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Climate Policy's Odd Man Out

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By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, January 22, 2007

Last week the administration embarrassed itself on climate change, and today will be excruciating. A confluence of forces -- the Democratic takeover of Congress, freak winter weather, Al Gore's documentary on global warming -- has conspired to create an exciting moment in the climate debate. But the Bush team seems determined to be a wallflower, and to step on its own toes as it watches.

The embarrassment began when James Connaughton, the head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, told me that he accepts the case for a cap-and-trade system, at least as a concept. After I quoted him last week, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, issued a denial: "Let me just walk you back from the carbon caps story," he said firmly. That sounded clear enough, but on Thursday the New York Times quoted Connaughton reiterating his openness to the cap-and-trade concept.

While the White House was sorting out its message, the rest of Washington was busy. Over at the Reagan building, a conference on carbon trading sold 600 tickets at $595 a pop and turned away 150 executives hungry to study the intricacies of permit allocation. Meanwhile, multiple climate bills were floating around Congress, and the House leadership promised to create a special climate committee to force legislation past the auto lobby.

All of which was a warm-up for today's excitement. This morning, on the eve of the president's State of the Union speech, an all-star team of chief executives is descending on Washington to make the case for a comprehensive climate approach built around a cap-and-trade system. The team includes four large power utilities as well as the chemical company DuPont; the aluminum giant Alcoa and the oil major BP. Naturally it features General Electric, the leading industrial cheerleader for climate regulation.

The CEOs' visit raises awkward questions for the Bush administration. Team Bush appears to believe that a cap-and-trade system would burden business, but business leaders are saying they want cap-and-trade enacted. When he spoke to me earlier this month, Connaughton argued that the spread of state requirements on renewable fuels made aggressive federal carbon regulation less urgent. Yet business leaders evidently prefer a federal solution to a complex patchwork of state initiatives.

But the biggest embarrassment in the CEOs' visit concerns the extraordinary timing. Ordinarily, lobbyists aiming to influence the president's agenda do not seek to upstage him the day before his State of the Union address. They lay down a marker in advance so the White House has time to feed their ideas into its speechwriting machinery.

So what happened on this occasion? The chief executives are in Washington today because they aren't even trying to influence the White House. As they planned their visit over the past weeks, they were barely in touch with the Bush team because they assumed Bush to be irrelevant. Just a few days ago, the planners of the visit realized that they were inadvertently trampling on the State of the Union. But by then it was too late. Would 10 chief executives rearrange their schedules to accommodate a lame-duck president? Forget it.

Eight months ago, when Gore's climate documentary was released, this state of affairs was inconceivable. Not only was Bush still a player, the case for climate change was widely doubted. Chortling climate-deniers, expecting an easy propaganda victory over the man whose energy-tax proposal they killed in 1993, greeted Gore's movie with glee. A group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute put out two TV commercials asserting that climate science is inconclusive. A House Republican hearing ridiculed a graph that features prominently in Gore's movie showing the world's temperature puttering along in a steady state before shooting upward like the handle of a hockey stick.

But this time around, Gore has proved a tougher adversary. His movie has grossed an astonishing $24 million, not counting foreign sales; the accompanying book has spent 29 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. His Republican opponents have lost control of Congress. And the Competitive Enterprise Institute has lost the patronage of Exxon Mobil, which decided to stop financing climate lies and start discussing carbon regulation.

All of which makes for a surreal situation. Al Gore, the man who lost the agonizing 2000 election, has emerged as a force in the debate of the moment. George Bush, his nemesis, is so completely marginal that business guys ignore him. Meanwhile, John McCain and Barack Obama, two leading presidential contenders, are co-sponsoring a cap-and-trade bill in the Senate. To anyone who watched climate politics these past few days, the post-Bush era seemed to be beginning.

smallaby@washpost.com


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