Even in hyper-partisan modern Washington one would have thought that, in the end, the Senate would have more plain sense than to turn its back on comprehensive energy and climate legislation this year. But that's exactly what it did last week.
In a breath-taking act of historic and inter-generational irresponsibility, forty-one Senators or more walked away from a win-win solution for our environment, our economy, and our national security.
What do those who would trade away more jobs and global competitiveness, a cleaner environment, protecting our national security, and a better future for our children know that our National Academy of Sciences doesn't? Just last week the National Academy issued, "Near-Term Emissions Choices Could Lock In Climate Changes For Centuries to Millennia," a report whose title speaks for itself.
Similar messages have come as well from the national academies of dozens of other nations, major federal agencies including Defense, State, Commerce, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, plus virtually every major scientific society.
The take-home point from all of them: we're fast running out of time. The action most urgently recommended: Limit carbon emissions.
But 41-plus Senators and their industry backers, most all from vested interests, couldn't muster the will.
And what do these people know that three separate bipartisan groups of our most esteemed retired members of the national security establishment don't? These statesmen and women have been touring the country for well over a year now to deliver the message that climate change -- and our continuing dependence on foreign energy sources -- constitute severe national security threats. These threats drain our budgets, destabilize fragile countries that we then must help, and keep too many of our brave kids in harm's way for too long.
The economic imperative is equally urgent. What do these opponents know that the crown jewels of American business don't? From General Electric to Microsoft, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Symantec, National Grid, Alcoa, eBay, Dow Chemical, Best Buy, Gap Inc., Timberland, Starbuck's, Johnson & Johnson, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers -- these businesses and many thousands more have been vocally calling for strong legislation that -- crucially -- puts a price on carbon pollution and gives them the certainty they need for long-term investing.
Since we unquestionably must respond to this crisis by building a global clean energy economy, the question is whether America and American workers will lead it or buy our solutions from countries that do - countries that are taking strong action now and leaving us behind in the globally-competitive clean energy race.
The bill Majority Leader Harry Reid outlined Thursday - the one that can get the number of naysayers below 41 - is far from getting us there.
Leaving pollution accounting out of the Senate bill is a major blunder. Only by leveling the playing field - by eliminating the unfair price advantage fossil fuels receive because their carbon pollution is emitted for free - can we unleash America's entrepreneurial energies at enough scale and speed to effectively meet the challenges we face.
The companies listed above aren't alone. Major institutional investors I work with in the $10 trillion Investor Network on Climate Risk warn that weak clean energy and climate policies here have driven capital - meaning jobs - to markets outside the United States, or left that money idling. One estimate places our clean energy global investment gap at $1.8 trillion - private-sector dollars now sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the certainty of strong national policy.
Idle capital: Just what we need in the worst economic downturn in seven decades - with millions of Americans stressed to the breaking point by long-term unemployment.
And what about the interests who hold our country, and Senators who should know better, hostage? A little history is in order. Lobbies like these have opposed vital change -- especially pollution-related legislation - for decades, always claiming that such action would cost huge sums and devastate the economy.
And they've always been dead wrong. Removing lead from gasoline, controlling chemicals destroying the ozone layer, cutting acid rain pollution, The Clean Air Act of 1970, catalytic converters in cars, California's fuel efficiency standards - in each and every case higher standards pushed through by government actually stimulated economic growth, spurred innovation and put cost worries to rest. That's because businesses that weren't mired in short-term thinking seized the initiative, protected our citizens, created new jobs, and moved our country forward.
Nor can our traditional energy industries truthfully complain that strong action would write their own obituary - perhaps the most pernicious distortion of this whole debate.
Here are the facts: the strong climate bill that already passed the House dictates that coal and oil will be central players in our energy picture for many years to come. What's more, the House bill quite rightly creates - as did early versions of a Senate bill - a long glide path for these higher-emitting industries to adjust to what must occur, including billions for research into making fossil fuels cleaner, help for workers and consumers, and much more.
But it wasn't enough for the Senators and industries that opposed action.
Somehow, the blinders managed to drop from the eyes of a few Senators from states where the vested interests are strongest. One was politically invulnerable, and the other is retiring.
Truly remarkable words came last fall from 92-year-old Robert Byrd, who passed away last month and was Coal Country's most-revered Senator - an icon in a state whose very identity is deeply enmeshed with coal mining.
For half a century Byrd tirelessly championed West Virginia's miners and the jobs coal represents in his state's fragile economy. Yet last December he penned to his constituents a letter that fully embraces the challenge before us - a challenge that goes beyond coal to be sure but which he addressed through that lens.
In the letter, entitled "Coal Must Embrace the Future", Byrd said: "To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand ... The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. In fact, the future of American industrial power and our economic ability to compete globally depends on our ability to advance energy technology." (Emphasis mine)
It was abundantly clear - no less to Coal Country's most revered Senator -- that change is both upon us and imperative.
And just last week Politico reported that another coal-state giant, North Dakota's retiring Byron Dorgan, "called the heads of several coal trade groups into his office to ... tell them that in the long run the only policy that may save coal is the price on carbon they're now fighting.
"For some of the coal groups, the message came as a shock," Politico reported. "One person in the room called the meeting with Dorgan a 'come to Jesus' moment between the industry and its advocate."
Funny how political invulnerability or an absence of the need to be re-elected clears the mind.
This year is a moment for leadership, courage, wisdom and intellectual flexibility on our increasingly unavoidable energy and climate crisis. It can be yet.
But narrow interests have won for now. America's workers, businesses and economic recovery hopes have suffered a stunning defeat. And the first-ever truly planetary crisis waits still for the indispensable country to wake up.
The march of climate change, meanwhile, bends not a whit to the pace of political negotiation.
One last thought: China Daily newspaper reported last Thursday - the very day the Senate bill died - that the People's Republic is set to include a carbon trading program in its 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), as a means of achieving its 2020 carbon intensity goal.
What do our 41-plus Senators know that they, also - along with the Senate's majority, the House, our scientists, businesspeople and national security leaders - don't know?
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