Frontline: Climate of Doubt
October 24, 2012
Coral Davenport has been investigating what’s behind the change as the energy and environment correspondent for The National Journal. FRONTLINE spoke with her about the dramatic reversal she’s seen in Congress, and what political options are still on the table for those pushing for action on climate change.
In 2008, Obama campaigned pretty actively around the issue of climate change, proposing a cap-and-trade system that would put a ceiling on carbon dioxide emissions. What’s behind his quieter stance this election?
… In this campaign, the public perception has shifted so much. The Republican Party has shifted so far to the right that it has denied the science at all.
Another reason is the biggest issue in this campaign: the economy and jobs. Republicans have sold climate regulation as something that will hurt jobs, that it will probably increase the price of fossil fuels. So within the Obama campaign there’s a sense that [this is a losing battle].
[Obama] campaigned on this aggressive, detailed [cap-and-trade] plan, and they torpedoed it. It passed the House, just barely, and died in the Senate. And in the midterm elections, Republicans campaigned on cap-and-trade to the point where it became politically toxic. …
Part of Obama’s campaign promise was to pass cap-and-trade and use that money for the government to invest heavily in clean energy research; $150 billion was his campaign pledge.
What ended up happening was that in 2009, soon after Obama was elected, Congress passed the stimulus, with $50 billion … to invest in clean energy. The first big solar company to get funds was Solyndra, which later went bankrupt. And so this campaign promise of clean energy spending became politically toxic, it became something [used] to attack the idea of clean energy spending.
Democrats who had supported cap-and-trade retreated. It became fodder for campaign ads. It was portrayed as an energy tax that would hurt the economy. And then a lot of Democrats who supported cap-and-trade ending up losing their jobs [in the midterm elections].
So if cap-and-trade is no longer an option, what options does Obama have to address climate change if he’s re-elected?
He doesn’t have a lot of options. He cannot go back to cap-and-trade; that has no chance of passing.
One thing he could and probably will do is use the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to roll out new rules limiting coal-fired power plants that would require coal plants to rein in their pollution of C02 emissions.
It’s very unpopular. He’d probably not want to talk about this on the campaign trail because it could lead to the closure of coal plants in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania — all swing states. …
What are the chances Congress would take up the issue, and in what way?
Cap-and-trade is dead, but there is one policy that does have some bipartisan support. It’s kind of a long shot, but it’s a carbon tax. Economists say the most effective way to address the issue is to put a tax on greenhouse emissions. Republicans like the idea in exchange for an end to other taxes they don’t like.
In the next year, Congress is expected to take up a sweeping tax code reform to clean up the tax code and help the federal deficit. So a lot of old tax policies will be on the table.
So if they frame this as not an environmental issue, but as a good tax policy, as part of the mix, as good fiscal policy, that could be one opening in the next year or so that would be tremendous environmental policy that economists say would be the most effective.