Did Scott Brown Kill Off Any Hope Of Tackling Climate Change?

by Bradford Plumer | January 20, 2010

After Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts, everyone's been pondering the fate of health care reform. But to gaze even further ahead, where does this leave climate and energy legislation? Is that just going to get scrapped? Or could it still survive in some form?

The optimistic take comes from Harry Reid, who told the Senate earlier this morning that he still plans to push the issue: "We will tackle our daunting energy and climate challenges, and by doing so will strengthen our national security, our environment and our economy." Republican Lindsey Graham, who's helping craft Senate legislation, also sounds undeterred: "If people think that [Brown] got elected and the message to us was 'don’t do anything on pollution or energy independence,' that’s absurd."

But obviously it won't be simple. Brown's victory means Democrats are down yet another vote for any bill that curtails carbon-dioxide emissions. (Back when he was a state legislator, Brown voted for cap-and-trade, but he's long since reversed himself, and who knows if he'll actually tack leftward yet again to keep his seat.) Granted, a Senate climate bill was always going to require a handful of Republican votes, so the fact that Democrats no longer have a supermajority isn't, on its own, a fatal blow. But there's also the fact that a lot of swing senators like Evan Bayh are crawling into the fetal position right now and don't seem inclined to take up any major legislation.

So we'll see. Now, for those curious, there are a few alternatives to a major climate bill, though they may not be nearly as effective. Some Senate Dems have been talking about doing an energy-only bill this year. They'd nix the cap on greenhouse gases and just pass less-contentious items, like renewable-power standards, or energy-efficiency rules, or loans for green tech. As various policy wonks have pointed out none of these measures can substitute for a price on carbon, at least not if you want to make a serious dent in emissions. But they could potentially garner bipartisan support, especially if subsidies for nuclear power were tossed in. (On the other hand, dispensing all the goodies now makes it harder to attract votes for emission limits later.)

There's also the EPA, which still has the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. See here for a primer on what that would entail—it's sort of clunky, but it can help. Except that, as Dave Roberts explains, conservatives will likely try all sorts of tactics to strip the agency of this authority. Lisa Murkowski is leading the charge on this, and she has support from at least two Democrats: Jim Webb and Mary Landrieu. So environmental groups suddenly need to pivot from passing major legislation to playing defense on the Clean Air Act. But if they can do that, then the Obama administration technically has another (imperfect) option.

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