No More Mr. Nice Dem: Kerry and Boxer Bring Out the Big Sticks

I think many of us fighting against global warming had given up on the Senate passing any meaningful climate change legislation before the meeting at Copenhagen, given the reactions of many conservative Democrats to HR 2454.  Many people were unsure that we would even have 60 votes for cloture to break the inevitable Republican filibuster.  Also, all the Democrats’ energy (including, particularly Obama’s resources) seemed bound up in health care reform.

However, a couple of comments from environmentalist Senators last week indicate to me that this fight is not over, and that Obama might actually be willing to flex his political muscle on this issue.

The first Senator to throw down the gauntlet was Kerry, in Tuesday’s  Finance Committee hearing.  Blanche Lincoln had been attacking Waxman-Markey as “too costly”–though she seemed uncertain as to whether she was worried primarily about the costs to “the average family” in her state or the costs to Arkansas oil refineries.    (Interestingly, Lincoln echoed words I have heard from Senate Republicans of late:  that a cap on carbon emissions might be “opening a door for imported oil.”  I wonder if conservative Democrats are reaching across the aisle for their talking points?)

Kerry first refuted Lincoln’s position about cost by quoting McKinsey & Co’s study of the GHG abatement cost curve, which says that “upwards of 35-40 % of the reductions here paid for themselves [in] the first twenty years.”

But what really changed the climate of the discussion were Kerry’s parting words:

“Well I need to get down to the White House, but let me just say in departure that all these companies that are stating exaggerated opposition to [cap-and-trade] based on very unrealistic modeling need to stop and consider what their models are going to look like when this is regulated by the EPA without any allowances and without any auction, because then they’re in for a very different economic world…It’s gonna happen, if we don’t do something up here and I hope people hear that message loudly and clearly.”

Despite what I believe was a pointed reference to the White House–a reminder that climate change legislation advocates have a rather powerful friend in the President–Kerry’s comment could have been interpreted as merely an expression of random irritation on his part, rather than evidence of a new political stance by environmentalist senators.

But two days later, Barbara Boxer made a similar statement in the middle of an EPW hearing on climate change:

“When Senator Inhofe went through what happened when we changed the gavel here…he left out a couple of things I wanted to make sure we looked at.  One was the Supreme Court ruling that carbon is a pollutant covered by the Clean Air Act and the subsequent action by the EPA…that built on the work of the Bush Administration…which is to take the first steps toward an endangerment finding…So here we are in a circumstance where the Supreme Court ruled that carbon is in fact covered by the Clean Air Act,  the first steps to the endangerment finding have been made…and the other thing that happened that Senator Inhofe didn’t mention is we did change presidents…One way or another we’re going to have to lessen the carbon in the atmosphere; it’s either through the Clean Air Act or through some flexible legislation that we’re all looking at.   The House has passed a version of it which gives tremendous flexibility…My question is, one way or another we’re going to have to address carbon pollution:   Do you feel the flexibility we could put together in a well-crafted bill would make it better for our businesses and our consumers and create more jobs?”

Two powerful Democratic senators in two days raised the spectre of unalloyed government regulation of carbon dioxide emissions.  This is something I haven’t seen before, and I find it unlikely that Boxer or Kerry would make such a statement unless they knew that Obama was willing to follow through on it.  Perhaps the (in my view) excessive concessions made to industry in the Waxman/Markey bill were meant to be a carrot, not just in the sense of garnering votes for Waxman/Markey, but in contrast to the stick of having no cap-and-trade system at all, no role for industry except to submit to regulation.  If so, the Democrats are playing their hand on climate change better than I thought, and we may actually see some legislation of substance by December.

–Bronwyn

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