Why the Oil Spill Didn't Change the Climate Game: Author Says Blame Obama

The Senate climate/energy bill expected to emerge this week is likely to lack a cap on greenhouse gases. Even a much-discussed, watered-down version to impose restrictions on the power sector alone will probably not fly. Today The Washington Post explored how the ongoing BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, arguably the biggest environmental disaster in history, has failed to provide any substantial political advantage to enviros.

I asked Eric Pooley, author of the acclaimed book The Climate War, why he thought that was the case. From his e-mailed response:

The disaster was powerful enough to get Obama talking about climate‑and‑energy legislation again, but apparently not powerful enough for him to lead the charge for a specific climate‑and‑energy bill. With the midterm elections just months away, he appears to be settling for lip service. I'd love to be wrong about this, by the way. We'll know in a week or two.

(We participated in a spirited discussion about his book and climate politics yesterday.) His full answer after the break.

Pooley continues:

I agree with Penn State historian Adam Rome, who told the Post that it's too early to tell what the full impact of the BP disaster will be. Unfortunately, there's no time to wait. The Senate will be moving its energy bill in the next three weeks, and it may be years before we get another bite at this apple. If the accounts filtering out from behind closed doors are true, the bill will not include a cap on carbon, even for the electric power sector, meaning that the oil spill wasn't a strong enough short‑term catalyst to change the basic calculus that has paralyzed Washington.

In the eyes of a few crucial swing‑state senators, the short term economic costs of climate action (as exaggerated by opponents) continue to outweigh the long term economic and environmental benefits of getting started now. The Democrats haven't come up with an effective response to the "national energy tax" attack, which may be why President Obama left the cap out of his Oval Office address. …Without powerful, sustained presidential engagement—public persuasion, policy‑making, and politicking—this simply isn't going to happen. And the idea that the Senate can pass an energy‑only bill now and then add a carbon cap in a lame‑duck conference with the Waxman‑Markey bill seems far‑fetched, another kick of a very old can down a very long road.