"History does not forgive us our national mistakes [just] because they are explicable in terms of our domestic politics."
So said the famous diplomat and diplomatic historian George F. Kennan. I quoted him in a book about climate science and climate policy five years ago, and his verdict seems to me more apt than ever before.
We can account for the decision last week of the Democratic leadership to give up on passing a serious climate bill, but it really isn't very interesting (McCain's defection from the cap-and-trade camp, then Lindsay Graham's; the stubborn resistance of coal-state Democrats; a decline in public concern about climate; etc etc). But in the end there's no escaping the conclusion that President Obama simply failed to put his money where his mouth was supposed to be. That is, he did not forcefully explain to the American people why strong action on climate is a moral and practical imperative; and he did not twist the arms he needed to twist to accomplish what he claimed he wanted to accomplish--namely, to restore the United States to a position of real leadership on climate.
Arianna Huffington, whose hugely successful Huff Post has become the go-to place for environmental leaders, conjured Lyndon Johnson's leadership on the voting rights act, easily the most important piece of U.S. legislation since the New Deal. It's no excuse to complain that you don't have the votes, Huffington told an interviewer: Remember, she said, "what Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King in March 1965 when they met about the Voting Rights Act, and Martin Luther King went out and the Selma March happened, and suddenly a few months later when had the votes." If Obama doesn't have the votes, he needs to let people know what has to happen for him to get them.
Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, takes essentially the same line in today's New York Times. "Despite climate change being the greatest challenge of our time, with millions of people facing inundation, starvation and conflicts over scarce resources, the White House directed advocates not to discuss it. At a meeting in April 2009 led by Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy and climate policy, administration message mavens told climate bill advocates that, given the polling, they should avoid talking about climate change and focus on green jobs and energy independence.
"Had Lyndon Johnson likewise relied on polling, he would have told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to talk only about the expanded industry and jobs that Southerners would realize after passage of a federal civil rights act. I could imagine Dr. King’s response."
The global ramifications of the U.S. abdication are enormous. Serious action on climate was deferred at Copenhagen last December because it was generally felt no consensus would be possible until the United States had enacted a strong carbon-reduction bill. That's because, for the last ten years, the other advanced industrial countries have taken serious action to reduce their global greenhouse gas emissions, while the U.S. government has done nothing. Will the advanced industrial countries now recognize that there is no serious prospect of U.S. action, and draw consequences this fall at Cancun?
What matters is whether U.S. political cowardice turns out to be contagious, or whether it's resisted and contained.