The New Yorker Details Collapse of Climate Bill

As the World Burns” is the excellent title of an expansive New Yorker story that looks at, as the subhead puts it, “how the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change.”

It’s a play both on the soap opera title “As the World Turns,” getting at the soap-operatic level of horse trading and alliance making that went on during 2009 and this year to try to make the legislation happen, and on the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns.” (“As the World Burns” has also become something of a stock phrase, used by — among others — Rolling Stone as the title of a story back in January in the wake of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, artists Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan for a 2007 graphic novel and Mother Jones as the name of a 2005 special project on global warming.)

Ryan Lizza’s story is an extraordinarily detailed summary of what went on behind-the-scenes in trying to, as he puts it, “fundamentally change the American economy and slow the emission of gases that are causing the inexorable, and potentially catastrophic, warming of the planet.”

It’s in part a leadership story of how alliances are made in Washington. It’s in part a strategy story of how much compromise is involved in legislation that aimed to cover as many topics as this one did — cap-and-trade carbon emissions plans, loan guarantees and tax incentives for the nuclear industry, expanded off-shore oil drilling, government subsidies for natural gas, requirements that utilities figure out how to generate more electricity from clean sources. And it’s in part a management story of why alliances fall apart.

As Lizza lays it out, the life and death of the bill seemed to turn in one event in April, when a story appeared on with the headline “WH Opposes Higher Gas Taxes Floated by S.C. GOP Sen. Graham in Emerging Senate Energy Bill.”

It was at that moment that Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican who introduced the legislation with Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, felt betrayed.

Writes Lizza: “Graham was ‘screaming profanities,’ one of the K.G.L. [Kerry, Graham, Lieberman] staffers said. In addition to climate change, he was working with Democrats on immigration and on resolving the status of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He was one of only nine Republicans to vote for Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. Now Obama aides were accusing him of backing a gas tax, which wasn’t his idea and wasn’t even in the draft bill. Worst of all, the leakers went to Fox News, a move which they knew would cause Graham the most damage. He called one of his policy advisers that day and asked, ‘Did you see what they just did to me?’ The adviser said, ‘It made him question, ‘Do they really want to get this done or are they just posturing here?’”

Two things happened after that: The BP oil spill, which started with a drilling rig explosion on April 20, got worse. And Senator Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said he wanted to pass immigration reform before the climate-change bill.

“It was a cynical ploy,” writes Lizza. “Everyone in the Senate knew that there was no immigration bill. Reid was in a tough reëlection, and immigration activists, influential in his home state of Nevada, were pressuring him.”

Graham, too, “once again said that he felt betrayed. ‘This comes out of left field,’ he told reporters. ‘I’m working as earnestly as I can to craft climate and energy independence, clean air and jobs, and now we’re being told that we’re going to immigration. This destroys the ability to do something on energy and climate.’”

Graham left the negotiations, and Kerry and Lieberman were stuck “sponsoring a bill with a sweeping expansion of offshore drilling at a moment when the newspapers were filled with photographs of birds soaking in oil.”

In his final diagnosis of the plan's ultimate failure, Lizza cites three things. First, public interest: Americans, according to a January report by the Pew Research Center, were asked to rank 21 issues by importance, and climate change came in last. Second, the recession: it made change seem risky. And third, special interest politics. As Al Gore told Lizza last month, “The influence of special interests is now at an extremely unhealthy level.” Gore continued: “It’s virtually impossible for participants in the current political system to enact any significant change without first seeking and gaining permission from the largest commercial interests who are most affected by the proposed change.”

Spanning 11 pages, the 9,470 word narrative is the kind of peek behind the curtain that only the most tenacious of reporters (and publications willing to support them) can get at.

Although much of the New Yorker is behind a pay wall for subscribers, “As the World Burns” is (at least for now) available to all online.