Has the political climate changed?

NI logoFirst things first: The U.S. House of Representatives last week narrowly voted to overhaul the nation’s energy economy by limiting industrial greenhouse gas emissions, boosting efficiency, and developing renewable electricity sources. The American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act would limit, or “cap,” annual pollution and allow industry to buy and sell, or “trade,” credits in a new and tightly regulated commodity market. The vote, 219-212, sends an equivocal message to the Senate, where advocates face an even tougher sell. Eight Republicans voted with the majority and 44 Democrats broke with their party leaders.

To secure votes on complicated bills, legislators have been known to adopt a sort of “trade-and-cap” approach to deal-making. The bill’s sponsors and Democratic leadership traded promises – of emission allowances, regulatory authority, trade protection — for enough yea votes to cap the nays at 217. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, commented on the scale of Democratic horse-trading: “It’s unprecedented, but at least it’s transparent.”

President Barack Obama took the unusual step of inviting in newspaper energy reporters for an on-the-record interview about the House climate bill. Calling the passage “an extraordinary first step” (identically in the ledes of the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times), Obama criticized a provision that under certain conditions would require the president to levy a tariff on imports from countries that do not regulate their greenhouse gases like the U.S. Trade barriers, he said, would send “a protectionist signal,” at a moment when the U.S. and trading partners are trying to jumpstart the global economy. In a sign of the times, the Washington Post quotes a comment Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made on Twitter.

Representatives had barely vacated the House floor before observers turned their attention to the upper house of Congress, which will begin work on its version of the bill later this month. Twenty senators–led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)–have been meeting weekly to come up with an approach to Senate legislation. With the two top jobs in the executive branch filled by former senators, the White House is expected to play a bigger role in Senate negotiations.

E&E News counts 45 or so U.S. senators who are likely “yes” votes for a climate bill, well short of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. Some 23 more have reservations about how the bill would affect their states, particularly Midwestern Democrats.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been at work on an energy efficiency-and-security bill (official summaries here), though it does not have a cap-and-trade element. A climate piece will be taken up beginning July 27 in Boxer’s Environment and Public Works Committee. The Energy Outlook blog muses on the possible intersection of these two initiatives.

It’ll help! It’ll hurt!: Beyond the national media, newspaper coverage of the ACES bill stayed close to home, reminiscent of how sports sections give more space to local teams than out-of-town rivals. The Kansas City Business Journal runs a short piece offering a local utility’s warnings about the legislation. The piece cites one private estimate of the bill’s eventual cost per family, $1,050 a year on average — an order of magnitude higher than Congressional budget Office and Environmental Protection Agency analyses. The Sunshine State is struggling simultaneously with the promise of solar power and threats to jobs from increased energy prices.

Lobbying from coal states led to reduced targets for energy from renewable sources in the House bill. The original goal of 25 percent by 2020 fell to 15 percent by the floor vote. Experts in Wyoming ponder where change holds promise and where harm. A short piece earlier in the week in the Casper Star-Tribune provides a snapshot of climate opinion in the U.S.’s coal capital: “[State Rep. Tom Lockhart] acknowledged many in Wyoming still doubt the science of global warming, but said the Legislature came to terms several years ago with the fact that the issue had been decided politically on the national and international level. ‘The political tide has changed and the market has changed,’ Lockhart said.”

The climate bill’s passage evoked to Republicans the Clinton administration’s failed 1993 push for an energy tax (per B.T.U). Some Democratic congressmen lost their seats over the B.T.U. tax in the 1994 Republican rout. The NYT’s Carl Hulse collects some nice details from last week, including Republicans chanting “B.T.U.! B.T.U!” upon passage. He asks, “Has the political climate changed since 1993?”, and tees up climate and energy as a 2010 midterm election issue. Indicative of change in the media climate, the Times’ Andrew Revkin posts this at his DotEarth blog, adding context to Hulse’s informative but narrow political story (Revkin: “There are enormous differences between the two situations and initiatives.”).

Reuters India picks up a Washington datelined story about the House action, suggesting it as a signal to the international community that the U.S. is serious about negotiation. Events in India, however, suggest the feeling is less than mutual. India’s environment minister said this week: “India will not accept any emission-reduction target — period. This is a non-negotiable stand.”

The notion that the U.S. legislation contains potential trade barriers could bring India and Pakistan together. They are in discussion about unifying their international positions on climate change.

Mind the gap: As global warming enters the public domain, business competitiveness has become as significant a driver of behavorial change as climate science, opening a usually harmless “climate gap” in understanding between scientists and virtually everyone else. Business drives PriceWaterhouseCooper’s recent report, Capitalizing on a Climate of Change, which lays out the ever-growing business case for understanding climate change: “Companies in the United States face a major challenge in developing a comprehensive strategy to address climate change because of the lack of a national regulatory framework establishing a set of rules for the reduction of carbon-based emissions.”

The gap is particularly wide for the WSJ’s Kimberley Strassel. She writes about Steve Fielding, an Australian senator who voted against a climate change bill after the Obama administration failed to answer his request to help him better understand climate science. Strassel’s column cheers what she describes as a worldwide surge in climate skepticism. What particular study or element of climate science deserves skepticism is unclear. She writes, “The inconvenient truth is that the earth’s temperatures have flat-lined since 2001, despite growing concentrations of CO2. Peer-reviewed research has debunked doomsday scenarios about the polar ice caps, hurricanes, malaria, extinctions, rising oceans.”  The questions of ice caps, hurricanes, etc. seem more complicated than Strassel allows. Often, the big question is framed as how to evaluate the probability of catastrophic events under large uncertainty.

Michael Jackson, climate metaphor?: Deepak Chopra eulogizes Michael Jackson, who in the days before his death had been working excitedly on a song about “the environment,” loosely inferred by the Telegraph to mean climate change.

As he aged, the eccentric King of Pop built an imaginary fortress to protect himself from mega-stardom. Stripped out of context, a passage on this topic from Chopra’s heartfelt piece sounds like it could pass as commentary about the inability of  a large economy to recognize and adapt to change: “This compromise with reality gradually became unsustainable. He went to strange lengths to preserve it.”

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat