For the Second Time This Week, WaPo’s Wonkblog Goofs an Energy/Environment Story

by William Yeatman on October 19, 2012

in Blog

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Earlier this week, I wrote about how Washington Post Wonkblog contributor Brad Plumer misread a report on which he blogged. Today, his colleague Ezra Klein devoted another Wonkblog post to an erroneous thesis—namely, that opposition to climate policies like cap-and-trade is a strictly partisan matter.

The impetus for Klein’s mistake was a New York Times column by David Brooks, titled “A Sad Green Story.” In the piece, Brooks argues that the prospects for a policy to mitigate climate change have effectively died for two reasons: (1) Al Gore is a highly partisan figure; and (2) a few high-profile taxpayer investments in green energy that failed (Solyndra, A123, et al.). Most of Brooks’ op-ed is given to the latter point, as is evident by his conclusion:

Global warming is still real. Green technology is still important. Personally, I’d support a carbon tax to give it a boost. But he who lives by the subsidy dies by the subsidy. Government planners should not be betting on what technologies will develop fastest. They should certainly not be betting on individual companies.

This is a story of overreach, misjudgments and disappointment.

Klein, however, took issue with Brooks’ “passivity.” According to his Wonkblog post:

This isn’t a story of overreach, misjudgements [sic], and disappointment. It’s a story of Republicans putting raw partisanship and a dislike for Al Gore in front of the planet’s best interests. It’s a story, though Brooks doesn’t mention this, of conservatives building an alternative reality in which the science is unsettled, and no one really knows whether the planet is warming and, even if it is, whether humans have anything to do with it. It’s a story of Democrats being forced into a second and third-best policies that Republicans then use to press their political advantage.

It’s a story, to put it simply, of Democrats doing everything they can to address a problem Brooks says is real in the way Brooks says is best, and Republicans doing everything they can to stop them. And it’s a story that ends with Democrats and Republicans receiving roughly equal blame from Brooks.

Klein has it wrong. Quite contrary to what he would have readers believe, opposition to climate policy is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill. On the one hand, the issue breaks down along geographic lines, rather than partisan ones, such that politicians from areas dependent on the production or use of fossil fuels tend to oppose climate policies, whether they are Republican and Democrat. On the other hand, politicians from both parties are always reluctant to enact policies, like a cap-and-trade, that engender economic hardship for their constituents. As a result, global warming is a low priority across the partisan divide. Consider:

  • On June 6, 2008, in the immediate wake of the Senate’s rejection of the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade, which had been extensively reworked by Senator Barbara Boxer, 10 Senate Democrats—about 20 percent of the caucus at the time—sent Senator Boxer a letter explaining that they voted or would have voted against her cap-and-trade because it would cause “undue hardship” for their constituents.
  • On June 26, 2009, 40 Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a cap-and-trade bill.
  • During the 2010 summer, Senate Democrats held weekly caucus meetings to build support for a Senate companion bill to the American Clean Energy and Security Act. But the caucus never rallied behind the measure, and it was put on ice, without ever reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

If, as Klein believes, Democrats are “doing everything they can to address” climate change, then the 111th Congress would have enacted a cap-and-trade, at a time when Democrats held both Chambers and the Presidency. Instead, 40 House Democrats voted against the measure, which was subsequently shelved by Senate leadership.

And what about this week’s Presidential debate? As I posted earlier this week, President Obama—the leader of the Democratic Party—tried to prove that he was friendlier to fossil fuels than Romney. The president never even mentioned “global warming” or “climate change.” Does that seem like someone who is “doing everything they can to address” global warming? To be sure, the president is advancing climate regulations pursuant to an EPA power grab, but it’s nonetheless telling that he takes pains to avoid discussing these policies in public.

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