"A Conversation with Eric Pooley about The Climate War"
Eric Pooley has written a spell-binding political thriller about who killed the climate bill and how they did it. It’s called THE CLIMATE WAR. Journalist Francesca Rheannon interviewed him for the radio show, Writers Voice. Pooley largely blames the fossil fuel lobby and its PR men for the failure to get a climate bill through the Congress. But in this excerpt from the full interview, he also points the finger at the White House.
Eric Pooley: When I started this book, I thought I was going to be writing a story with a happy ending. It would be the story of how we finally took the first step. But a funny thing happened on the way to the presidential signing ceremony: we didn’t take that first step. We managed to pass a bill in the House of Representatives and then the Senate and the President decided that they weren’t willing to fight it. They didn’t want to go to the mat for this bill in 2009 or 2010. And the Senate pulled the plug on the latest attempt to get something done. The President did not make so much as a peep about it. And they’re also claiming that they’re going to be doing it someday, but they keep kicking the can down the road, and at this point it’s a very old can, very battered from many kicks and a very long road and we’re not making a lot of progress.
Francesca Rheannon: Why does the fossil fuel lobby have so much greater power than all the other US businesses that stand to gain from it or stand to lose from catastrophic climate change?
EP: That’s a great question and the happy thing that’s happened in the last couple of years is there’ve been a lot very big profitable, powerful companies that have stepped forward and said, we have to do this: it’s time we put a cap on carbon and it’s time to accelerate the transition to clean energy and I’m talking to companies like General Electric, Dupont, Alcoa, and that has broken the de facto veto that big business has held over climate legislation for a decade.
However, it wasn’t enough to get the job done. The fossil fuel companies are intensely powerful and the manufacturers are very powerful and the US Chamber of Commerce and all of the companies represented there are powerful and they are still blocking the way forward.
Let’s break it down. Inside the electric utility industry, which is the sharp tip of the spear here — because that’s probably where we’ll begin the regulatory push — there are companies who have already de-carbonized. They are already getting a lot of their power from hydro, from nuclear, and beginning to get a lot more of it from solar and wind. They are saying, “Yes, let’s cap carbon, let’s accelerate.” Then there are utilities that are getting their energy still from coal and natural gas and they’re saying, “No, let’s not do this”.
It’s the coal-based utilities that have been dragging their heels and preventing change in tandem with the oil companies and the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, two big powerful industry lobbies that have been opposed to doing this. They have a lot of money to spend; they have a lot of clout on Capitol Hill. And there are about a dozen senators either from states that get a lot of their electricity from coal or states that produce coal, who have been blocking the way forward. The politics inside the Senate as you know, you need 60 votes to do anything so even if we have a slight majority, 50 or 52 people, in the Senate that are willing to vote for this, that’s not enough. We need to get to 60 to get it done. And so far we have not been able to do that.
Now why haven’t we been able to? I believe the most important reason is that the President of the United States has not gotten in there and fought for a bill. Obama has done a lot on climate, especially in the Department of Energy. It’s spent billions of dollars to accelerate electric vehicle production, battery factories in the US. There are seven new electric vehicle battery factories up and running or under construction in the state of Michigan alone. So that’s one of the things Obama has done. He’s also put through new fuel efficiency standards, and reduced emissions from car tail pipes. And he’s moved the EPA towards stationary regulation of factories and power plants that’s supposed to kick in next year — although that’s going to be another big battle.
So don’t get me wrong. The President has done a lot. He’s done more than any president in history. Where he has fallen down, has been on the single most important thing: putting a price on carbon through a cap. And there he has talked a good game but the truth is, he has not stepped up. He has not put his considerable power behind this specific piece of legislation.
He has not led on three levels: the level of a sustained deep communication to the American people explaining why we need to do this; why we need to transition to clean energy and how we’re going to get it done; why a carbon cap is so important — he hasn’t really made that case — he’s made it intermittently, usually on a Tuesday afternoon in a visit to a solar factory that doesn’t get a lot of attention. When he did his Oval Office speech to the nation after the BP oil spill, he missed an enormous opportunity to tell people what we need to do and why. So that was a bitter disappointment to the heroic people who have been campaigning for climate legislation at the federal level.
So, communication is one place where Obama has not stepped up. Another is policy, getting deeply engaged with the Senate on a particular piece of policy. The third is good old-fashioned politicking and bending some arms to try to get those votes. You know, when we passed the bill in the House a year ago, Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman brought the bill to the House floor without having the votes in place and they forced the President’s hand. And for a week or ten days, Obama whipped that vote. He really worked hard and they won.
Now the President and his political advisors have been saying, “Well, we don’t have the votes in the Senate, so we’re not going to take it to the floor.” Well, we didn’t have them in the House, either and we got there because we went for it. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you say you don’t have the votes, you’re not going to have the votes.
And look, I know the Senate is harder than the House. It’s very difficult to get there. It’s not something you can do in a week or even a month. It takes sustained effort from the President and so far he’s not been willing to do it.
FR: Why didn’t Obama do this?
EP: Well, Obama gets the climate threat and he wants to do it. He thinks that the time is wrong politically and I don’t have to tell anybody what a tough time it’s been for the American economy and how many folks are out of work and how hard it is to talk about anything that would impose further short term costs on the American people. These costs, let’s be clear, are very low and for the vast majority of people they would be hard to even notice.
According to the EPA and the Congressional Budget Office and all of the best academic studies, we’re talking about maybe $70 to $140 dollars a year in additional costs to a middle income household by 2030. Now that’s not a lot of money. What’s more, the low-income people would be completely shielded from these costs because there are really smart people creating mechanisms to make sure that there’s a cushion for any low income American. In fact, they would come out ahead from these bills because they’d be given rebates that would make sure that they don’t incur any additional cost. So these are scare tactics.
But they are scare tactics that the Administration apparently thinks are so effective that they’re not willing to take them on. And it’s a shame, because we know that the high growth path into the future, the long term upside is so great from getting on this clean energy trail that we really have no reason not to do it.
We’re already losing and may even already have lost the clean energy race to China. There is more investment, private investment going into clean energy in China than going into the US and Europe combined. And China is spending nine billion dollars a month on clean energy technology and it plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.
If we want to keep up with the Chinese, we need a market. We need a price on carbon. The President gets this. His economic advisors have talked about a scissors approach to economic recovery. A scissors has two blades. The first blade was the stimulus package. And there was about sixty or seventy billion dollars that went into clean energy in the stimulus package. The second blade of the scissors would be the cap and that would bring a lot of private investment off the sidelines. But we haven’t done the cap yet, so our scissors is missing a blade.
Hear the full interview 40-minute interview on Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon, a nationally syndicated weekly radio show and podcast. Pooley talks about The Big Lie of the climate change denialists, makes the case for cap and trade, and says why the effort to get a climate law needs both political insiders like EDF and NRDC and outsiders like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to succeed.