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Climate Action and Senate Politics Do Not Mix

This is a column that I hope I can look back on in a few months and say, "I was wrong." But I have just about given up on the U.S. Senate passing any kind of legislation this year that will move the U.S. toward an all-important price on carbon.

As most people in clean tech know by now, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, two days before the April rollout of the climate and energy bill that bears his name, withdrew his support because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would also make federal immigration reform a legislative priority. That effectively ended the ballyhooed bipartisan Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill now reborn as the Kerry-Lieberman bill.  But ex-sponsor Graham says he doubts the bill can garner 60 votes, so what are the hopes of gaining any other GOP supporters?  And of course, the bill's always-thorny inclusion of offshore drilling has become even more troublesome since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf.

It pains me to say this after the historic 2008 elections, but I have to dust off the old refrain from the George W. Bush years: We can’t wait for Washington to lead on greenhouse-gas reduction and the transition to a clean-energy economy. This is not just about the latest kerfuffle between Sens. Graham and Reid. Given the extreme pressure on Graham from his fellow, anti-carbon cap Republicans, one plausible explanation is that he was looking for any excuse to pull back from his previous support.

And remember, the Senate is the place where a 60-vote threshold has become the rule instead of a rare exception; where it takes three days of stalls and threats to even start debate on financial reform; and where even a resolution praising Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson had to overcome a ‘hold’ by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who (I’m not making this up) objected to language critical of DDT and Sen. Joe McCarthy.

I’m not pessimistic or cynical by nature, but I’ve lost most of my faith in a federal political system so heavily weighted in favor of inertia and inaction. The CO2 buildup in the atmosphere won’t wait for silly political games, and neither will the global clean-tech economy that’s increasingly tilting towards China. The more urgent the need for federal action, it seems, the more the forces that want to preserve the energy status quo dig in and obstruct.

So what’s the answer? Clean-tech leadership from states, cities, and business. And in those areas, thankfully, there is better news. Last month on Earth Day, the state of Massachusetts released a report prepared by Clean Edge, A Future of Innovation and Growth, that assesses Massachusetts’ clean-energy leadership and ranks the nation’s Top 15 clean-energy states at this point in time. Although states could do much more, it’s encouraging to see their action across the country on efficiency standards, financing innovations like property-assessed clean energy, and dozens of other good policy initiatives.

As for the opposition canard that a carbon cap will harm the economy, scores of business leaders strongly disagree. Four days after Sen. Graham’s flip-flop, more than 170 companies around the country signed a letter from the We Can Lead coalition calling on the Senate to get a climate/energy bill back on track. These businesses include both clean-tech companies poised to benefit directly, and corporate giants like eBay, Gap, Levi Strauss, Nike, Starbucks, Symantec, and Virgin America.

Companies like this and countless others know that carbon reduction, energy efficiency, and clean-energy production create the best path to innovation, global competitiveness, and job creation. They’re calling for Senate action, but they’re not waiting to act themselves. No one should, because this Senate, with its dysfunctional and obstructionist track record, won’t deliver anything meaningful on climate and clean energy this year.

Now please prove me wrong.

Wilder is Clean Edge's senior editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the Green section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at and follow him on Twitter at Clint_Wilder.

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