'As the World Burns': The Politics Of Climate Change In Wednesday's State of the Union address, President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to fighting climate change. But journalist Jeff Goodell says that with the oil and coal lobbies working against him, it may not be so easy.
NPR logo

'As the World Burns': The Politics Of Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123063248/123064543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'As the World Burns': The Politics Of Climate Change

'As the World Burns': The Politics Of Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123063248/123064543" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Health insurance is one example of a bill that's now stalled in Congress. The climate change bill is another, and my guest, journalist Jeff Goodell, says similar tactics have been used to block both pieces of legislation.

He has an article in the January 21st edition of Rolling Stone about how big oil and big coal mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign to block progress on global warming legislation. A bill that includes cap and trade has been passed in the House, but legislation has been stalled in the Senate.

Cap and trade is a system designed to limit the amount of greenhouse gases released in the air. Companies are issued permits for the amount of carbon they're allowed to release. If they exceed that limit, to compensate, they must buy a permit from a company or companies that are under their carbon emissions limit or invest in an offset, a project that curbs emissions.

Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham have been working on a bill for several months that may or may not include cap and trade, though some experts are already writing the obituary for that part of the deal.

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke briefly about the importance of comprehensive climate and energy legislation.

My guest Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He's the author of the book "Big Coal" and has a forthcoming book called "How to Cool the Planet."

GROSS: Jeff Goodell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So what does the bill that the House passed look like? Give us a real, like, layperson's explanation of it.

Mr. JEFF GOODELL (Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone; Author, "Big Coal," "How to Cool the Planet"): Well, it's a the first thing it does, the most important thing it does, is it sets up the architecture for what's called a cap and trade system.

A cap and trade system is what worked for the acid rain program, that it reduced traditional smog pollutant and dealt with the problem of acid rain. It allows polluters to figure out their own way to cut emissions rather than mandating a particular kind of technology to reduce emissions like a scrubber on a power plant or something like that, or rather than forcing them to give up coal or anything like that. It says to the companies, look, this is your target. We're going to reduce emissions in the case of the House bill by 17 percent by 2020, and it's up to you to figure out how to do it.

And you can do it by buying credits from other companies, you can do it by shutting down coal plants, you can do it by efficiency measures, whatever you want to do. It's a great free market kind of tool because it allows great flexibility to these companies.

One of the great ironies, of course, is that the Republicans and some of the Democrats - not just to the Republicans - but the industry who are trying to fight this played up the idea that this was a cap and tax they called it, that this was a kind of draconian government intervention - when in fact it was the embodiment of free market kind of idealism and using markets to solve the problem, which conservatives and industries should love, but in fact they didn't, and they did their best to torpedo it.

GROSS: So there's permits that are given out by the government with a limited amount of greenhouse gases that can be released. So you can buy permits or sell permits, and theoretically, that limits to a predefined amount the amount of carbon gases that are going to released into the environment.

Mr.�GOODELL: Right, and the beauty of a cap and trade system, as opposed to, say, a carbon tax, which some people have advocated, is a cap says: Here is what we're going to emit. We're going to emit X number of tons as a nation, and you as a company have this much that you can emit. And so we know how much is essentially being emitted.

And then as politics and as science demands, we can raise or lower, probably lower, those caps over time and begin to move away from fossil fuels and begin to what it does is it puts a price on carbon dioxide emissions so that it levels the playing field with cleaner sources of energy.

So if, right now, solar power is more expensive, obviously, that power from a coal-fired power plant, but if you factor in the cost of the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning coal, it levels out the playing field, somewhat, and allows greater expansion of renewable energy sources.

GROSS: Now, you write that last year, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had soared by more than five-fold since 2003. The number rose 2,810. Only 138 of those lobbyists were pushing for alternative energy. What are some of the arguments that you think were made to congressman and senators against the climate change legislation?

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, I think the key argument was obviously jobs. Especially in coal country, there was, you know, a lot of talk about if you put this kind of cap on CO2 emissions it's going to cost jobs, and you don't want to lose jobs in your district.

There is the, from the electric power companies, there's always the one of the old standards is the reliability argument, because there's nothing that terrifies any politician more than a blackout. And the argument can be made that oh, boy, if we have to start retiring coal plants and things like that, I can't guarantee the reliability of the grid. And wouldn't it be tragic if, in your district, there was a brownout. And nothing will make a politician tremble more than that.

And then there's simply, you know, the money issue. I mean, we have people here who are giving a lot of money to the congressmen who are involved in this. And when you give a lot of money, your voice is listened to.

MARTIN: A lobbyist giving money in return for a vote for or a vote against something, that's one thing; but you know, arguing that this cap and trade bill will be bad for jobs or might lead to brownouts in your district, that's pretty scary and sounds like it might be real, legitimate concerns.

Mr.�GOODELL: I mean, obviously you can generalize, but I don't think that obviously in coal country, if you're talking about specific districts, it's going to have an impact on coal, for example, and you are going to have to think about what are coal miners going to do?

But this is going to happen anyway. I mean, we are moving in this direction. We are moving out of the era of fossil fuels. We are moving towards the era of renewable energy. Everyone in the coal industry I've, you know, reported on the coal industry for 10 years now - and they all know that this era is coming to an end. It's all about delay, delay, delay, another quarter, another year. Let me get another, you know, a certain number of tons out of this mountain. Let me have my profits for this next quarter. It's about short-term thinking versus long-term thinking.

GROSS: Now, in writing about how the energy lobby has tried to block cap and trade climate control legislation, you say the industry switched approaches -that instead of arguing that global warming isn't real, it tried to shift the fear from climate change to the specter of massive government intervention. What was the argument?

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, the argument was that by passing cap and trade legislation, government is going to regulate CO2 emissions and that it's going to then have government intervention in every part of America's economic activity - not just burning coal at big power plants, you know, but there was talk about they're going to regulate how you mow your lawn because your lawnmower, you know, emits CO2 if you have a gas engine; and you know, you can't you're not going to be you're going to put a quota on breathing and things like that.

I mean, they really played up this idea that this is sort of big daddy coming and trying to tell you how you can live your life. I mean, they were very good at calling this cap and tax, you know, raising the specter of big fees on your electric bill, you know, the price of gas going up several dollars.

All of these studies were have now been shown to be as, sort of, fraudulent as a lot of the early global warming studies that were funded by the industry and suggested that, you know, global warming was not happening or, if it was, it would be good for agriculture, things like that.

All of this stuff now has been disproven for a decade, and it's the same kind of tactics with these economic fears.

GROSS: Now, you write about stalling tactics and blocking tactics that Republicans used in the House and in the Senate. Let's start with the House. You talk about Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, who is a former chair of the House Energy Committee, pledging to launch, quote, "craft," unquote, attacks on the climate bill and comparing the Republican Party's battle plan to, quote, guerrilla warfare. So what were some of those tactics?

Mr.�GOODELL: Oh, well, you know, all kinds of these sort of internal congressional games. One of the funniest ones was before the vote on the committee, he promised to read the entire bill, which would, of course, take, you know, days and days and days.

GROSS: It's about 900 pages.

Mr.�GOODELL: Right, right, and the Democrats, to their credit, wittily agreed to this, but then they hired a speed reader, brought in a speed reader, and they were going to have this speed reader read it in about three hours or something, and it was actually a kind of one comical moment in the whole thing, and Barton, after the speed reader started the bill and read for about five minutes, Barton threw in the towel and said okay, okay, okay, we can do the vote.

But there was all kinds of tactics, like 400 amendments, you know, essentially nonsense amendments, trying to stall and slow this down. I mean, the whole idea behind this, the Republican strategy, was to slow this down and to derail this because they knew that there was a lot going on with the health care, and most important, because you had this Copenhagen target at the end of the year, in December of 2009.

And if the House bill would have been passed more quickly, perhaps, and been a little tougher, and they hadn't been able to sort of water it down as much, it might have moved into the Senate, and there might have been a possibility that this could have gotten passed by the House and the Senate prior to Copenhagen, which would have changed the dynamics entirely for the climate summit.

GROSS: Now, it's not just Republicans who have tried to block progress on cap and trade climate control legislation. Some Democrats have done that as well. You say it's especially Democrats from energy states. So what are some of the things Democrats have tried to do to slow or stop the legislation?

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, Democrats have, in a certain way, you could say the Democrats have been sort of more of a problem than the Republicans. I mean, the Republicans' opposition to this has been expected. The tricky part was, and still is, the Democrats, who many of them come from big coal and industrial states like Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, all of these places, even Alaska, places like that, who are stalling this and who, in the case of the House bill, there was a lot of the effort from the Democrats was to try to get the coal industry to buy into this, that there was no way that this was going to get through without essentially the legislators from coal regions or certainly a handful of legislators from the coal regions signing on to this.

So the Democratic role in that sense was to make this deal as sweet as possible for the coal industry, to make it in their economic benefit to not block the legislation.

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goodell. His article about the attempts to block or water down climate change legislation is published in the January 21st edition of Rolling Stone. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jeff Goodell. He writes about efforts to block climate change legislation in Rolling Stone magazine. In last night's State of the Union address, President Obama called for comprehensive climate and energy legislation, but he did not specifically call for cap and trade legislation. Jeff Goodell thinks that the climate control legislation which was passed by the House is likely to be scaled back in the Senate version.

Mr.�GOODELL: We have a, you know, political mood where it's going to be very difficult to move this kind of legislation right now. There will be a lot of attempts to position this for as a kind of green jobs legislation and clean energy legislation, which is all well and good, but there's a question of whether we can get...

GROSS: You're talking about scaling legislation down so that it emphasizes job-creating technologies rather than cap and trade?

Mr.�GOODELL: Right, right, and there's a question about whether even the cap and trade part of this would be stripped out and maybe just a kind of, you know, green jobs legislation be pushed through, which would include subsidies for clean energy technology and things like that and various other perhaps a renewable portfolio standard which would mandate a certain amount of clean energy from various sources on a timetable.

But even that is very iffy right now, and the real difficulty with this is that if the Senate doesn't act on cap and trade this year, then the likelihood of any kind of international agreement, a kind of legally binding agreement, which pretty much everyone agrees is the way we're going to solve this problem, we're not going to solve this by sort of voluntary actions and by everyone, you know, sort of saying nice things and wishing each other well. I mean, we have to have a legally binding international agreement, and if the Senate doesn't pass it this year, we have to restart from zero.

GROSS: Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, has offered a measure to strip the EPA of its power to regulate carbon emissions. What would this measure do?

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, this is really an important move on her part because the finding from the Supreme Court that greenhouse gases are actually a dangerous pollutant and that the EPA has the authority to regulate this pollutant is really important, and that decision came last year, and it was really the stick that got a lot of the energy industry to the table on cap and trade and got them engaged, because if there's one thing that the fossil fuel industry does not want, is the EPA in their lives.

They hate the regulatory structure of the EPA. They will basically do anything to keep the EPA out of global warming legislation. And so for a lot of people last year there was this sense that, okay, look, this is going to happen, we may as well try to get this done the best way that we can, and that's cap and trade and not let the EPA get involved.

So now that cap and trade has been stalled, and this legislation has been stalled, now the industry is giving Senator Murkowski a lot of money and attention and affection. So what Senator Murkowski would like to do is undermine the authority, take away the authority of the EPA, to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

GROSS: You know, so we've been talking about legislation that has stalled in the Senate that is focused around cap and trade, but it's not just the energy industry. It's not just Republican opponents and Democrats from energy states who oppose cap and trade. There are some environmentalists that think cap and trade really isn't going to be a very effective system. What's the environmentalist argument against cap and trade?

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, the environmentalist argument is simply that it's a scheme to enrich Wall Street, that, you know, it's about creating what many people believe will be the largest market ever, that the size of the market that would be created globally by a large cap and trade system that, you know, we pass in the United States, the European Union already has one going, presumably China would eventually get involved in this, that's the strength of it, is that it essentially would be, eventually, a global trading system that globally sets caps on CO2 and reduces them.

But it's also an enormous market, and there a lot of environmentalists believe that this is all about essentially Goldman Sachs and others wanting to take a few percentages of a penny off of each transaction and make a heck of a lot of money.

And they look at what happened with the shenanigans on Wall Street last year, the difficulty in regulating this industry, the complexity of futures and derivatives and all that kind of a thing, and see it as a kind of giant Ponzi scheme that will make it look like we're doing something about global warming and about reducing emissions but will in fact do nothing and just enrich Wall Street.

And one of the most outspoken opponents to this is a man with a lot of credibility, which is NASA climate scientist Jim Hanson, who was the first and has been the most outspoken scientist to warn us about the dangers of global warming, and he's basically been on a kind of warpath, saying, you know, cap and trade is a bad idea. We have to admit it now, and we have to think differently about this.

And he advocates a kind of carbon tax that is a tax on fossil fuels essentially as they come out of the ground, which is then repaid back to citizens in a kind of refund so that so there's no money that goes to the government. It just is a tax and then a dividend paid back.

And it's a sort of fine idea in principle. The problem is that there's essentially zero political support in Washington for this kind of thing.

GROSS: Why, because it's a tax, and people just hate taxes?

Mr.�GOODELL: Right, I mean, it's political suicide to straightforwardly advocate for any kind of a tax, much less an energy tax, but also one of the reasons that cap and trade has a lot of momentum on it is that, you know, you do have big, powerful interests like Wall Street wanting this to move forward, and that's a big part of the political engine that's driving this.

And I also think it's really important to say that...

GROSS: Really? So, like, there's a Wall Street lobby behind that tells them to push through cap and trade?

Mr.�GOODELL: Absolutely. Oh my yes, absolutely. They're a big part of the strength of this legislation. They would dearly love this to happen, yes. This is a - financial industry is perhaps the most eager to see this happen because it's just, you know, a creation of a giant new market.

And there's no way they can be losers in this. This is a win-win-win for the financial industry.

GROSS: Now, I interrupted you, You were about to add something.

Mr.�GOODELL: Well, I think it's really important when you talk about the criticisms of the cap and trade legislation and the idea of a cap and trade as a tool to reduce emissions - there are lots of legitimate concerns, and there are it is absolutely legitimate to worry about the role that Wall Street will play.

It's absolutely legitimate to worry about whether or not carbon offsets are real, whether people are actually counting CO2 accurately, many things. But it's also important to say that this can be done right and that a well-functioning market works, and we know that. You know, we are a market-based economy, and we know that although this is complex, it is a test of our kind of political will and political integrity to design a system that does function and that does not allow people to manipulate it, does not allow game-playing, profit-seeking, things like that.

And I think that the history of these cap and trade programs have shown that yes, there are problems in the beginning, as there are in all markets, and it's not going to be a flawless system, but over time we know how to make markets work, and over time this is the best, most flexible, least intrusive tool to dealing with this enormous problem that we face as a human civilization.

GROSS: Well, Jeff Goodell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr.�GOODELL: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, where his article on efforts to block climate control legislation was published. His book, "How to Cool the Planet," is scheduled to be published this spring. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.