Obama Is Slow on Global Warming Legislation

Author Eric Pooley looks at the stalled progress of climate change legislation.

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In 2007, support for climate action was at a high point: Ninety percent of Democrats and 60 percent of Republicans wanted something done. But as Eric Pooley, a former editor at Time and Fortune, documents in his new book, The Climate War, Congress has struggled to act. Through meticulous, behind-the-scenes reporting, Pooley tracks the lobbying, strategizing, and messaging that has shaped the debate over the past three years. There has been progress. Last summer, the House passed the Waxman-Markey bill, which would cap greenhouse gases. But the Senate stalled, and the administration has been far less aggressive in pursuing a bill than many hoped. U.S. News recently spoke with Pooley about his findings. Excerpts:

The slow pace of action on a climate bill has been a disappointment to many of Obama's supporters.

When I started this book in 2007, in the heart of the second term of the Bush administration, there was a huge faction of environmentalists saying, let's not even try to pass a bill now, let's wait until we have a Democrat in the White House who's going to vote for a climate bill. So it was a little bit of a surprise to find out in 2009, that a major front of the climate war was unfolding inside the West Wing, that there were people who didn't want the president to take this on in a hugely public way.

What has the White House been doing?

The only time they really went all out was after Waxman and Pelosi forced their hand by taking the Waxman-Markey bill to the floor. Then they really did an incredible whip operation and passed the thing. As soon as it passed, they stopped and lost all momentum, because Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod just thought it was too hard. And that became a Catch-22: The votes aren't there so we're not going to try, and if they don't try, the votes won't be there. So I think we missed some opportunity there.

Was this partly a problem of advocates not selling the bill to the American people?

I think we make a mistake when we sort of point to the environmentalists and say, "Well, you guys haven't got this done yet, there must be something wrong with your message." I don't think there's some silver bullet message that can come out of the green groups and suddenly transform public attitudes. I think the problem is as much the messengers who weren't speaking as the message of those who were.

The messenger being the White House?

The president is the only person with a megaphone loud enough and the communication skills impressive enough to make the case in a sustained way, and he chooses not to do it. For 18 months, the climate community had dreamed of the day when Obama would give a clean-energy address from the Oval Office, and when it finally came, forced by the oil spill, you would have needed a decoder ring to figure out what he was talking about. He mentioned the word climate once. That was a bitter disappointment.

What would Obama have to do to rally support at this point?

It's not just, you give one speech. He really would have to build public understanding over time, just as Bush helped to raze public understanding over time by belittling the validity of climate science over eight years. Had Obama started right away and spent 18 months on it, I think we would be in a different place now.

How was Obama's performance at the Copenhagen climate summit last December?

He did the best he could. But that doesn't change the fact that he made the bed he was in by not driving a bill when he had a chance. At the beginning of the administration, [former Vice President Al] Gore sent Obama a confidential memo claiming it was imperative for the U.S. to pass a climate bill, or else Copenhagen would be consigned to failure. When I was in Copenhagen and everything was crashing and burning, one of the White House people said to me, "Well, it's not like we didn't know; Gore warned us."

You devote a lot of space in the book to the influence corporate and environmental groups have on the legislative process.

People have no idea how this stuff gets done. They don't understand the power and influence of the corporate world. It's not all pernicious—you can't craft a complete remaking of our energy infrastructure and leave industry out. That doesn't mean every compromise made was totally squeaky clean.