What will he do about climate change between now and 2017? Photo via Flickr user DonkeyHotey
On Tuesday the Supreme Court upheld the federal government's authority to regulate "cross-state" pollution, meaning smog from coal-fired power plants that travels from YOLO states in the South and Midwest to greener locales such as New Hampshire. This ruling is undoubtedly good news for environmentalists—even conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the majority—and bodes pretty well for the Obama administration's pending regulations on power plants' carbon emissions, which are expected to face a litany of legal challenges.
But before we get too excited about the prospect of Democrats averting planetary catastrophe, it's worth noting that the partisan divide on topics related to fossil fuels and global warming is something of a joke. The GOP and Tea Party may deny climate change, and liberals may get a kick out of mocking them for ignoring the hard facts of science, but the Democrats haven't done shit about the problem either, even where they could have.
The big window of opportunity came in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats had broad majorities in both houses of Congress. As the health-care battle showed, it would have been a hell of a fight pushing any significant legislation through, but party leaders could have done so—in part by leaning on procedural high jinks such as budget reconciliation, which they floated using for the health-care bill—were it an existential priority. Instead, even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believes that coal and oil "make us sick," there was never a serious effort to pass climate change legislation in the Senate. (The House passed a bill that contained sweeping reforms, but it was DOA in the upper chamber, with moderate Democrats getting cold feet over their prospects in the midterm elections; ironically, killing the bill did not save them.)
More alarmingly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had the authority to regulate carbon since at least 2008 thanks to a Supreme Court ruling but has yet to aggressively do so three quarters of the way into the Obama presidency. Even with a notoriously obstructionist Congress, the current administration could be acting—and it just hasn't been.
"This makes them climate change deniers too, except they have scientists in their tribe and offer the excuse that it's not practical to do anything because of those mean Republicans," said one longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on many campaigns. "But the atmosphere doesn't care about Tea Party Republicans, and that excuse is basically a lie."
Most Democrats aren't as deranged as Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia who literally shot a bullet through the House bill as a shameless bit of pandering to his state's powerful coal lobby, but the party has a growing track record of ducking action on global warming. Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, for example, has been empowered by her fellow Democrats to chair the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources—while remaining in the pocket of big oil. Even when you leave aside the handful of Democrats from states where fossil fuel interests are most powerful, the party has awfully little credibility when it comes to applying its supposed love of science to actual policy. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is advocating a cap-and-trade scheme to control carbon emissions, but he also just hired a coal lobbyist to head up his policy team.
"For me, the classic failure was that Barack Obama campaigned throughout the 2012 election without even mentioning climate change—even though it was the hottest year in American history by far, with Hurricane Sandy at the very end," said Bill McKibben, a leading US environmental advocate and founder of 350.org who has helped spur opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone has been the primary target of the environmental movement since McKibben and other activists got arrested in front of the White House protesting the idea of its construction three years ago, with an article he wrote for Rolling Stone calling the proposed oil pipeline between the Midwest and Canada a "1,700-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent."
These days, you don't have to look very hard to notice all the people on the left in favor of Keystone or keeping quiet on the subject (which amounts to basically the same thing): Secretary of State John Kerry, Bill and Hillary Clinton (who when she had Kerry's job seemed anxious to approve the thing and also started a program to encourage fracking worldwide), and a bunch of Democratic congressmen on Capitol Hill.
Though he's now talking the talk on the environment, Obama has long been an advocate of an "all-of-the-above" energy policy, which in practice has meant opening up more land in Alaska to drilling than his predecessor George W. Bush did. His new energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, is a proud tool of the oil and natural gas industries. And lest we forget, during his 2012 re-election campaign, Obama actually ran ads against Mitt Romney for being insufficiently pro-coal. He is also a technological optimist whose administration has invested tens of millions of dollars in dubious "clean coal" schemes that play well back in his home state of Illinois (and other electoral college powerhouses in the Midwest) but offer little practical capacity to reduce carbon emissions.
"He can't in one breath say climate change is real, and then in the next say we're having record amounts of oil production in the US," Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, a global environmental advocacy organization, told me. "You can't invest in more fossil fuels if you're going to solve climate change. But he took a politically expedient messaging framework—all of the above—to try to have his cake and eat it, too. The Republicans just happen to be more outspoken and kamikaze."
Democratic politicians who do nothing about climate change are more cynical than Republicans who refuse to admit there's a problem. The GOP is at least intellectually consistent on the issue, while many Democrats raise money off their vows to tackle climate change and the party's favorite cable TV network runs dozens of fossil fuel ads every day. What matters most, of course, is that the center-left party's elites still haven't done anything to avert disaster.
"Obviously the big oil companies are the major culprits, but they don't exist in a vacuum," said Kshama Sawant, the Indian-American economist and Socialist city council member from Seattle, Washington. "The Democratic Party plays a key role in sustaining and perpetuating that system because while they may be willing to publicly admit the science of climate change sooner than the right wing, they also understand that if you really want to find a solution to climate change, it does require you to take on the might of the biggest corporations."
Taking on big corporations, unfortunately, is not something Obama has a history of doing. On the contrary, whether it's the health care bill he fashioned in close cooperation with the pharmaceutical industry or his refusal to prosecute the employees of Wall Street banks, butting heads with business leaders just isn't his jam—even if the nation's plutocrats often end up whining anyway.
What Democrats should be doing—besides killing Keystone and finally rolling out the new EPA rules—is refusing to accept money from the fossil fuel industry. And the White House ought to be cracking down much more aggressively on domestic oil transportation, as well halting what is basically a fire sale on coal and natural gas reserves to the rest of the planet that undoes whatever gains the US might make in controlling its carbon output.
So while the Supreme Court reaffirming the federal government's regulatory power is encouraging, the buck still stops with the president and his party—and so far, at least, climate change just doesn't seem all that important to them.
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