and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.”

You’ve got to be kidding me, was my reaction on seeing that, the President fails to leverage the BP disaster in the Gulf and doesn’t forcefully commit to climate legislation (speech to Joint Session of Congress, anyone?) and doesn’t arm twist Democratic politicians into voting for climate legislation (and gives a pass to those House Ds who voted against the bill), and it is the fault of a bunch of non-profit organizations.  That anonymous “administration official” is spouting off nonsense.

As reported in Politico, some in the Green Groups are bristling at criticism and defending Green Group climate tactics.

“The reason why I’m not looking around, hearing a lot of people scared for their jobs, I think the general view within the environmental community is consistent with mine: We ran a very effective, well-coordinated effort,” said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC’s climate center.

“We fell victim to much broader politics that were beyond our control that really didn’t have to do with the specifics of either the issue or the campaign,”

The situation is, in fact, far more complicated. To blame environmental organizations for Senate inAction is absurd even while, imo, there is plenty of criticism to go around — including of Green Group tactics. Now, in fact, that Politico article discusses the issue(s) reasonably well, discussing some of the disconnects between environmental organizations and politicians over the tactical approaches. And, it suggests that focusing on “cap and trade”, with complicated legislation, might have contributed to the problem.

The real challenge is that, for too many politicians on both sides of the aisle, there is an upside to opposing climate legislation (donations from fossil-foolish interests, to start with) and little downside.

GOP senators targeted as possible swing votes said the environmentalists offered little incentive for them to change their minds during an economic recession and with little threat of political payback if they didn’t go along.

“They don’t have much infrastructure on the Republican side,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “So when you hear the environmental community is mad at you, everyone says, ‘Tell me something new.’ It’s not like a support group you’ve lost.”

In light of the failure to move (even inadequate climate legislation), Bill McKibben ( has a strong call for a new approach to the situation. While thanking the Green Groups “because they did everything the way you’re supposed to: they wore nice clothes, lobbied tirelessly, and compromised at every turn”, Bill is calling for a movement to make the Lindsey Grahams of the U.S. political system see acting to deal with the reality of climate change aligns with political reality: inaction will come at a cost.

now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else.

Bill lays out three steps:

1. Talk about global warming. Don’t sugar coat things and fail to speak about the fundamental issue at hand.
2. Speak to what we need, not what we think is going to eek through Congress in a pre-digested deal with serial polluters.
3. Create a movement to move the agenda.

Bill has been at the core of creating what just might be that movement which is built around a rather esoteric number: 350. 350 parts per million might (might) be a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere for supporting modern human civilization. We were at about 270 ppm prior to the modern era and are about 390 ppm today, growing several ppm per year. We need to do better than simply stopping growth in emissions, but turn the tide backwards. (See item #2 above.) has managed to put 100,000s around the world into demonstrations demanding climate action. The Senate’s inaction demands that they do even better in the future.

10/10/10/10/10 should be on your calendar: the 10th minute of the 10th hour of the 10th day of the 10th year of the 21st century could be a pivotal moment in the movement that McKibben calls for. On 10 October 2010 (10/10/10), mobilized due to the energy of the team, people around the world will gather to show their support for climate action by leaders, nation, and people around the world.

a Global Work Party. All around the country and the world people will be putting up solar panels and digging community gardens and laying out bike paths. Not because we can stop climate change one bike path at a time, but because we need to make a sharp political point to our leaders: we’re getting to work, what about you?

Barack Obama, I’ve put solar on my roof.  Why isn’t it on yours?  Put solar on it!

Senator Webb, do you have an energy and location efficient home?  Senator Warner, is solar on your rooftop?

But, the point is not that Obama should put solar on the White House to have solar there or that it really matters whether Jim Webb has solar hot water, the point is is that it is their work is to develop national policy to deal with climate change (energy efficiency regulation, fees on polluters, investment in deploying clean energy, research (and deployment) of carbon mitigation approaches like agro-/bio-char, ending financial assistance to fossil fuel pollution (domestic and foreign), etc …).  And, the point is — no matter who they wish to point fingers to — they have failed to do so yet.   They are failing at their job.

Now, as typical, Bill is far more articulate than I and I highly recommend his piece, which ends:

Mostly, we need to tell the truth, resolutely and constantly. Fossil fuel is wrecking the one earth we’ve got. It’s not going to go away because we ask politely. If we want a world that works, we’re going to have to raise our voices.

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Tags: climate change · Energy · environmental · Global Warming