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Empty Hands on the Climate, and What Obama Needs to Do

Why has so little been accomplished? Because coal, shale, oil, big manufacturers, and utilities -- the big old polluters (BOPs) -- have beaten back anything better.

On Friday, Denmark's climate and energy minister, Connie Hedegaard, who will be chairing U.N.-sponsored climate talks in December in Copenhagen, said President Obama needs to do more on climate. "It is hard to imagine that he will be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10 and then come empty-handed to Copenhagen a week later," she said.


But there's no way between now and then Obama can get a strong climate bill through Congress.

Over the next months, the White House needs to focus on health care if it's to have any hope of coming up with anything more than Big Pharma and the private insurance companies want.

This is the cost of trying to do so much so quickly. Initiatives revert to powerful industry lobbyists because there's no time to organize countervailing power. When he's trying to do everything at once, the President can't mobilize public opinion behind any one thing. Progressive voices (which have difficulty being heard even under the best of circumstances) drown each other out because they're hollering over one another.

Climate change legislation is moving forward -- but big polluters have shaped much of it. As I noted recently, the Waxman-Markey climate bill, passed by the House last June, gives away 85 percent of pollution permits to the nation's biggest polluters, and the "cap" it proposes on overall carbon emissions would cut greenhouse gas emissions only by an estimated 2 to 4 percent by 2020 compared to the UN reference year of 1990. The Kerry-Boxer bill has a stronger cap on emissions but it's still far short of what's necessary -- and it leaves out the hardest part, which is the actual cap-and-trade mechanism.

Why has so little been accomplished? Because coal, shale, oil, big manufacturers, and utilities -- the big old polluters (BOPs) -- have beaten back anything better.

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The only real countervailing powers on climate change are industries that stand to gain from stronger legislation -- mostly nuclear and ethanol, along with a smattering of companies that have invested in wind, biomass, and solar. But they're no match for the BOPs. Nor do their bottom lines necessarily match what's good for the world.

Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward on its own efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, and the White House is quietly using the threat of the EPA doing more as a prod to get the BOPs on board with legislation that the White House says will be easier on them than what the EPA comes up with. But that's no real threat. The BOPs know they can keep the EPA tied up in litigation for years.

So here's my suggestion. The White House should tell Congress it's raising the bar on climate change but is simultaneously putting the current legislation on hold -- until it can focus the public's attention on it. That is, until after a worthy piece of healthcare legislation is on the President's desk.

Robert Reich

Arriving in Copenhagen strongly committed to fight for a large reduction in greenhouse gases, even if that means empty hands at the time, is better than arriving there with a weak and ineffective law.

by Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission