Contesting climate

Review of

The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth

New York: Hyperion, 2010, 481 pp.

According to its dust jacket, The Climate War is “an epic tale of an American civil war.” Eric Pooley is said to “do for global warming what Bob Woodward did for presidents.” Although such claims are overstated, the book offers a thoroughly researched and engaging account of a major political conflict: the struggle in Congress to limit carbon dioxide emissions. Pooley takes his readers into the conversations, negotiations, and public relations campaigns conducted by both environmentalists and industrialists, along with their respective allies on Capitol Hill and in the media. In so doing, he illuminates the workings of government and the fraught relations among members of Congress, advocacy groups, and constituents. The author has done his homework, and it shows.

If Pooley’s account of climate negotiations does not match Woodward’s thrilling dissection of Watergate, the failings lie more in the story than in the reporting. Drama is limited by the fizzling of the so-called war. Battles were waged, coalitions fractured and reformed, and tactics and strategy were reformulated as conditions changed, but in the end, the struggle ended quietly and with little notice. The last major attempt to rein in carbon emissions, the Waxman-Markey Bill (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009), squeaked by the House and never came to a vote in the Senate. On February 26, 2010, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) declared cap-and-trade policy—the heart of the bill—dead. During the past year, global warming has receded from the national political debate, pushed aside by economic worries and marginalized by the resurgence of a Republican Party that is increasingly dominated by global warming deniers.

But if the effort to cap carbon emissions in Congress died in early 2010, the demise is not necessarily permanent. The next Congress may shun the issue, but ongoing climatic deterioration may eventually force another political realignment. If unemployment declines, the global scene stabilizes, and extreme weather events galvanize public attention, global warming could quickly return to the agenda.

The Climate War in this sense recounts merely the first phase of a protracted struggle. It is still important to recognize that this phase was lost, and lost decisively. As Pooley shows, meaningful cap-and-trade legislation had a real chance of clearing Congress during the second term of George W. Bush, and would probably have been enacted into law in 2009 if President Obama had made the issue a priority. As recently as 2007, influential Republican politicians, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich, supported cap-and-trade legislation. According to Pooley, 60% of Republicans favored immediate climate action in that year. But the opportunity was lost, because of the machinations of the opposition, legislative miscues by the reformers, and arrogance on the part of some environmentalists.

Meaningful climate legislation, Pooley implicitly contends, requires a broad coalition of support. Environmentalists alone do not command the requisite constituency; a significant segment of the energy industry must be brought on board as well. As deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Pooley takes what might be termed a radically centrist position. On the one hand, he is passionately concerned with safeguarding the planet and its atmosphere. On the other hand, he is a hard-headed political realist who not merely embraces compromise but contends that the power industry must remain profitable in order to generate the revenues needed to underwrite the expensive transition to a post-carbon energy system.

Such a position is not exactly in the middle of the current U.S. political spectrum. A large segment of the electorate regards the idea of human-induced climate change as a subversive plot to destroy the country and impoverish its population. But among what might be called the rationalist community, composed of the majority of Americans who accept scientific findings even when they challenge articles of faith or threaten established comforts, such a pro-environment, pro-business stance is thoroughly centrist, and is potentially capable of rallying the broad support that will be required for far-reaching climate legislation.

Heroes and villains

Such legislation came close to passing, Pooley contends, precisely through the creation of such a moderate coalition. The key organization pushing the alliance was the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), led by Fred Krupp. The organization had long championed market-based solutions to environmental problems, successfully advocating a cap-and-trade approach to acid rain in the 1980s. Initially, the notion of a market in pollution permits was anathema to most environmental advocates, who viewed it as legitimating destructive behavior and hobbling governmental enforcement. As a result, EDF was widely regarded in the broader eco-community as a barely respectable organization inclined to fraternize with the enemy. The success of the acid rain legislation, however, gradually convinced others of the wisdom of EDF’s environmental economics approach, although the more strident green organizations remained wary of both EDF and its market-oriented policies.

Whereas Krupp is the author’s main environmentalist hero, his principal protagonist on the industry side is James Rogers, the chief executive officer of Duke Energy. Pooley consistently lauds Rogers for not just recognizing human-induced climate change, but for embracing the need to first cap and then reduce carbon emissions. Under his leadership, Duke Energy has been at the forefront of cleaner energy technologies. Such actions have come at a price. Rogers and his company have been reviled by environmentalists as major polluters that continued to build coal-burning power plants and castigated by other energy firms for their readiness to work with EDF and compromise with the “enviros” (as Pooley styles them). Just as EDF has been snubbed in the green community for sleeping with the enemy, Duke Power has been vilified in the energy sector.

A dramatic story needs villains as well as heroes, and bad characters are abundant in The Climate War. The main scoundrels are the global warming denialists seeking to derail any efforts to staunch carbon emissions, but relatively little of the book details their actions. The author focuses as much attention on the left-wing members of Congress who obstructed legislation by refusing to compromise. During the waning days of the Bush administration, many on the left preferred to let the issue die, anticipating the election of more responsive colleagues. Others saw climate legislation as an opportunity to win other battles. Sen. Barbara Boxer’s ideal version of the climate bill, for example, would have generated $6.7 trillion for the government by selling permits to emit; such funds would then have been distributed to a variety of favored causes, not all of them climate-and energy-related. As Duke Energy’s Rogers quipped, “This is just a money grab. Only the mafia could create an organization that would skim money off the top the way this regulation would.”

Under the new Obama administration, self-styled congressional progressives again pushed for a bill that would have imposed ruinous costs on the energy industry. In particular, they wanted all carbon emission permits to be sold, a procedure that would have generated massive revenues for the government but which would have forced electrical companies to vastly increase their rates—and generate public furor. President Obama initially concurred; his first budget called for all permits to be auctioned, a procedure that would have raised $650 billion between 2012 and 2019. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate Majority Leader, figured he could use this money to help pay for health care reform. As the Waxman-Markey Bill worked its way through Congress, compromises were made, allowing it to squeak though the House. The Obama administration, however, offered little support, in part because White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was convinced that the climate issue was “a drag on Obama’s popularity and political power.” Meanwhile, the Senate passed a resolution proclaiming that any climate bill would have to achieve its results without raising gasoline or energy prices, virtually ruling out meaningful action. Throughout the negotiations, Obama retained a hands-off approach. Pooley implies that he bears some of the responsibility for the loss of this opportunity to confront global warming.

Although The Climate War focuses on a few main protagonists, its total cast of characters is long indeed. Keeping the various actors straight is a bit of a struggle, a task not helped by the author’s penchant for introducing people through personal descriptions. Pooley’s characterizations are also colored by his political take on the individual under scrutiny. Those with whom he disagrees tend to be cast in an unfavorable light.

To his credit, Pooley usually focuses on the ideas and tactics of his opponents, rather than on their personalities or appearances. Yet on this score as well, his assessments can be harsh, dismissing important actors with sharp quips. Such treatment is meted out to enemies on both the left and the right. Curiously, the eco-radicals whose direct-action antics are periodically recounted are spared from such flip appraisals. Presumably the business-friendly eco-centrist Pooley would find much to object to here, but when it comes to activists engaged in civil disobedience, the tone moderates to one of guarded respect, leavened with a hint of detached amusement.

Not quite fair

The deniers of global warming are granted no such respect. Myron Ebell, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s director of global warming policy, comes in for particular scorn as the “superstar of the Denialsphere” and “chief mouthpiece of the movement.” According to Pooley, Ebell has been the principal strategist of a highly successful but deeply disingenuous campaign of misinformation.

Unfortunately, Pooley tends to slot all opponents of strict climate legislation within the same category as Ebell, a strategy that compromises his own centrist mode of analysis. The prime case here is Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish statistician who styles himself a “skeptical environmentalist” and who advises everyone worried about climate change to simply “cool it.” As Pooley acknowledges, Lomborg does not deny global warming and is certainly not opposed to scientific inquiry or reasoned debate. Yet Poole dispenses with Lomborg in a couple of disparaging paragraphs, mocking him as the “darling of the deny-and-delay crowd,” a “glib and mediagenic” pseudo-environmentalist serving as an “agent behind enemy lines.”

Lomborg deserves more respect—and more considered criticism. Perhaps more than any other person, it is Lomborg whose intellectual efforts have sidetracked the effort to control global warming. Climate change is real, he argues, but there is little that we can do about it without undermining the economy, the growth of which is necessary both to mitigate the effects of warming and to eventually devise benign forms of energy generation. Lomborg’s prescriptions may make a certain amount of sense, but only if the lower-range forecasts of temperature increase turn out to be accurate. If the higher-range climate change scenarios come to pass, following the Lomborgian path of R&D without carbon limitations could prove disastrous. He is asking us, in other words, to take a huge gamble on the future of the planet, one that few if any genuine environmentalists are willing to countenance.

Left unsaid by Pooley is the manner in which the unwritten rules of environmentalist discourse play into the hands of Lomborg and other eco-skeptics. In order to galvanize an unresponsive public, the usual approach is to employ scare tactics, trumpet worst-case scenarios, and avoid acknowledging any possible benefits of a warming world. Such a strategy of condescension is highly vulnerable to the critical analysis that Lomborg so abundantly supplies. Intensifying heat waves may kill thousands, but diminishing cold snaps could easily save many more. Overall, the costs of a glacier-free planet would clearly outweigh the potential advantages, but that does not mean all of the accounting is strictly negative.

Most environmental writers do not want to acknowledge such complexities, both because global warming benefits seem trivial compared to the detriments, and because they are unwilling to concede any terrain to the enemy. Even instances of intellectual malfeasance, such as those revealed in the so-called Climategate scandal of 2009, in which intemperate email messages from climate scientists were stolen and released to the public, are usually dismissed by environmental writers as insignificant. Yet Climategate was disastrous to the effort to address global warming, as it seemingly confirmed the allegations of groundless scaremongering leveled by anti-environmentalists. Many fence-sitters opted against climate legislation, undermining the near-term possibility of reform. Pooley firmly grasps this dynamic, arguing that “the real lesson of Climategate was that climate scientists needed to behave with absolute transparency…” and that “anything short of complete disclosure fueled the skeptics and fed public suspicion…” The scientific method, I would add, demands as much.

Despite my misgivings about the author’s tone and characterizations, The Climate War is an important and engaging book on a vitally significant topic. Eric Pooley’s analysis of the politics of global warming is insightful, and his political prescriptions are wise. If we are to address this most pressing issue, he shows how it can be done; indeed, how it must be done.

Cite this Article

Lewis, Martin W. “Contesting climate.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 2 (Winter 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Winter 2011