March 22, 2007
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
If the script were written in Hollywood, Al Gore’s bravura performance and triumphant return to Washington would be followed, in quick order, by:
Polluter lobbyists’ dropping efforts to block new global warming pollution limits,
Congress’ coming to its senses and racing to pass effective new greenhouse gas controls and
President Bush’s admitting the error of his ways and agreeing to sign a meaningful global warming bill.
(Alternate, Frank Capra-esque ending, perhaps titled "Mr. Gore Really Returns to Washington"—Gore would be elected president, and would sign the global warming law himself.)
Unfortunately, there are some other would-be script writers in the nation’s capital—and they are not going to win an Academy Award.
Beneath the surface of the polar bear pageantry, polluter lobbyists are busy throwing up obstructions at every turn, dispensing both propaganda and big checks. And President Bush has been as stubborn in opposition to global warming limits as he has on his Iraq policy and his defense of his political hatchet men.
Let’s look at the good news first. Thanks in part to the former vice president’s proselytizing, there is perceptible momentum for action. Just this week, Representative Henry Waxman, D-Calif., introduced visionary legislation that would call for an 80 percent reduction in U.S. global warming emissions by mid-century. Waxman initially enlisted an impressive 127 cosponsors (though only two of them Republicans) for his Safe Climate Act.
But to turn this vision into law, Waxman needs to secure quite a few more “yes” votes, and the polluters are working overtime to make sure they slow down the process.
Take the coal-mining lobby, for instance: The day before Gore’s appearance before Congress, it scheduled a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Congressman Rick Boucher, D-Va., who happens to chair the House subcommittee in charge of global warming legislation.
Boucher is also a favorite of the nation’s biggest coal-burning power company, Ohio-based American Electric Power (its political action committee gave Boucher $10,000 in the last congressional cycle), which, coincidentally, testified to Boucher this week that it would oppose any legislation which doesn’t require action by China and India.
In a similar hearing last week before Boucher and auto industry champion John Dingell, D-Mich., major auto makers made it clear they would strenuously oppose any efforts to require big improvements in fuel economy. (The car companies are simultaneously suing in Vermont to overturn state standards—modeled on those adopted by California—that would set vehicle global warming standards.)
The car companies tried to throw the blame for global warming partly onto the oil companies. Not surprisingly, the oil companies are trying to blame someone else. This little Alphonse-and-Gaston routine recalls the old line by former Senator Russell Long: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”
The political complexities have prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lower near-term expectations for comprehensive action on global warming in the House. A similar scene is playing out in the Senate, where Senator Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., acknowledged to Roll Call this week that she has not yet been able to secure enough votes to report a strong global warming bill out of her Environment and Public Works Committee.
It’s unfair to blame Boxer. One problem there is that committee Republicans are—so far—a stone wall of opposition or silence. Even Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a committee moderate who previously co-sponsored progressive legislation, has gone south. Last week he issued a startling press release praising the Bush administration’s environmental record.
Surely, it’s mere coincidence that administration ally American Electric Power gave moderate Lamar’s re-election campaign $1,000 last month. (For the record, Max Baucus, D-Mont., a likely swing vote on the Boxer panel, got an equal amount last month from AEP. So did Dingell. Boucher raked in another $2,500.)
Meanwhile, true to form, the White House continues to undermine attempts at international cooperation on global warming. Last weekend, the U.S. stood alone in blocking a consensus among industrialized and other nations for an international carbon-trading market.
Perhaps more amazingly, the Bush administration has quietly stopped collecting comprehensive information on electric power plant operations—information that could prove critical in designing an effective global warming strategy.
So before we respond appropriately to Al Gore’s warnings, it may take another election to throw the proverbial bums out. But the list of bums is growing.