The Real Politics of Climate Policy 2010

03/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

There is a great deal of confusion about the real meaning of the end of the Democrats' supermajority in the Senate and the impact it will have on the Obama Administration's agenda. With 41 senators, a Republican filibuster is once again possible in the Senate. It also means that the bargaining power of each individual Democrat has been reduced, since when one bolts from the party, it matters much less than it did before. The rules of the Senate and its longer, staggered terms are designed to put the brakes on the public's political "passions of the moment." These rules also make it easier to stop new policies than to start them. All of this serves to reinforce the moderate and centrist tendencies in American politics. If new climate and energy policies are to emerge from this Congress, the legislation that comes to the Senate floor must represent a consensus that can attract more than 60 senators.

There are several new factors in play that will help define the political center of climate policy. The first is that the EPA is in the process of issuing old-fashioned command and control regulations for global warming gases. The Supreme Court has already ruled that carbon dioxide can be regulated as an air pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and the only way to stop that regulation is for Congress to preempt the EPA by passing new climate legislation. Here, our system's conservative and centrist bias works in favor of effective climate policy. Even if a majority of Congress thinks that a traditional EPA-style regulation of CO2 is a bad idea, anyone trying to modify the Clean Air Act to stop the EPA's actions would need a filibuster-proof (60 votes) and veto-proof (two-thirds of both Houses) majority to prevail. And that's simply not going to happen. Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski's effort to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases will not succeed.

Another new factor is the recent Supreme Court decision that removes restraints on corporate and union campaign spending. It is difficult to know the real political impact of this decision, but even before the Court issued their decision, unions and corporations had no shortage of vehicles for directing their cash and translating their economic force into a political one. Furthermore, as President Obama taught us all during his presidential campaign, the Internet makes it inexpensive to solicit and collect massive amounts of small contributions - if people are motivated to give. Nevertheless, the impact of a flood of fossil fuel industry money into the political arena could make it impossible to pass new legislation, creating a policy gridlock that will imprison us in outmoded and outdated energy and climate policies.

A number of international factors will also influence our national climate and energy policy in the near future. The first is the omnipresent possibility that oil and natural gas prices will increase rapidly and unexpectedly. This will create yet another energy crisis and certainly get everyone thinking about renewable energy and energy efficiency again. There is also the possibility that China could be the first to develop and commercialize new renewable energy technologies. This fear is part of an increased concern in the United States about China's growing economic might. A third potential influence on U.S. climate policy is the growing number of nations that are moving to unilaterally reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. The old excuse that if we act unilaterally other nations will have an unfair economic advantage over us is fading fast.

While anything can happen in politics, and I would be the last person to try to predict the future in Congress, the current overall political dynamic favors some form of action on climate policy by our federal legislature. The strongest motivator is the EPA's ability to strictly regulate greenhouse gases under current law. Close behind is the economic need to modernize the nation's energy infrastructure and efficiency and the Democrats' need to inspire their base to come to the polls this November. 69% of first time voters in 2008 voted for President Obama. If they are disenchanted and stay home or do not vote Democratic, the party could conceivably lose the House of Representatives.

The public wants to see a new energy and climate policy. There are a lot of ways to measure public opinion on this issue, but the overall support for climate policy is impossible to miss. A December poll commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and conducted by the Benson Strategy Group found that 82% of voters (and 80% of Independents) support increased government investment in clean energy sources. Two out of every three voters support limits on carbon pollution, including 67% of Independents.

It is true that most Republicans (54%) do not believe that global warming is real. In contrast, 91% of Democrats believe that the Earth is getting warmer, as do 64% of Independents and 67% of the total electorate. And the NWF poll results are generally confirmed by other polls. A Fox poll in December found that 63% of the American population believes that global warming exists. An ABC-Washington Post poll in November 2009 found that 72% of Americans believe that global warming is underway, a decline of about 10% since 2008. Despite the slippage in public understanding of the issue, support for new policy remains strong. Even in the face of a relentless media onslaught focusing on the decrease in numbers, support for climate policy remains intact on a national scale.

When public opinion is considered alongside all of the other factors pushing climate policy, it's hard to believe that no new energy and climate law will be enacted in 2010. Unfortunately, however, we are talking about the United States Congress here, and anything (or nothing) is possible.