In Search Of: America's Climate Change Policy (and Responsible Capitalism)

This is unrestrained, least-ethical, bottom-line capitalism…We have lost the notion of responsible capitalism." -- Sen. John Kerry, March 25, 2012

John Kerry is mad. On Sunday, the senator made no bones about his level of exasperation with his colleagues on Capitol Hill regarding the lack of progress in forming some kind of federal policy on climate change. In particular, he was referring to what he called "the flat-earth caucus," according to a report by Doug Struck, associate chair of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.

The Massachusetts Democrat was speaking at a dinner for the conference "Voyage of Re-Discovery: Panning for Wealth in the Warming Arctic" at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He was joined by Iceland’s president Olafur Grimsson and more than 50 government officials, business leaders, academics and environmentalists gathered to address issues of energy, the environment and foreign policy regarding the Arctic, which, as the latest science shows, is rapidly melting due to anthropogenic global warming.

Kerry, who lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, said that even amongst the so-called "Tuesday Group"—a bipartisan group of mostly Democrat legislators who are concerned about energy policy—"you can't talk about climate now. People just turn off. It's extraordinary. Only for national security and jobs will they open their minds."


Extraordinary, perhaps, in the face of the numerous and repeated warnings of the effects of climate change from the international scientific community. But the demise of the global warming debate on the Hill has been an ongoing process, which accelerated soon after the Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives in 2010. In October, Andrew J. Hoffman, the director of the Erb Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times, "In Washington, 'climate change' has become a lightning rod, it's a four-letter word."

What many climate policy obstructionists in Washington don't realize (or willfully ignore) is that a clean energy policy can and should be a main part of the solution for a number of related issues: climate change, national security and jobs. Investments in clean energy will help combat climate change by reducing carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuel, will make the nation more secure by reducing our dependency on foreign sources of dirty fuel and will create jobs.

"Renewable energy will be the engine of U.S. economic growth and prosperity for years to come," said Adam James, Special Assistant for Energy Policy at American Progress. "But," he added, echoing Senator Kerry's observations, "it is not without opposition."

"Leaders in policy and business must get behind the Americans who are and will be empowered by renewable power and work together to overcome market barriers and false information," said James. "The facts are in and we should seize this opportunity to put Americans back to work and maintain a place at the cutting edge of innovation and competitiveness."


A big problem is that Congress is awash in contributions from and investments in the fossil fuel industry. The oil, coal and gas industries contributed more than $25 million to Congressional campaigns between 2009 and 2010. In 2010, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) received the most among the members of the House, raking in almost $400,000. In the upper house, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) was the top recipient of fossil fuel industry contributions, getting close to $2 million.

"Fossil fuels have gotten 75 times more subsidies than clean energy," notes Struck, who covered climate change for The Washington Post, citing a September 2011 report by DBL Investors that found that between 1994 and 2009, the oil and gas industry received cumulative federal subsidies amounting to almost half-a-trillion dollars, while the renewables sector got less than $6 billion (adjusted for inflation).


Kerry didn’t hesitate to point fingers and name names, laying much of the blame on efforts by the multi-billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, oil tycoons who have financed a large part of the climate denial movement. He also called out Peabody Coal and MidAmerican, coal-plant energy companies that he described as "big old cash cows." Kerry said, "It's just cash coming in, and they want to keep it that way."

He warned that the failure to enact a federal climate change policy would be "unconscionable and tragic for the nation," suggesting that the most important thing to do is to determine the price of carbon. "Price carbon," Kerry said, "and the market place will move forward very rapidly." The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has given its stamp of approval to this approach. In July 2010, the non-partisan agency issued a working paper that agreed with the view of most economists that "a carbon tax is the most economically efficient option for reducing carbon emissions." The CBO noted two pricing methods: "either directly through a tax on emissions or indirectly by creating a cap-and-trade program."

The latter approach has found its most aggressive, most multinational expression in the European Union Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS), one of the EU's primary policy tools used to meet their Kyoto Protocol emissions cap. The former is what Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is trying to do with the Save Our Climate Act, H.R. 3242 (SOCA), a bill he introduced in October that seeks to levy a simple tax on carbon, giving most of it back to consumers in a straightforward plan that the Washington Post editorial board earlier this month called "the best approach."


But it seems that, when it comes to climate science, Washington politics has essentially cast America into the dark ages. "The irony is that we used to be a nation that valued science. We have become a nation that is now discarding science," Kerry said, characterizing the current oil-money-over-climate-science policy as "unrestrained, least-ethical, bottom-line capitalism," and adding, "We have lost the notion of responsible capitalism." "Would that more Republicans would begin to operate in the world of scientific reality," opined the Washington Post editorial board.

Republicans are significantly more enamored than Democrats by the oil and gas industry—and the money that means for their campaign coffers. In the two-year period leading up to August 2011, eight of the twelve members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (a.k.a. "The Supercommittee") had voted to let oil companies keep more than $4 billion in annual taxpayer subsidies, while all six of the Republicans—Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), Fred Upton (Mich.), Dave Camp (Mich.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Pat Toomey (Penn.)—have consistently voted to maintain taxpayer handouts to the fossil fuel industry.

As Steve Kretzmann notes on Oil Change International, these six Republicans received more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over their careers, with more than half of that amount donated in the 2010 election cycle alone. That was the year that the Republicans took control the House and the climate negotiations stalled. Apparently, cold, hard cash has a way of trumping cold, hard logic—much to the detriment of the melting Arctic, which is quickly becoming less cold, and less hard.



Struck, Doug. ”Kerry: 'We have lost the notion of responsible capitalism'." The Daily Climate. March 26, 2012. Accessed March 28, 2012.
Rosenthal, Elizabeth. ”Where Did Global Warming Go?” The New York Times. October 15, 2011. Accessed March 28, 2012.
James, Adam. ”Fact Sheet: 6 Things You Should Know About The Value Of Renewable Energy." March 28, 2012. Accessed March 28, 2012.
Oil Change International. Dirty Energy Money Campaign. April 15, 2011. Accessed January 23, 2012.
Pfund, Nancy and Ben Healy. What Would Jefferson Do? The Historical Role of Federal Subsidies in Shaping America’s Energy Future. DBL Investors. September 2011. Accessed March 29, 2012.
Ibid, 1.
Congressional Budget Office. Working Paper 2010-04: Input-Output Model Analysis: Pricing Carbon Dioxide Emissions. June 18, 2010. Accessed March 29, 2012.
European Commission. Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). November 15, 2010. Accessed March 29, 2012.
Office of Representative Pete Stark, United States Congress. "Stark Introduces Carbon Tax Bill to Reduce Emissions, Deficit. October 25, 2011. Accessed March 29, 2012.
The Washington Post Editorial Board. "The threat of carbon emissions on the world’s oceans." March 6, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2012.
Ibid, 1.
Ibid, 14.
Kretzmann, Steve. "Oil Money and the 'SuperCongress.' Oil Change International. August 17, 2011. Accessed March 29, 2012.

image: Earth on Fire, by Barbara Doduk, Creative Commons