No we can’t: Obama and Senate Democrats give up on climate bill

Accepting the Democrat nomination on June 3rd, 2008, Barack Obama predicted future generations would look back and see that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. But today we know that will not be the case.

Accepting the Democrat nomination on June 3rd, 2008, Barack Obama predicted future generations would look back and see that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. But today we know that will not be the case.

Instead, it is heavily polluting industries (and the Conservative grassroots both sides of the pond it would seem) that will be celebrating after the New York Times reported today that the Whitehouse and Senate Democrats have given up on their (already minimal) efforts to pass a climate bill that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and incentivise a shift towards a clean energy economy.

The newspaper reports:

“The effort to advance a major climate change bill through the Senate this summer collapsed [on] Thursday even as President Obama signed into law another top Democratic priority – a bill to restore unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who have been out of work for six months or more.”

Democrat leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, is quoted saying:

We know that we don’t have the votes.”

Grist has more detail, David Roberts describing the news as a “total and complete surrender” by the Democrats, highlighting:

“Not only will the (new) bill not contain any restrictions on greenhouse gases – not even a watered-down utility-only cap – it won’t even contain the two other key policies that would have moved clean energy forward: the Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) and the energy efficiency standards.”

But in a must-read Rolling Stone article, out today, the magazine explains why, whilst White House officials are blaming the climate failure on Senate obstructionism, President Obama must also foot much of the blame.

The magazine says:

“Rather than press forward with a climate bill in the Senate last summer, after the House had passed landmark legislation to curb carbon pollution, the administration repeated many of the same mistakes it made in pushing for health care reform.

“It refused to lay out its own plan, allowing the Senate to bicker endlessly over the details. It pursued a ‘stealth strategy’ of backroom negotiations, supporting huge new subsidies to win over big polluters.

“It allowed opponents to use scare phrases like “cap and tax” to hijack public debate. And most galling of all, it has failed to use the gravest environmental disaster in the nation’s history to push through a climate bill – to argue that fossil-fuel polluters should pay for the damage they are doing to the atmosphere, just as BP will be forced to pay for the damage it has done to the Gulf.”

Indeed, many campaigners and political insiders have not been able to understand why Obama didn’t seize on the BP oil spill to make the case for clean energy, and why the President failed to take a personal lead on something he used to describe as a top priority for his administration.

As Rolling Stone reports:

“Handled correctly, the BP spill should have been to climate legislation what September 11th was to the Patriot Act, or the financial collapse was to the bank bailout. Disasters drive sweeping legislation, and precedent was on the side of a great leap forward in environmental progress.

“In 1969, an oil spill in Santa Barbara, California – of only 100,000 barrels, less than the two-day output of the BP gusher – prompted Richard Nixon to create the EPA and sign the Clean Air Act. But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away.”

Indeed, some of Obama’s biggest allies have increasingly vented their frustration publicly. John Podesta – the director of the Centre for American Progress – recently put his name to an open letter to the Whitehouse from America’s leading green groups, which stated:

“With the window of opportunity quickly closing, nothing less than your direct personal involvement, and that of senior administration officials, can secure America’s clean energy future.

“We strongly urge you to produce a bill, in conjunction with key Senators, that responds to the catastrophe in the Gulf, cuts oil use, and limits carbon pollution while maintaining current health and other key legal protections. We further urge you to work with the Senate to bring that bill to the floor for passage before the August recess.

“White House leadership is the only path we see to success, just as your direct leadership was critical in the passage of the recovery plan, health care reform, and other administration successes.”

Rolling Stone summarises the starkness of the situation like this:

“It has come to this: The best legislation we can hope for is the same climate policy that George W Bush promoted during the 2000 campaign. Even worse, the “utilities first” approach could wind up stripping the EPA of its newfound authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.”

After noting that of course those must to blame for the failure of this bill are pro-pollution ideologues and the media, the world’s most influential climate blogger, Joe Romm, has pointed the blame at Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod – Obama’s closest White House advisers.

Romm has rightly written in Salon that:

“Obama’s legacy – and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W Bush – will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change. If not, then Obama – and all of us – will be seen as a failure, and rightfully so.”

Some final words from Grist’s David Roberts:

“It’s a sad, corrupt state of affairs this country finds itself in. I wish I had some hopeful words to offer. But at this point, American government appears to be broken. And our children and grandchildren will suffer for it.”

Sadly the news comes as Australia’s Labour Party – severely damaged by Kevin Rudd’s failure to pass promised climate reforms last year – has announced a very weak new climate policy. There’s more on that from Australia’s Climate Institute here.

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