Paging Hugh Bennett: The Dust Up Over Climate Legislation

In the convoluted world of US politics, a debate broke out last weekend over climate change and immigration, but not for the reasons you might think.  No, the debate wasn’t about how much internal migration might occur because of droughts, floods, and rising sea levels (imagine the Hurricane Katrina diaspora multiplied one hundred fold) or how many hundreds of millions of people around the world might attempt to cross borders in the coming decades as a result of the same climatic events. No, the debate arose when Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) threatened to pull his support of a Senate climate bill he and Senators Kerry (D-MA) and Lieberman (IND-CT) were about to announce because of Democrats’ plans to fast-track immigration reform.

“I want to bring to your attention what appears to be a decision by the Obama Administration and Senate Democratic leadership to move immigration instead of energy. Unless their plan substantially changes this weekend, I will be unable to move forward on energy independence legislation at this time. I will not allow our hard work to be rolled out in a manner that has no chance of success.”

He added, “Moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is nothing more than a cynical political ploy.

It’s not unusual for events to trigger seemingly unrelated outcomes or for politicians to use these as openings to advance an agenda, sometimes with great ingenuity.

In the midst of the Dust Bowl, Hugh Bennett—unsung American hero and founder of the Soil Conservation Service under President Roosevelt—let the dust do his talking for him. In the days before air-conditioning, drinking water was kept cool by placing them in front of open windows in staff offices and hearing rooms. Knowing that a dust storm was about to descend on Washington, D.C., Bennett stalled his testimony in Room 333 of the Senate Office Building before bored and blank stares until a dust storm enveloped the nation’s capital, darkening the skies and caking the Senators’ water glasses with dust. “This, gentlemen,” he told the committee, “is exactly what I am talking about.” They passed the Soil Conservation Act later that year.

Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth tried something similar when he held hearings on global warming in the summer of 1988—choosing the hottest day of the year and having the air-conditioning turned off—but with less success.

When it comes to matters of singular importance like, for instance, the need to take immediate and bold action to avert climate catastrophe, it’d be nice to think that political maneuvering would be viewed as taboo. And so I understand why some environmental groups, in the days since Graham’s announcement, have publicly expressed their anger and disappointment over the delay, decrying the state of politics in America.

But let’s be honest here. Political debates and maneuvering are just as prevalent in the blogs and boardrooms of environmental groups as they are in the halls of Congress, and for good reason. The stakes are high and getting higher with every new ton of CO2 released into the atmosphere and every day that the 2010 midterm elections near, which could shift the balance of power in Congress.

The debate among environmentalists is very similar to the one that raged among progressives over healthcare reform: Is it better to pass a flawed bill while the opportunity exists or hold out for the right bill and risk getting nothing passed?

The way I see it, the debate has two components: Merits and political feasibility. On the merit side, I have a hard time seeing how anyone seriously concerned about climate change would be an enthusiastic supporter of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill. From early reports (it hasn’t been released yet), the bill is rife with give-aways and loopholes, and undermines governments’ ability to advance the kind of massive scale and rapid de-carbonization of our energy portfolio that we need. Beyond the typical subsidies for “clean coal” (sic!) and nuclear, the most worrisome aspect of the bill is that it would block States from enforcing more aggressive climate policies and the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Most proponents of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill hold their noses and insist that, as President Obama is fond of saying, “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Their belief is that with the bi-partisan backing of three of the Senate’s most influential members, this bill has the best chance of actually getting passed. Perhaps that’s so. It’s certainly true that CLEAR Act proposed by Senators Cantwell (D-WA) and Collins (R-ME) doesn’t have nearly as much political horsepower behind it.

But, as the Graham-Reid brouhaha reminds us, political winds often shift in surprising ways. Dominating headlines these days are the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and revelations that Goldman Sachs used complex financial mechanisms to make billions betting against their own clients. With these as a backdrop, how will the American public feel about the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill reportedly subsidizing the oil industry to do more domestic and off-shore oil production? How will they feel about the bill’s plan to establish another complicated trading scheme (this time for carbon credits) that Wall Street can make billions from?

If you offered the American people a choice between getting a check in the mail from the likes of Exxon Mobil (which made over $45 billion in profit in 2008 and reportedly paid $0 to in federal taxes in 2009) or having Uncle Sam cut them a check to continue to pollute our skies and water, which do you think they’d choose?

So perhaps the kerfuffle over climate and immigration reform is the dust storm we’ve all been waiting for. Why not open the windows wide and see what CLEAR skies might bring?

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