The Great Climate Sell-Out

The unseasonably warm fall weather here in the Upper Midwest is spectacularly beautiful. Sunny and clear, it's in the 60s and 70s, with humidity so low you can see the tiniest details of the shoreline across the lake near my house.

Sitting around this past weekend, enjoying the steady shower of golden leaves in the afternoon sunlight, I struck up a conversation with the mother of my three-year-old daughter's best friend.

And that's where the whole pleasant afternoon idyll ended. You see, the friend's mom is a climate scientist, and not the least charmed by our warm, golden autumn weather.

The lake near our house, for example, used to freeze solid for four months on average, she told me. Now, the average time is two months.

Insects in the Northwest are devastating forest land because, with the warmer weather, they now have two breeding cycles instead of one--and double the time to devour trees.

As I slapped at a hungry, mid-October mosquito, I felt my heart sink.

Global warming was on everyone's mind this summer, especially in Washington, DC, where the sweltering heat--even by DC standards--made it hard to forget that our climate is growing warmer at an uncomfortably rapid pace.

But in Washington and around the nation, the issue has receded a bit. The Gulf oil spill has abated, and oil-soaked birds are no longer in the news. The weather is cooler. And, most of all, the Democrats in Washington have abandoned their efforts to pass climate change legislation.

The whole ugly story of the sausage-making process that went bad in the creation of comprehensive climate change legislation is in this week's New Yorker in a really compelling piece by Washington Correspondent Ryan Lizza.

Lizza quotes an environmental activist describing President Obama as the "James Buchanan of climate change."

Given a historic opportunity to do something about the biggest threat to the health and safety of the entire world, Obama and the Democrats ultimately decided to do nothing. Before they dropped their efforts at passing a climate change bill, though, they went through a process that is truly remarkable for its cravenness in attempting to give away the store to the very polluters the legislation was supposed to regulate.

As they worked on the bill, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham held a series of meetings with lobbyists from the big oil companies, the nuclear industry, truckers, and, of course, the Chamber of Commerce (which ThinkProgress last week revealed is soliciting contributions from foreign corporations for the explicit purpose of influencing the outcome of this year's midterm elections) in order to offer them special favors and protection from over-regulation.

This effort ultimately failed not because the offers weren't sweet enough; jaded Senate staffers were aghast, according to Lizza, at the degree to which their legislators were willing to give away the store.

No, the effort failed in part because Obama started giving away massive gifts to industry before the Senators had a chance to extract promises of support for the bill. As Lizza puts it, "Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach."

Obama issued new nuclear loan guarantees, and delayed implementation of carbon caps, without coordinating with the Senators who wanted to dangle these favors in exchange for industry lobbyists' backing of their climate change bill. The biggest giveaway was the President's massive, and spectacularly ill-timed, announcement that he would open up the entire Eastern Seaboard to new offshore drilling, saying, "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills." That was just a couple of weeks before the greatest oil spill in history.

Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham were hoping to offer more offshore drilling through a plan negotiated with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, in exchange for a promise from the American Petroleum Institute not to run ads attacking their bill or lobby against it.

That's all done now. Graham got so much heat for being the loan Republican in the group--thanks, in large part, to fumbling by the Obama White House--that he withdrew altogether.

The President never threw his weight behind the bill, and never seriously sought another Republican backer.

Climate change, one White House official told Lizza, is Obama's "stepchild," not a true priority like the stimulus bill or health care reform--as evidenced by the fact that Carol Browner has just three aids working directly for her. "Hey, change the entire economy, and here are three staffers to do it!" Lizza quotes a former Lieberman adviser saying bitterly. "It's a bit of a joke."

What is no joke is the urgency of the issue for every living creature on Earth.

Of all the twists and turns that Lizza documents in the dysfunctional legislative process that failed to produce a bill combating climate change, the thing that most stands out to me is how the only real pressure brought to bear on legislators came from business lobbyists who could care less about the environment--they just want a pass to keep polluting. Only one citizens' group seemed to have the clout to scare legislators in the story, and that was the Tea Party activists who branded Graham as gay and a sell-out and ultimately scared him away from the bill.

So on the one side there were the Democrats--Kerry and Obama--giving industry everything it wanted, and on the other side were the Republicans, also demanding favors for industry, but scared of looking even slightly concerned about the future of the planet.

If we are going to save ourselves, we are going to have to overcome that enormous democracy gap.

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