The sad history of climate policy, according to David Brooks

October 19, 2012

Sorry, planet. You never should have let Al Gore make that documentary. (Joel Boh -- Reuters)

This is, according to David Brooks, the sad history of Washington's efforts to address climate change.

1) "The period around 2003 was the golden spring of green technology. John McCain and Joe Lieberman introduced a bipartisan bill to curb global warming."

2) "Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006. The global warming issue became associated with the highly partisan former vice president. Gore mobilized liberals, but, once he became the global warming spokesman, no Republican could stand shoulder to shoulder with him and survive." (Note: Some Republicans could, and did, stand with Gore.)

3) "Obama’s stimulus package set aside $90 billion for renewable energy loans and grants, but the number of actual jobs created has been small. Articles began to appear in the press of green technology grants that were costing $2 million per job created. The program began to look like a wasteful disappointment."

4) "The federal agencies invested in many winners, but they also invested in some spectacular losers, from Solyndra to the battery maker A123 Systems, which just filed for bankruptcy protection. Private investors can shake off bad investments. But when a political entity like the federal government makes a bad investment, the nasty publicity tarnishes the whole program."

5) "Fossil fuel technology has advanced more quickly than renewables technology. People used to worry that the world would soon run out of oil, but few worry about that now. Shale gas, meanwhile, has become the current hot, revolutionary fuel of the future."

6) "The shifting mood was certainly evident in the presidential debate this week. Global warming was off the radar. Meanwhile, President Obama and Mitt Romney competed to see who could most ardently support coal and new pipelines."

7) "This is not where we thought we’d be back in 2003. Global warming is still real. Green technology is still important. Personally, I’d support a carbon tax to give it a boost. But he who lives by the subsidy dies by the subsidy. Government planners should not be betting on what technologies will develop fastest. They should certainly not be betting on individual companies. This is a story of overreach, misjudgments and disappointment."

So, to summarize: Addressing climate change by pricing carbon -- an idea Brooks supported then and supports now -- was a bipartisan project in 2003. It became a partisan project because Al Gore thought it was important enough to make a documentary about. Republicans began opposing efforts to price carbon, in part because they hate Al Gore. That left funding renewables research as the only avenue for those worried about climate change. Funding renewables research means funding some projects that won't work out, and some that might make Al Gore rich. This led to bad publicity that tarnished the whole program. 

The passivity of Brooks's conclusion is astonishing. This isn't a story of overreach, misjudgements, and disappointment. It's a story of Republicans putting raw partisanship and a dislike for Al Gore in front of the planet's best interests. It's a story, though Brooks doesn't mention this, of conservatives building an alternative reality in which the science is unsettled, and no one really knows whether the planet is warming and, even if it is, whether humans have anything to do with it. It's a story of Democrats being forced into a second and third-best policies that Republicans then use to press their political advantage.

It's a story, to put it simply, of Democrats doing everything they can to address a problem Brooks says is real in the way Brooks says is best, and Republicans doing everything they can to stop them. And it's a story that ends with Democrats and Republicans receiving roughly equal blame from Brooks.

The existence of this op-ed is part of the story of why the Democrats failed. The story of what happened over the last 10 years is right there in Brooks's column. But he doesn't want to say who's right and who's wrong, which is the only tool pundits have to help those who are right and push those who are wrong. Instead, he wants to say everybody is wrong, and isn't it just a shame.

For a clearer take on this issue, read Eugene Robinson's column.

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