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The Policy Buffet (Part 5): How the Oil Spill Killed the Climate Bill — and Why the Economy Didn’t Help, Either

The climate bill has come and gone. Just two months ago, it seemed as though the bill stood a fighting chance, given the buffet of options available to policymakers. Then we watched as partisanship, infighting and smear campaigns handicapped any chance of the Senate addressing climate change in 2010.

However, modern politics alone cannot be blamed for the demise of the climate bill. While bloggers and pundits have done a thorough job pointing fingers, most have overlooked the one thing that may have ultimately buried the bill: the oil spill.

After the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico for months without stop. It soon surpassed the 1989 Exxon-Valdez disaster as the largest oil spill in American history and shortly thereafter was deemed our nation’s biggest environmental catastrophe. The spill prompted calls for offshore drilling reforms that would prevent future devastation to economies and ecosystems.

It quickly became an impetus for bipartisan cooperation on an issue where bipartisanship was previously absent. Democrats and Republicans agreed that those responsible had to be held accountable and that investigations had to be conducted. There was consensus on Capitol Hill that a historically under-regulated industry needed to be reformed.

Democrats jumped at the chance to use the oil spill to promote clean energy legislation. Led by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn), who had spent nearly a year constructing an energy-and-climate bill, Democrats claimed that the time was right to advance clean energy and cap carbon. Their message was simple: America is addicted to oil and, now that its shortcomings are abundantly clear, it is time enact legislation that would create incentives for clean, renewable energy. The case that fossil fuels are dirty and dangerous was easy enough to make, as Americans were exposed to images of oil-soaked birds, dead fish and tarnished coastlines on a daily basis.

Republican policymakers saw the campaign as premature and dangerous, claiming that there was no logical connection between the spill and capping emissions. They depicted Democrats as opportunists, exploiting the Gulf’s misfortunes by pushing carbon caps amidst the spill. They contemptuously quoted White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s 2008 statement: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

The Republican caucus in the Senate refused to vote on carbon caps without sufficient time to debate and negotiate. They amplified their anti-climate rhetoric, branding the Democrats’ plan as an economy-killing “cap-and-tax” scheme. Ironically, cap-and-trade was a business-friendly Republican invention that successfully curbed sulfur and nitrogen dioxide emissions to combat acid rain in the early 1990s (and was later introduced by the United States at the negotiating table in Kyoto).

Democrats responded to attacks from the GOP by painting Republicans as industry-backed obstructionists who support Big Oil. They attacked Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex), for instance, who apologized to BP after the White House forced it to create a $20 billion Gulf restoration fund.

As the fight dragged on, Democrats watered down their original bill, tailoring it to only curb emissions from utilities in the hope that a narrower bill might attract moderate Republicans. But the effort failed to attract bipartisan support and soon after, the entire effort collapsed.

It makes one wonder: if the spill had never happened, would we have a climate bill today?

At The New Republic, Bradford Plumer explores “climate counterfactuals” like this one. Asking questions like What if McCain had won the election? or What if Obama had made climate a bigger priority?, he concludes, “Peering back over the past two years, there were a few pivot points where things might have turned out very differently.”

Though Plumer did not include the oil spill in his list of what-ifs, it is worth imagining a climate debate free from the oil spill narrative. To start, one can envision slightly less politicization. Democrats’ messaging might have focused on addressing climate change and expanding renewables, rather than drawing a disjointed parallel between oil in the Gulf and the need for carbon caps. And with less ammunition to attack their opponents, Republicans might have been more willing to cooperate.

Or perhaps pro-climate moderates might have worked from the outset on a utility-only bill, coupled with renewable energy and efficiency standards, in a show of bipartisanship. A cap on power plant emissions could have become a genuine contender rather than a last-ditch effort by desperate climate advocates.

Still, there is reason to believe that a climate bill might not have survived even if the spill had never happened.

Current economic conditions cannot be ignored. As pollsters know, when the economy takes a downturn, people lose interest in environmental concerns – climate change among them. In a working paper titled Environmental Concern and the Business Cycle: The Chilling Effect of Recession, Yale economists explain that “an increase in a state’s unemployment rate is associated with a decrease in the probability that residents think global warming is happening and reduced support for the U.S. to target policies intended to mitigate global warming.” Meg Whitman, California’s climate advocate-turned-skeptic Republican candidate for governor, capitalized on this sentiment last fall when she stated that her state’s pioneering climate law “may have been well-intentioned, but it is wrong for these challenging times.”

Human psychology allows us to cope with multiple stressors, like a down economy and a warming climate, by limiting us to a “finite pool of worry”. People may care deeply about climate change – but when jobs are at risk or families cannot pay their mortgages, the person on the street will tend to put the long-term effects of carbon emissions on the backburner.

The past several months have taught us that while underlying political tensions certainly contributed to the death of the climate bill, external factors can be equally – if not more – culpable. The fragile economy indeed may have preempted a legislative response to climate change in the near future. And the oil spill further obscured the climate debate in ways that could not have been anticipated or, for that matter, fully appreciated as oil gushed into the Gulf.

In the coming months and years, the public must continue to hold elected officials responsible for safeguarding our economy and our environment at the same time. The fact that separate policy issues collide is no reason to prioritize one over the other, particularly when innovative and comprehensive policy responses can fix both.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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