For energy reform advocates, lessons from health care

August 2nd, 2010

by and


This piece was originally published in The Washington Post.

With the United States struggling to recover from a job-killing recession, a Democratic president asks a Democratic Congress to pass sweeping reform of a major sector of the economy. “We can no longer afford to continue to ignore what is wrong,” he explains. “We must fix this system, and it has to begin with congressional action.” The public, however, rejects this plea. The proposal dies in Congress, and recriminations begin. Chastened and disappointed, advocates regroup and seek a new path forward.

This is the story of President Bill Clinton’s effort to pass health-care reform in 1993. But it also describes this year’s attempt by President Obama and congressional Democrats to pass sweeping energy reform. The energy bill, with its centerpiece cap-and-trade policy, would have set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy and offered incentives for cleaner energy. That effort ended late last month when Senate Democratic leaders acknowledged what insiders already knew — they had come up around 10 votes short.

It was a devastating setback for all of us who have worked on this issue. Just as many progressives believed they’d elected a president who would bring them health-care reform in 1993, energy-reform advocates felt that Obama would immediately tackle climate change. When world leaders failed to achieve a breakthrough in climate talks in Copenhagen last December, we focused all of our efforts on Congress. Ironically, we had to wait until the new version of health-care reform cleared the decks.

But as the health-care debate extended into the new year and Sen. Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts, giving Republicans another vote, the prospects for energy reform dimmed. Sure, there had been some hints of progress. For instance, advocates worked with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to muscle an energy reform bill through the House last year. But when the financial reform bill cut in line, the chances of a tired and depleted Senate turning to climate change seemed slim.

When legislation dies, it is often with a whimper, not a bang. The final months of the cap-and-trade debate saw the air seep slowly from the balloon — strategy meetings we attended that once drew dozens were attracting just a handful. The bill quietly breathed its last on, fittingly, a sweltering July day.

It wasn’t the first defeat. Cap-and-trade had fallen short in three previous sessions of Congress. But this one seemed different. George W. Bush was gone; Democrats controlled Congress. And reform proponents had made enormous strides. Once-hostile businesses, including many big utilities and some oil companies, were on board. Environmental groups had come together behind a smart, well-funded public education campaign. Congressional Democrats across the spectrum, from Rep. Rick Boucher (Va.) to Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), were cutting deals and making progress. The finish line was finally in sight.

But we didn’t get across. And the anger is real. One environmental organization staffer told us that members of his group contorted themselves to accommodate everyone, and got left knotted up and empty-handed. Others are grumbling that, after spending $100 million to build public support for energy reform, they were left at the altar by Congress and the administration. And no one is madder than some House Democrats from places such as Virginia, Ohio and Missouri who cast a tough vote for a cap-and-trade bill that didn’t even make it to the floor of the Senate.

Most of the anger is properly directed at Republicans, who, but for a few brave House members, put their party ahead of their country’s economic, security and environmental interests. But fury at the other side has never stopped progressives from circling up a firing squad.

All of this is depressingly familiar to those of us who were around for the Clinton health-care fight. In both cases, advocates badly misread the public mood. When the health-care debate began in 1993, 64 percent of Americans supported the idea of covering the uninsured; similarly, polls this year indicated broad support for action on climate change. But what the public supports and what it wants can be very different. Most people in 1993 had insurance; what they wanted were reduced costs and stable coverage. They turned against health-care reform when opponents convinced them that they wouldn’t get either and that the benefits would flow elsewhere.

Similarly, while people generally support energy reform, their focus isn’t really on what the world will look and feel like in 2050. For most Americans, the distant threat of global warming is not enough to prompt action.

But unlike with health-care reform, the Earth cannot wait 17 more years for us to match our arguments to the public mood. Just last week, scientists determined that the past decade was the Earth’s warmest on record. If we proceed with business as usual, there is scientific consensus that global warming will tip into an unstoppable spiral that will have a devastating impact on the planet.

In the midst of a downturn, it is clear that advocates have to focus public attention on the economic benefits of shifting to clean energy, as well as the risks of doing nothing. The global race is on, and, just as the tech boom of the 1990s did for the United States, clean energy will create good jobs and huge economic growth for the winner. The question is who that will be.

Right now, it’s not us. China, South Korea, Germany, Spain and France are already transitioning to clean energy, investing billions in research and creating robust domestic markets. On the very day that the Senate bill was declared dead, China announced that it is making $740 billion in new clean-energy investments, according to China Daily, the state-run English-language newspaper. China also announced that it is imposing a domestic price on carbon — essentially adding a fee to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas that produce carbon pollution.

Such moves are not motivated solely by environmental altruism. The market for clean-energy technology is expected to double to $2.7 trillion by 2020, and it is estimated that the clean-energy sector will employ 20 million people by 2030. If we don’t act now, we’re going to be buying clean-energy products from China rather than building them here and selling them to the rest of the world. In fact, we already are. America has a trade deficit in clean-energy technology.

For the United States to get back in the lead in this energy race, we must put a price on carbon, though with a mechanism that is less complex than what cap-and-trade has become. This price will encourage industries to move to cleaner energy and will generate the revenue that the United States needs to invest in innovation in this field. With the right incentives, we can develop clean-energy technologies that are as affordable as coal and oil, creating jobs and new industries.

Reform advocates long ago began to understand the power of this message. Prominent activists — including Al Gore — started talking less about saving the planet and more about spurring economic growth, improving national security and ending pollution disasters such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

So why did we come up short?

Partly, it was lousy timing. Reform opponents were able to argue that any increase in energy costs, no matter how small, would be an unsustainable burden during a period of extreme economic distress. But we also handed them some ammunition. As the bill got bigger and more complex, opponents were able to distort the cap-and-trade idea to argue that it was a giveaway to unpopular businesses.

Both Clinton’s health-care reform experience and today’s cap-and-trade defeat contain lessons for the next energy reform effort. They were each based on good ideas and sound policies, but they became too opaque and filled with special pleadings to sustain public support. They made complexity a virtue to try to mask relatively modest cost increases for the middle class, and neither did an adequate job of explaining the benefits to average Americans. And both withered under fierce opposition.

Obama passed health-care reform by pivoting away from talk of universal coverage and convincing enough of the public that the bill would address fundamental middle-class concerns and bring stability and security to those who already had insurance. True, health-care reform barely limped over the finish line. But that is how big change happens. In 2011, energy reform advocates should take a page from the health-care playbook and make the same kind of changes if we are to achieve similar results.