Something New for Climate Doomsters to Fear: Political Backlash


Global warming used to be such fun for eco-activists and their political allies when it was a stick they could use to beat George W. Bush. For years, the Left milked global warming as a political-theater platform for partisan attack, direct-mail fundraising, and endless moral posturing. But now that they’re running the show in Washington, D.C., climate doomsters know they’ll be blamed if their policies de-stimulate our ailing economy. On two key battlefronts, these vociferous advocates of urgent action are now proceeding with caution.

Consider the climate-treaty negotiations. The global-warming crowd continually castigated Bush for opposing the Kyoto Protocol. Bush-bashing reached a fever pitch during the December 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia. The main bone of contention there was a European Union (EU) proposal to cut developed country emissions from 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) and 14 other Senators wrote to Bali delegates crowing about the committee’s approval of the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill and even “bigger [U.S. policy] changes on the horizon.” The letter was obviously designed to give political aid and comfort to the legions of delegates denouncing Bush for rejecting the EU proposal.

Where do things stand in the Obama era of “change?” Greenwire (March 4, 2009, subscription required) reports that President Obama’s lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern, “yesterday dismissed as ‘unnecessary and unfeasible’ a European proposal to have developed nations curb emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels in the next decade.” In an obvious reference to Kyoto, Stern explained: “I don’t want to bring home a dead-on-arrival agreement. We tried that. It didn’t do the world a lot of good.” Stern said that for America, the EU proposal is “a prescription not for progress but for stalemate,” noting that the EU target is more aggressive than the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill, which failed to pass in the Senate in June 2008.

So, are eco-pressure groups crying foul or even expressing regret that America still lags behind Europe in global-warming zealotry? No way. Greenwire summarizes their reactions:

Chris Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute think tank, praised Stern’s comments.

“It’s good that he was frank about some of the difficulties with the Europeans,” Flavin said. “It was a warning shot that they better get serious about recognizing that we and the Europeans are not going to get to the same numbers starting from a 1990 baseline.”

Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said Stern was simply “reflecting the political realities here in Washington.”

Overall, negotiators and analysts hailed the speech as an unmistakable signal from the Obama administration that the United States is serious about getting a global deal.

“There was an unequivocal statement that we are going to make reductions,” said World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash. “I just haven’t even heard a U.S. official be explicit and concrete and clear that way.”

Poland’s climate ambassador, Janusz Reiter, called Stern’s comments “exactly the mix of idealism and pragmatism that is the right formula for the process.”

Newfound caution is also discernible among activists who litigated and won Mass. v. EPA, and who sued EPA again last year to compel the agency to issue an endangerment finding — the prerequisite to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions from new motor vehicles under §202 of the Clean Air Act (CAA).

Back in September 2008, David Bookbinder, chief climate council for the Sierra Club, derided as “bugaboos,” a “red herring,” and a “pure scare tactic” (see segments 1:47:10-1:48:22 and 2:03:83-2:05:20 of the Webcast Archive of this hearing) industry and free-market group warnings (see here, here, and here) that regulating carbon dioxide (CO2)  under almost any CAA provision would expose tens of thousands of previously unregulated buildings and facilities to new controls, paperwork, and penalties under the Act’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) pre-construction permitting program.

Yet last month, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund declined to file a motion to “stay” former EPA administrator Johnson’s memorandum clarifying that CO2 is not currently subject to PSD regulation.

Why? According to Greenwire, “If the agency were to stay the memo immediately, Bookbinder said, it could trigger an obligation under the Clean Air Act for broad-ranging regulations targeting even very small sources of carbon emissions.” In Bookbinder’s words: “The Clean Air Act has language in there that is kind of all or nothing if CO2 gets regulated, and it could be unbelievably complicated and administratively nightmarish for both EPA and the states if they were to yank the Johnson memo and not have something in place that makes it clear that we’re going after only the very large sources.”

On Capitol Hill, the same political caution seems to be replacing political theater. In 2008, Rep. Ed Markey (D., Mass.), Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), and Sen. Boxer each demanded that EPA release the endangerment analysis and draft regulations that the agency had developed in response to Mass v. EPA. Bush officials put those documents under wraps once they understood how easily CAA regulation of CO2 could spiral out of the agency’s control. Like her Bush-administration predecessor, Obama EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has decided against releasing the documents, announcing that EPA in due course would publish a new endangerment analysis and solicit public comment. None of the usual suspects in Congress is complaining or threatening subpoenas.

What does it all mean? Unfortunately, these rhetorical and tactical adjustments do not mean the Obama administration won’t advocate cap-and-trade legislation, won’t agree to Kyoto II at the Copenhagen climate conference, or won’t regulate CO2 under the CAA.

However, their more cautious approach — which includes Obama’s proposal for a weaker emissions-reduction target (basically 1990 levels by 2020) than the U.S. Kyoto target (7 percent below 1990 levels during 2008-2012) — suggests that the global-warming crowd are worried as never before about the political backlash the economic fallout from their agenda could provoke. Our task is obvious: keep the spotlight on the threats their policies pose to our foundering economy.


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