Reviewed 7/14/2010

The Climate War, by Eric Pooley

True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight To Save the Earth
Eric Pooley
New York, Hyperion, June 2010




ISBN-13 978-1-4013-2326-4
ISBN-10 1-4013-2326-X 481p. HC $27.99

The state of play can shift quickly in the hurly-burly game of climate-change politics. Often, which team is ahead on points is determined by a carelessly worded press release or public comment. The contrast between this chaotically changing conflict and the steady rise in Earth's average temperature, that one team strives to slow down and ultimately reverse, could not be more stark. A prime example is the agreement forged in 2007 at Nusa Dua on the island of Bali, which Al Gore rescued at the last minute.

"A speech is just a speech, words in the air. But sometimes those words carry real force. Gore's words in Bali were a promise to the world, at a time when it was badly needed, that there were two Americas. One was the America of coal and oil and a kind of heedless prosperity, the America of climate denial and delay—one that pretended "voluntary" measures were enough to solve this problem. The second America was just as proud of its prosperity but understood that climate action had to start now. Doing so would be difficult and possibly expensive—it would cost money in the short term, but save money in the long term—and it wouldn't happen until a coalition emerged that included people from both Americas, coal people and oil people, Republicans and Democrats, people who found ways to act even if their short-term economic interests told them not to. In the back of the ballroom at the end of Gore's speech, there was one small sign that this coalition might eventually emerge. A few members of Bush's delegation, the same people tasked with delaying and obstructing in Bali, were cheering for the man who had just told the world to make a detour around them. "He was right," one of them said later. "We just weren't supposed to admit it."

– Pages 14-15

In The Climate War, Eric Pooley has written a magisterial account of a two-and-a-half-year battle in the war to establish responsibility1 for that ongoing change in climate. He takes us from COP13 in Bali to COP15 in Copenhagen and beyond, from 2007 to 2010, as various factions contend in order to get the world started on saving itself from at least the worst effects of its self-induced climate change, or to prevent any such action. Pooley takes us through the campaigns of the major environmental groups and introduces us to their best people. He shows us the machinations that spring from the bizarro world-view of the Denialists, to whom the entire edifice of climate science is a tissue of lies and only they hold the truth — a truth which they claim they are prevented from revealing to the public. We meet the politicians who must balance other priorities and campaign pledges against the urgent priority of putting a price on carbon emissions in order to foster the development of alternative energy sources, and the captains of industry who are willing to buy into that strategy, but only if they are enabled to avoid ruinous costs for their companies and customers.

Now the deputy editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Eric Pooley is well positioned to document this drama. He has been, among other things, managing editor of Fortune and White House correspondent for Time. He may also have been a sportscaster, because the narrative he's put together here reads in many places like the play-by-play at a hockey game, with a star player coming out of the penalty box to deliver the winning slap shot just in time to beat the game's final buzzer.2

Fred Krupp3 of EDF emerges as the hero of the piece, with Myron Ebell the chief villain. But both have plenty of help. Assisting Krupp are the NRDC and some other major environmental NGOs; foremost among these allies is probably the Alliance for Climate Protection, started by Al Gore. Mr. Gore is a formidable ally all by himself, and as a former Senator, former Vice President, and long-time campaigner for the environment he has a list of contacts second to none. Ebell can count on the majority of the energy industry, including oil and coal companies and the railroads that earn a large portion of their revenue by transporting coal from mines to power plants. A notable exception is Jim Rogers, who by the time of the Bali conference had become CEO of Duke Energy. He understands that power companies will one day have to give up fossil fuels and elects to make the transition as smooth as possible by starting it now. On the fringes of the debate are extremists of both persuasions: those who would stop all use of fossil fuels today and those who don't ever want to stop the burning.

This drama plays out on an international stage where most European countries have already begun the transition by putting a price on carbon. (They do this by capping the amount of CO2 emission and selling emission permits to industry at a price of about $40 per ton. If a power plant manages to emit less CO2 than it's allowed, it can sell the unused allowances to another polluter. This market-ased method lets industry leaders choose the reduction method that suits their company best.) One of the great things about Pooley's book is that it shows the reader how this "cap-and-trade" scheme works in detail, with a proven example: the SO2 cap and trade program that ended acid rain in America's northeast at far lower cost than industry projected.

The Bush administration, as is well known, blocked any progress toward establishing a carbon price under U.S. law and obstructed international agreements as much as it was able. Great hopes attended President Obama when he took office in 2009. Everyone understood that China and India would not sign on unless America did; but Obama did not press the issue forcefully enough to make a difference prior to Copenhagen. Although he made a heroic effort at that December 2009 conference, it is generally regarded as a failure. Whether he can turn things around remains to be seen.

By about chapter 35, it became hard for me to remember who was in which camp. But this is due to the sheer number of names, not to lack of clarity in Pooley's writing. As always in politics, progress results from compromise which is unpalatable to extremists of all stripes, and Pooley provides an engrossing account of how those compromises were achieved. The highlight for me was chapters 42-45, covering the negotiations for the House bill known as Waxman-Markey and the floor vote concerning it on 26 June 2009, because I watched a good deal of it on C-SPAN.4

"The arguments unfolded not just on parallel tracks, but in parallel universes: the Republicans denied or downplayed the climate crisis and cited doomsday studies predicting economic catastrophe; the Democrats spoke to the reality of the climate problem, cited credible nonpartisan government studies that found the costs would be modest, and stressed the opportunity to put the country on a new track."

– Page 387

But all of the tale is fascinating. It's much like watching a baseball game: the home runs, hits and strikeouts are enjoyable, but your enjoyment is enhanced when you get to see something of the management decisions — like whether to replace the star pitcher before he fades, or gamble on his superior skills to carry the game through the ninth inning.

Consisting of 47 short chapters grouped into nine parts (plus an Epilogue covering Copenhagen and its aftermath), the book details the political white-water river ride that is the struggle to enact climate-change legislation. Pooley gives us profiles of the major environmental groups and their top people. We see them questioning each other's tactics and strategy, sometimes to the point that dissolves an alliance. We also see the tactics of the Denialists, from S. Fred "I'm a Nobel laureate too" Singer through Joe "Why do they vilify me?" Lucas, in gruesome detail. It is as bad as you've heard.

Also described, at appropriate places, are climate phenomena such as the 2003 European heat wave (page 43). There's a lot of political history: 1987's SO2 cap, Clinton's 1993 BTU tax, the 1997 Kyoto Accords, the 2001 Climate Stewardship act, as well as the ups and downs of the Lieberman-Warner bill. You'll meet new heroes like John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock PA, and Beth Henry of Charlotte, NC, who learned of climate change by watching her garden and emerged from retirement to challenge Jim Rogers' Cliffside plant and get herself arrested in Washington, DC. And you'll hear of well-known figures who have left the scene, like Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole, also from North Carolina, defeated five months after taking a courageous stand for climate legislation. All of these people see the conundrum at the heart of the climate crisis, and their striving gives heart to the struggle.

"Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, people had been able to dump their carbon for free; for much of that time, no one knew it caused harm. Eventually society realized this was a market failure, something bad for humankind that was being encouraged. There were basically two ways to make people pay for this pollution: society could impose either a cap or a carbon tax. Either would raise revenues from CO2 emissions and discourage fossil-fuel use. But taxes, especially energy taxes, didn't fare well in American politics, and a carbon tax would not guarantee a specific level of emissions reduction; a well-designed cap would. By 2007, the countries that were most successful at cutting their emissions had both a carbon tax and a cap. The U.S., almost alone in the industrial world, had neither.

– Page 18

The book is thoroughly end-noted and has a good index, accurate per spot-checking on Joe Romm (four places). There is also a list of selected reading. I'll repeat my assessment: Pooley has put together a magisterial account that shows us the politics of climate change in vivid and sometimes gory detail: the honest appeals and compromises; the scurrilous deceptions and distortions; the attack ads and counter-attack ads. It is a must read and, for any history buff, a definite keeper.

1 That's a bit vague. Virtually all scientists now agree that our planet is warming and that human activities are causing it to warm. Very few in any walk of life dispute this point. (But the very few are very vocal.) Where there is valid argument is over what can or should be done about the problem. A substantial body of evidence forecasts major problems for society in the future, and a majority of the public agrees in principle that large cuts in our production of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, would alleviate these problems. However, actually making those cuts would require some sacrifice. It is in this sense that establishing responsibility remains a difficult proposition.
2 The comparison is suggested by Pooley's mentioning on page 14 that Gore often refers to Bobby Hull, the legendary Canadian hockey player who had the knack of putting the puck not where his teammates were, but where they were going to be.
3 Fred Krupp's approach is always to be willing to work with industry. This does not endear him to purists among the Green Group — the coalition of major environmental organizations — but he gets results. In addition to playing a large part in what became the climate bill known as Waxman-Markey, he was instrumental in getting McDonald's to replace its polystyrene containers with cardboard and stop feeding antibiotics to the billions of chickens in its supply chain. (page 81)
4 I was kind of hoping that Louie Gohmert and Lloyd Doggett from the floor debate over Waxman-Markey would show up at this point. But of course Pooley had to leave some things out.
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