No one in Washington seems to have a handle on what Obama’s Oval Office speech signaled—or how much of this new climate-change message is getting through. Although a number of pundits and even some environmentalists thought the address effectively doomed Kerry and Joe Lieberman’s efforts to get the Senate to put a price on carbon—“Deadly Silence on Carbon Caps,” read the Politico headline—supporters of a carbon cap had a different read. “My sense has always been that the person in the White House who most wants the cap is the president,” says an environmental lobbyist, “which is an important player to have.”
“I don’t know what else people want him to do,” says one senior Senate Democratic aide, who argues that Obama has been working hard on climate issues both publicly and privately (for instance, calling senators to lobby against an unsuccessful effort by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas emissions). On June 23, Obama will host a bi-partisan meeting of senators at the White House to discuss climate-and-energy legislation. “He’s really fighting for this stuff,” says the Senate aide.
What, exactly, is the president fighting for? Just as during the health-care debate, he’s been maddeningly vague—at least in public. But behind the scenes, the road map the White House and its Senate allies appear to be devising entails drafting new climate-and-energy legislation over the next few weeks and then introducing it when the Senate returns from its Fourth of July recess. The bill would likely include new safeguards on offshore oil production and policies to reduce oil consumption, such as increasing the deployment of electric vehicles and raising efficiency standards in buildings. It probably wouldn’t include a comprehensive carbon cap but, instead, would impose one just on utilities. The thinking, according to one lobbyist, is that “the two main sources for global-warming pollution are coal-fired power plants and using oil for transportation fuel, so if the Senate adopts a cap on carbon pollution from utilities and reduces oil use through fuel economy standards, electric cars, and natural gas trucks, then that would represent some significant carbon pollution reductions.” Once the bill passes, it would go to be reconciled with the House’s own climate-and-energy legislation (which does include a comprehensive carbon cap) before being sent back to both houses for a final vote, likely after the November midterm elections—when, presumably, politicians will be less nervous about the consequences of their vote.
Or, conversely, the White House and the Senate could fink out and resign themselves to a so-called energy-only bill, which includes no cap on carbon. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. But if the end result is an energy-only bill, says McKibben, it will show that Obama and the senators “are afraid to deal with these things because they find them politically hard. So what we have to do is keep trying to change that political reality as much as we can.” In other words, the movement will have failed to meet the moment. And there’s nothing reassuring—and actually something rather terrifying—in the knowledge that another moment will surely come again.