Blame the Political Institutions, Not Political Will for Climate Action Problems

European leaders are certainly right to be disturbed by the apparently poor legislative prospects for cap and trade in the United States. And of course nobody in the world wants to move forward without American leadership.

But to blame the problem on a lack of “political will” strikes me as quite misleading. The House of Representatives has, after all, passed a pretty ambitious climate change bill with the support of the President of the United States. The difference between the U.S. and Europe in this regard isn’t fundamentally that we lack the will, it’s that the same amount of will gets more done in Europe than it does in the United States where you nowadays need 60 votes in an unrepresentative and largely ineffectual but hyper-empowered upper house of the legislature in order to pass bills. Where will does come into play is that the leadership of the Democratic Party does seem extremely reluctant to use the tools at their disposal — reconciliation and the “nuclear option” — to lower some of these hurdles. But the fact remains that Barack Obama and co. face an objectively different challenge from their colleagues operating in parliamentary systems.

In Germany, even right-of-center parties acknowledge the reality of climate change. They worry that if they didn’t, they would lose elections. Which is exactly what happened to the right-of-center party in the US. But in Germany if you lose the election, then the governing coalition that beat you gets to enact its agenda. It doesn’t work like that in America.