Roadmap for Comprehensive Energy-Climate Legislation

February 2010

By Eileen Claussen and Manik Roy

This article originally appeared in Politico.


“And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.” – President Obama, State of the Union speech, January 27, 2010

Weeks of speculation about the President’s commitment to an energy-climate bill ended with the above words.

Next up: weeks of speculation about whether this was a wise decision.

Not acting now may appeal to some, but several problems grow only more expensive, complicated, and politically challenging if we delay until, say, 2012:

  • Power companies and businesses need to know the regulatory rules of the road before unleashing millions of investment dollars.  The current uncertainty inhibits investment today, as well the jobs that would go with the investment.  In particular, it inhibits investment in critical clean energy technologies such as carbon capture and storage and nuclear power.
  • China is investing heavily in clean energy, taking the lead in the booming global market for these technologies.  American ingenuity is second to none, but every year the United States delays in putting a price on carbon pollution we fall further behind in this race, and lose future jobs.
  • The United States continues to depend on oil from countries that do not have our best interests at heart.  Until we reward low-emitting transportation fuels and methods, this dependency is expected to grow. 
  • Countries whose support we need to achieve our international objectives – including fighting terrorism and ensuring economic growth – are dismayed that the United States has sat out the climate issue for so many years.  In Copenhagen, thankfully, we showed leadership, and, in turn, other nations made clear their intent to contribute to global efforts.  If we do not now take steps to reduce our pollution, other countries may be more reluctant to ally with us on our other objectives.
  • The states, courts and regulatory agencies are beginning to address climate change, filling the vacuum left by Congressional inaction.  What is needed, however, is the comprehensive policy that only Congress can produce.
  • Recently businesses, labor unions, national security organizations, and faith-based groups came together to call for sensible energy-climate legislation because they understand that a reasonable policy this year can grow the economy, create jobs, promote security, and protect our earth for future generations.
  • And, oh yes, climate change itself:  Despite the campaign to convince the public otherwise, climate change is real, is happening now, is largely caused by human action, and presents our children and grandchildren grave risks and huge economic costs if we do not start reducing our pollution now.

For these reasons, among others, the President has recommitted himself to an energy-climate bill.  We offer three modest suggestions for increasing the chance of success:

First, the President needs to continue explaining to the American public why enactment of an energy-climate bill is essential for meeting our economic, security, and environmental objectives. 

Second, the Administration needs to thoroughly engage in the negotiations over the bill, so that, as one key moderate has put it, moderates don't have to negotiate four times (first with the Chairman, then the Majority Leader, then the House, then the Administration).  

Third, and most important: The President needs to provide full partnership to Republicans willing to engage in good faith.  This isn’t post-Massachusetts hysteria talking – there never was a partisan option for passing this bill through the Senate. 

Fortunately, the Senate has a history of real Republican leadership on environmental issues in general and climate in particular, leadership we see re-emerging in the respective efforts of Sen. Graham and Sen. Collins.  At the very least, we need the support of the handful of other Republican Senators who have supported reducing carbon pollution in previous years, but better still would be an energy-climate bill so balanced that it works for most of both party caucuses. 

The President’s support for nuclear power and oil and gas production starts to strike that balance, but he may also have to be open to a range of proposals for reducing carbon pollution.  The basic test should be whether the policy would reduce carbon pollution by making it increasingly costly, thereby rewarding businesses that invent and deploy clean energy technologies.

All of which brings us back to the first question:  Was it wise for the President to stake himself to an issue whose only chance for success lies in bipartisan leadership?

With the right next steps, we think it could prove the right decision.

Eileen Claussen is President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Manik Roy is the Pew Center’s Vice President for Federal Government Outreach.