Obama's Climate Fight

For three years, Eric Pooley followed environmental activists, energy CEOs, and politicians around the world, from Bali to Washington, D.C. His new book, The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, details how they politicked, and occasionally cooperated, on climate-change policy. His work lends perspective to a struggle that's very much ongoing. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, environmentally minded Americans are eager to see whether President Barack Obama will throw his weight behind aggressive action. So far, it hasn't happened. TAP spoke with Pooley about the past and the future of the climate battle.

What does the process of policy-making on climate change look like up close?

I expected that there would be a lot of battles in the climate war, but I didn't expect to find one in the Obama administration, and I did. The conflict was between the green cabinet, people like Steven Chu, Carol Browner, and Lisa Jackson who wanted to push aggressively for climate action, and the political people like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod who didn't think the votes were there in the Senate and thought it was a losing proposition for the president. They carried the day for 18 months. They pushed only when their hand was forced by Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi, who took the climate bill to the House floor. At that point the White House did engage and help get it passed.

But they chose not to try to take it to the Senate. They decided, and I think always planned, to do health care instead. So presidential leadership has been lacking. The question is, will that change now? There's a sign that it could; since the oil spill, Obama's been talking about it. On Friday, Rahm Emanuel himself said that they would be open to a compromise that would see a cap only on the utilities sector.

You've written about the Obama administration's "Trojan Horse" strategy: trying to sell climate-change legislation by talking about energy independence and green-job creation while keeping actual concerns about the earth's climate tucked out of sight. That strategy doesn't seem to have changed much following the Deepwater Horizon spill.

My own view is that it's not sufficient. The climate science is important, too. I understand those who say it's too "gloomy and doomy," but I'm a believer in treating the American people like grown-ups and telling them what's really happening -- in a sustained way. It's not something you can do in three days.

How could Obama sell climate change more effectively?

When the National Academy of Sciences released a major report emphasizing that climate change is real and coming fast, Obama could have said, "Abraham Lincoln was a pretty busy guy in 1863, but he found the time to found the National Academy of Sciences. We should listen carefully to what they have to say about climate change." That was just one opportunity -- there were a lot of opportunities just like that that he didn't choose to take advantage of. So I think the idea is that had he exploited all of those messaging opportunities over time, we might have seen a gradual shift in opinion. [But] he was relatively stealthy about it and did most of his talking [at] low-profile events and didn't choose to take advantage of those major opportunities. We don't know exactly what would have become of it, had he done that.

As senators write bill after bill to address climate change, none of which seem able to garner enough votes to pass, what are U.S. manufacturers and energy companies thinking?

I think a lot of them would like to know what the rules of the road are. There are billions of dollars of investments sitting on the sidelines, and it's not easy to be somebody responsible for deploying those billions of dollars, to make the right judgments if you don't know what the rules are. Certainly the energy CEOs, Jeff Immelt of [General Electric], the heads of Dow and DuPont -- they've all been very clear that they would like to settle this, and the uncertainty is really what kills them. If you tell them, "No, we're not going to do it," they can deal with that; if you tell them, "Yes, we're going to do it," they can deal with that, but maybe it is really tough.

What would the passage of a "utilities only" cap-and-trade bill mean for the climate movement?

It would be a huge victory, given how hard the politics of this are, given the fires we've come through on this issue over the last 12 months. The utility sector is the major emitter in the country. It's the sector that has experience with cap-and-trade from sulfur dioxide. It's the sector that came to the table first. That's really the story in my book: how the utility sector came forward. I think that if we could get that done, it would be an enormous victory. Almost everyone would feel that we had made a major step -- obviously it's just a beginning, but we need to get started.

As they cut compromises to craft a climate bill that can pass, what pitfalls should legislators be watching out for?

You can't give away too much. You can't let [utility companies] off the hook, for example, for [Environmental Protection Agency] regulations on conventional pollutants in exchange for coming under the cap. You can't give them a get-out-of-jail-free card for mercury and other pollutants because they're coming under a carbon cap. But if you can get them under the cap with sound policies, and then you can prove that it works, and then extend it to manufacturing and petroleum over time -- that's not a bad outcome.