Barack Obama says he wants climate change legislation. But can he get it?

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Sept. 22 2009 6:30 PM

Green Gas

Obama says he wants a climate change bill. But can he get it?

President Obama. Click image to expand.
President Obama

Bill Clinton's presidency has served as a roadmap for Barack Obama's—a roadmap, that is, of what not to do. Don't try to pass health care reform without congressional input. Don't tackle controversial social issues early in your presidency. Don't alienate the military. Now there's another lesson: Don't promise the world you're going to fight climate change when you can't.

In his speech to the United Nations Tuesday, Obama rattled off the administration's energy accomplishments, from tightening fuel emissions standards to tracking greenhouse gas pollution. He praised the House of Representatives for passing climate change legislation last June. But he was careful not to promise a finished bill. That's because, thanks to the long slog of health care reform and the galaxy of political interests that must be appeased, a Senate bill by the end of the year—let alone by the time of the global environmental summit in Copenhagen in early December—is looking unlikely.

In 1997, President Clinton was in a similar situation. Under the Kyoto Protocol, by 2012 the United States would have had to lower its emissions level to 7 percent below 1990 levels. Clinton signed the treaty in November 1998 along with 183 other countries. But he never submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification. "We didn't have the votes," he explained recently.

Clinton's signature was supposed to be a symbol of U.S. commitment. Instead, says climate expert Nigel Purvis of the Brookings Institution, "[i]t was a symbol of inaction. Our standing in the world was significantly damaged."

There are two ways Obama could avoid the same fate at Copenhagen. He could try to force Congress to pass climate legislation before Dec. 7 and then show up to the conference—or send an envoy—with actual leverage. Or he could avoid making promises he can't keep.

In his speech Tuesday, Obama did the latter while trying hard to sound like he was doing the former. "The journey is long," he said. "The journey is hard. And we don't have much time left to make it." But he stopped short of telling Congress to get it done. "One committee has already acted on this bill in the Senate, and I look forward to engaging with others as we move forward," he said.

Moving forward is not what's happening. Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which plays a major role in the Senate negotiations, first promised a draft by early August, then by Sept. 9, then by the end of September. Harry Reid's office then said the majority leader "fully expects the Senate to have ample time to consider this comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation before the end of the year." But Reid recently let slip that "[w]e still have next year to complete things if we have to."

What's the holdup? Two things: moderate Democrats and health care. Democratic senators from energy-producing states—Mary Landrieu from oil-happy Louisiana, Sherrod Brown from corn-fed Ohio, Evan Bayh from coal-friendly Indiana—have voiced concerns about the effects on their states' respective industries. (Not without reason: The Congressional Budget Office says the bill "would cause permanent shifts in production and employment away from industries that produce carbon-based energy and energy-intensive goods and services.") Democratic leaders have been willing to make concessions. The House bill included provisions for carbon sequestration, credits to farmers who plant trees, and extra pollution permits for coal utilities. The Senate bill will likely do even more to appease moderate Dems and perhaps even a Republican or two.

Health care, however, has been the real time suck. You'd think a legislative body could handle two tasks at once. But many of the senators tackling health care reform would also have key roles in cap and trade. The finance committee, for example, needs to sign off on both, since both affect the federal budget. That panel has not distinguished itself with its speediness on health care. A climate change bill could take just as long.

The world, meanwhile, is waiting. "Is the U.S. Senate really expecting all the other countries to make a serious effort on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference in the absence of a clear commitment from the United States?" said the European Union's U.S. ambassador Sunday.

As recently as a week ago, environmental activists were still optimistic that legislation could pass by December. Now, some aren't so sure. "I think the chances are very low during this calendar year," says Robert Repetto, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. "It's going to set the Copenhagen negotiations back enormously because nobody else is going to bite the bullet until they know what the U.S. is going to do."

Todd Stern, Obama's special envoy for climate change (who also served as Clinton's climate adviser), told reporters Tuesday that the administration wants to see "maximum possible progress" in Congress. "In the event that there's not domestic legislation done by the time of Copenhagen, we will negotiate with that in mind," he said.

But there may be an alternative, say activists. A nuclear option, so to speak: The Environmental Protection Agency could simply mandate cap and trade. Researchers at NYU Law School concluded in April that the executive branch could impose the policy under the Clean Air Act, which gives the EPA broad discretion to regulate air quality. The head of the Sierra Club reiterated the idea earlier this month as a possible end-run around Congress. That way, the United States could go into Copenhagen with actual clout while saving the legislative process for later. Sure, it would be tough politically. But otherwise, says Repetto, "Copenhagen is going to be a severe disappointment."

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