Burn Baby Burn

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  July 28, 2010

"I think he gets it on clean energy," Wright said to me this week, adding that Brown had "a great record" on the issue in the State Senate. Brown's staff agrees with almost everything Environment Massachusetts advocates, and "gets the idea that market-based caps work."

Wright and others have repeatedly made the case to Brown and his staff that Massachusetts is poised to gain economic growth from the clean-energy investment that would be triggered by those caps. Which Brown presumably knows, because he voted for the initiatives to put the state in that position — back before he reversed his position in his quest for the US Senate.

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If not for that unfortunate campaign flip-flop, Brown's election could have increased the odds of the bill's passage. A Democrat winning that seat would have done little to help bring on board reluctant Democrats from dirty-fuel-producing states, let alone Republicans.

But one willing Republican probably would have brought over others. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, originally a co-sponsor of the cap-and-trade bill, publicly implied that he would support the bill if one other member of his party did. Those two could have provided enough cover for Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and perhaps even Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, all of whom have openly supported carbon-capping legislation in the past.

And, according to several observers of the process, a few Republicans voting yes would have made it easy for several fence-sitting Democrats to follow suit.

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Additional pressure from the left also might have helped nudge those wavering Democrats.p

But it didn't materialize — in fact, of the progressive leaders were quoted, in publications like Washington-based TheHill, saying good riddance to what they viewed as weak, compromised legislation.

"We are definitely not mourning the death of this bill," Charles Chamberlain, political director of Howard Dean's million-member Democracy for America, told me this week. "The base [of the Democratic Party] is disappointed that Congress has not passed good climate-change legislation."

But Chamberlain also suggests that the Democratic base lacks consensus on the right approach to climate change.

While environmentalists focused on saving the Earth from disaster, US senators, including Kerry, followed Bill Clinton's advice and touted the bill's job-creating properties. Other advocates touted the national-security advantages of cutting our dependence on foreign oil.

And, particularly after the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, Obama and others emphasized the bill as a step toward ending the environmentally unsound drilling off our shores.

Those are all good arguments. However, it left no single, strong central premise to rally around — and plenty of ways to argue that some of those goals could be better attained by other means.

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For more than a year, I have heard from liberals and environmental activists — and people in Markey and Kerry's offices — that they had an ace in the hole that would help get a climate bill passed. That was the threat of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taking action on climate change, which it plans to do in January.

The prospect was supposed to push Congress into passing market-driven carbon-reduction legislation. Kerry told me that the threat of EPA action "has been an important consideration" for senators.

With the bill dead, the EPA's efforts are probably next on the chopping block. Democrats have been able to prevent previous attempts to bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. The next try, already underway, is likely to be successful.

That will mean that the Bush-era inaction on climate change will remain the status quo — quite possibly for years, given the likelihood of congressional gains in November for Republican warming-deniers.

To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com.

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