Photograph by Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

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Advocates of action on climate change couldn't find the votes they needed in the U.S. Senate for limiting fossil fuel emissions, like those from this West Virginia coal power plant.

Photograph by Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

How Prospects Cooled for U.S. Global Warming Bill

How Prospects Cooled for U.S. Global Warming Bill

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

For advocates of action on climate change, it seems like a long time since the hopeful first days of the Obama administration. Then, the political landscape appeared to have shifted into place to build a comprehensive program to limit U.S. fossil fuel emissions and pave the way to an international agreement.

(See National Geographic's interactive map of global warming impacts.)

But if the Senate takes up an energy measure at all before the August recess, it will steer well clear of any effort to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. With Republicans firmly against the market-based cap-and-trade system (effectively rebranding it an untenable “energy tax,”) and political will crumpled within the Democratic Party, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did not have enough votes to bring a comprehensive climate bill to the floor.

Some environmentalists are pursuing an uphill battle to include a boost for renewable energy in a narrow energy bill crafted mainly as a response to the Gulf oil spill, but time is running out on any action in this Congress to change the way America powers its transportation, homes and businesses. That means that the world’s largest historical emitter of carbon pollution (see “Global Footprints”) will arrive this December at international climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, without a plan for curbing them—just as it did a year earlier in Copenhagen. Before advocates find their new path forward, they are puzzling over how they reached this dead end.

“There were Democratic majorities in the Congress and a president who clearly understood the issue,” says Gillian Caldwell, head of the national climate change advocacy campaign, 1Sky. “We had a better shot than we've ever had. The environmental community was better-funded and more coordinated than we have ever been on this issue.”

Conflict Among Democrats

But having a numeric advantage in the Senate—even, for a time, the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster—was not enough for Democratic supporters of climate action if they couldn’t keep the party together. “Their problem is not Republicans; their problem is that about a third of their caucus is sitting on the fence of this one, not wanting to take a risky vote just to make a point," says Frank Maisano, spokesman for the law and lobbying firm firm Bracewell & Guiliani, which represents a number of coal-based electric utilities and industrial clients.

Democratic Senators from states that rely heavily on coal or oil, with cheap electricity prices and hurting economies—Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana, Kansas, and Louisiana, to name just a few—never were won over on the idea. “The bill died because Reid never made the political and economic case for it,” Maisano says. “They made a fundamental miscalculation: people just don't care that much about climate change when you compare it to things like jobs, health-care and the economy.”

And Republicans, who hope to wrest control of the Congress from the Democrats and with an eye to those elections this fall, have stayed on the attack—with the economic argument their chief weapon—even as the bill died. “The other side has been focused on two bad ideas,” declared Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Republican caucus. “One has been a national energy tax in the middle of a recession, and the second bad idea has been a so-called national renewable electricity standard, which basically boils down a requirement to build 50-story wind turbines to try to produce electricity in this large country.”

But climate legislation advocates were far from oblivious to the implications of the slumping economy. From the start, not one of the titles of the bills even included the words “climate change.” In the House, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, known as Waxman-Markey, included numerous compromises to win the votes of coal-state representatives. The House bill passed narrowly, 219-212, in June 2009.

When California Democrat Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, kicked off Senate hearings one year ago, she touted the “millions of clean energy jobs” the legislation would create. The first witness at those hearings, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, said President Obama urged the Senate “to demonstrate the same commitment we saw in the House, to building a clean-energy foundation for a strong American economy.”

Pushed Aside by Other Issues

But the delays in the Senate that would ultimately kill hope of a comprehensive climate bill were beginning to take hold. The day after Boxer’s hearing, Reid announced that he needed to push the schedule back a little. "There are a number of committees that need a little more time," Reid said. But the Defense Appropriations bill, the President’s new strategy in Afghanistan, and his appointment of General Stanley McChrystal to lead that strategy came along and superseded Reid’s new timetable. No one could be sure then, but a climate-focused bill had disappeared for the rest of this Congress. Last Christmas Eve, the Senate passed health care instead.

“Getting in the queue behind health care proved to be a much greater challenge than we initially realized,” says Tiernan Sittenfeld, legislative director at the the League of Conservation Voters. “No one knew just how long that was going to take and how much capital the White House would have to expend.”

A flurry of tri-partisan negotiation in the spring, led by Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman, and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, gave some hope that a deal could be cut. The Obama administration lent support to the compromises meant to win over Republicans and wavering Democrats with his announcements of a rejuvenated nuclear power program and expanded offshore oil and gas drilling as part of a “broader strategy” to move the economy from fossil fuels to clean energy. “The only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long run,” he said March 31. “To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.”

Gulf Explosion Changed Everything

But days before the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill was to be unveiled, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Graham, who had been excoriated by many in the GOP for his willingness to deal on climate, suddenly bolted from the effort, citing an unrelated dispute with Reid. But his departure saved the senators the discomfort of a podium appearance flanked by representatives of some of the fossil fuel supporters they had won over, including BP.

Compromise is in the nature of what the Senate does, but in the eyes of many climate advocates, the legislation was compromised. “We were relieved [that the bill died] because the climate debate had gone so far south,” says Greenpeace spokesman Kyle Ash. “All the new drafts of legislation in the Senate had been carjacked by industry. It was weak on the pollution reductions and more on the industry bailout.”

Although 1Sky’s Caldwell sees many reasons for the failure of climate legislation—lack of engagement by the White House, the power of Big Oil and coal industry money—she thinks another cause is paramount.

“I think we . . . saw the results of a chronic and historic underinvestment in grassroots mobilizing,” she says. “There was a relative under-investment in engaging, activating and mobilizing grassroots communities to support this effort.” The lawmakers heard plenty from the lobbyists, in other words, but not from the people.