In summarizing how the debate over the future of the planet played out Tuesday, the temptation to resort to a cliché proves too great.
The growing effects of global warming in all regions of the country were chronicled in unsettling detail in a report assembled over four years by hundreds of prominent scientists assembled by the government. But the study’s release by the Obama administration was met in Congress with nothing more than a bipartisan blast of hot air.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the scientists declared, writing in simpler language than most federal reports so that voters and policymakers alike might readily absorb the message. “Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,” it goes on. “Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.”
The stark tone did not appear to sink in right away at the Capitol. Through no coincidence, senators were supposed to begin debating a modest measure to promote energy efficiency — but, as is so often the case, they devolved instead into an argument over the terms of debate .
“Often times working with my Senate Republican colleagues reminds me of chasing one of these little pigs in a greased pig contest ,” Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared. “Regardless of all of our efforts, any time we get close to making progress, it seems as though we watch it slip out of our hands.”
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky countered that Democrats were only “about alleviating the guilt complexes of liberal elites,” whom he described as “the kind of people who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”
The readily apparent bottom line from this latest “So’s your mother” rhetorical duel: The chances have dropped precipitously that Congress will contribute in even the most modest way in 2014 to reducing Americans’ contribution to the warming of the Earth. Senators did vote 79-20 to at least take up the narrow bill in the offing. It would provide small grants to states and cities for tightening building codes and incentives for reducing carbon footprints in manufacturing, while requiring a new energy-savings regime for federal computer systems. (Language mandating federal buildings be especially green was dropped in the name of compromise.) But the prospects are strong that the legislation will never get to a final vote, probably because Republicans will filibuster to protest restrictions on their amendment offerings at the hands of the Democrats. And the GOP House has signaled it wouldn’t consider any energy efficiency legislation unless it had first passed the Senate with a bipartisan majority.
Instead, it looks very likely the key environmental policy votes of the year will be on Republican efforts to block, delay or reverse executive orders for curbing carbon pollution. These stand as the most consequential efforts President Barack Obama will undertake to go around a resistant Congress to shape his legacy, partially fulfill promises from his 2008 campaign, and rally his liberal base ahead of the midterm elections.
The climax of this effort is expected by early June, when the administration unveils its new rules regulating greenhouse gases from existing power plants.
McConnell, whose campaign for a sixth term is premised on the claim that he can stymie the president better than anyone, describes this for his Kentucky constituents as the biggest battle in “Obama’s war on coal.” He had been thinking about using the energy efficiency legislation to force a vote on opposing the coming EPA regulations. But now he’s signaling he’ll bide his time.
Whether the GOP attack comes sooner or later — as an amendment to a random Senate bill or as a policy rider to an appropriations measure in the House — the outcome will be defeat, White House senior counselor John Podesta predicted without caveat. “They’ll find various ways,” he told reporters Monday, “to try to stop us from using the authority we have under the Clean Air Act. All I would say is that those have zero percent chance of working.”
Podesta made no such prediction when asked about Congress forcing the president’s hand on the Keystone XL pipeline. The administration has effectively postponed the final permitting decision until after the elections, but the project’s advocates are gaining confidence they have the votes to clear legislation authorizing construction to start immediately — in theory in time to claim credit for creating jobs before November.
In other words, Congress may have the juice to insist on a “yes” for Keystone, but not to dictate a “no” to the EPA.
In terms of long-term environmental harm, constructing that one crude oil conduit is far less meaningful than continuing the current levels of carbon dioxide emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants.
Which is why Obama and his team seem more focused than ever on what they can accomplish while the greased pigs and liberal elitists are duking it out.
Tuesday’s third National Climate Assessment was written, like the two in the previous decade, at the insistence of the so-often-deadlocked Congress. The report said Americans are now experiencing “climate disruption” because the country’s average temperature has risen just shy of 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century. If greenhouse gases continue their rapid growth, the scientists predicted, the number could be up almost 10 degrees more by the end of this century.
Whether that prediction pans out, this much can be reliably forecast: By 2100, all members of the current Congress will be gone.