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The Changing Climate for Environmental Legislation

Waiting might be the best strategy for energy and climate-change advocates stymied by political inaction.

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The crashing demise of climate and energy legislation in the Senate last month spelled significant defeat for the environmental movement.  Not even the most sympathetic Congress in decades, an ecofriendly advocate in the White House, and a debate fueled by a disaster in the gulf and rising energy prices could turn stormy gray clouds into rain. But with several weeks to reflect on what happened, and as Congress prepares to return from its summer recess, environmentalists are wondering: what went wrong?

The answer isn’t terribly shocking. A surprising number of GOP officeholders and candidates are on the record as being skeptical of climate change or in downright denial that the science is conclusive enough for the government to act. Those vocal players, coupled with $514 million that oil and gas companies and electrical utilities spent on lobbying over the past year and a half, explain why Senate Republicans were able to stall a sweeping environment and energy bill that Democrats had planned for this summer. Although it wasn’t entirely partisan: senators from fossil-fuel-heavy states like West Virginia, Louisiana, and Alaska mounted substantial opposition to efforts to expand renewable energies in any way that would threaten their states’ economic stability.

The environmental community knows it was a missed opportunity. Leaders grudgingly admit that hope for any sweeping or comprehensive measure is probably gone. "I mean, let’s be real. There’s no longer any chance for anything beyond a narrow set of provisions, and even that’s in doubt," says the head of one Washington-based environmental group who asked not to be identified as waving the white flag for his team. Aside from Republicans, most of whom were never on board to begin with, several groups NEWSWEEK spoke with blame President Obama, who never laid out a specific vision of his own, deferring  instead to Senate leaders.

There will still be motion in some way. Without any movement from Congress, the White House will be pushed into the spotlight—and will take the heat, too. Armed with authority from the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency—an arm of the executive branch—plans to phase in a series of emissions regulations aimed at the biggest polluters, including power plants and energy developers, starting in January.

The Senate tried earlier this summer to strip authority from the administration, and it is likely will try again, but a White House official tells NEWSWEEK definitively that the president will veto any attempts to limit EPA’s authority to reduce greenhouse gases. That means that absent a two-thirds, veto-proof majority in the Senate, EPA will get the green light to move forward—likely to met by a series of lawsuits from disgruntled industry lawyers.

There are some groups that still hold out hope for some sort of legislative response to climate change and clean-energy needs. “I don’t think some final epitaph has been written on legislating environmental protection,” says David Foster, head of the BlueGreen Alliance. One approach could be piecemeal, with several small bills designed to make gains in inches, rather than miles. But the strategy, with Democrats expected to lose a chunk, if not both, their majorities, will have to be decidedly different. As long as the GOP continues to oppose any climate measure, it’s hard to see any conclusive endgame. But perhaps that’s the answer. “Maybe the science and environmental community needs to appeal directly to the GOP,” says Paul Bledsoe, a strategist for the National Commission on Energy Policy, an arm of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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That sounds like a nonstarter to Republicans burned by the sometimes vicious advocacy of environmental demonstrators. One frequent target was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was often called a “shill for big oil." At one point Greenpeace protesters unfurled a banner in the Hart Senate Office Building, accusing Murkowski of being in bed with oil companies.  “Up until this point, our ideas have been ignored and mocked,” says Robert Dillon, a spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resrouces Committee, of which Murkowski is the ranking member.  “It’ll be a hard lift for [environmentalists] to come back and want to play nice.” Several top Republicans say they’re still willing to play ball on a bill that has already passed through committee with bipartisan votes—the American Clean Energy Leadership Act—which would encourage efficiency and renewable energy development, but wouldn’t do much about carbon emissions.

Everyone agrees that the political environment after the November elections will be less politically charged. There’s also reason for environmentalists to believe Republicans may come around. “The climate issue is not a partisan issue intrinsically,” says the BlueGreen Alliance’s Foster. “It’s something that was manufactured in the politics of the 2010 election.” With the GOP vowing to block anything before November and the White House shying away from any significant legislation during the lame-duck session of Congress, the prescription for addressing changing climate may just be time.

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