Foreign Policy Magazine

July 23, 2010

This is how a climate bill dies. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the bad news: “We don’t have the votes.” Without a single Republican backing the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, the Senate’s version of a comprehensive energy bill, there was no point taking it to the floor, he explained. For now, there was no way to move forward.

Reid’s announcement dealt a devastating blow to those hoping the United States would lead the way in aggressively curbing the greenhouse gases that scientists say are dangerously warming the planet. With time running out before 2012, when the current global climate treaty expires, negotiating a new agreement just got much harder.

So who’s to blame? Was it just a poorly crafted bill? Was there ever a chance Republicans would sign on to cap and trade? Did Barack Obama’s administration drop the ball? Or was it environmental groups themselves, who failed to persuade the public that now was the time to act?

FP asked five experts who have closely followed the debate for their verdict. Here’s what they told us:

Christine Todd Whitman:

The failure to pass comprehensive energy legislation this year was the result of both a tenuous political climate and a failure on all sides of the issue to negotiate.

Among the earliest stumbles was when Barack Obama’s administration tried to get a carbon cap through in the omnibus spending bill last year. Obama’s backhanded action spooked a number of people who had previously shown willingness to listen. The “Climategate” email debacle then gave the naysayers an opening that, combined with the downturn in the economy, was enough to make the average person question the need for any action that might cost them a job or simply cost them more.

Adding to the fracas, environmentalists have hurt the cause by overreaching and implying that the sky is falling, so to speak. While the effects of climate change are certainly worse in some parts of the world, activists’ warnings did not equate with what people were seeing here in the United States.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Obama’s slow response reduced the president’s credibility in addressing the broader problem, leaving the appearance that he was using the spill as another backdoor approach to pass cap and trade. Unfortunately, the combination of all these factors turned the debate from focusing on good policy to playing politics, with neither side willing to give the other a win.

It’s a shame that we find ourselves in this stalemate, as business leaders have not resisted capping carbon as some might assume they would. In fact, business leaders joined with environmental leaders before President George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address to ask him to create consistent federal rules on carbon emissions.

A straightforward energy bill that emphasized clean energy and conservation had a chance of passing and would have started the process of reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions. One thing is for sure: We need a comprehensive energy plan for our nation. The United States is energy dependent, and our needs are only increasing. To halt the national energy conversation because of the oil spill or public mistrust is a disservice to our country. It is incumbent on members of Congress from both sides of the aisle to look past the political third rails and move forward with a comprehensive energy policy.

Christine Todd Whitman is president of the Whitman Strategy Group and co-chair of the Republican Leadership Council. She served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from January 2001 until June 2003 and governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001.