The Skywriter

The Lieberman-Warner Bill: a post-mortem


The Lieberman-Warner Bill: a post-mortem

Lieberman-Warner cloture vote
This is our first post from Vivian Buckingham, our new Policy Director at 1Sky. -- Luis

“While the Senate fiddles, the globe warms.” That plaintive quip by Joe Lieberman, co-author of the doomed Climate Security Act (S. 3036), was much more ironic and unfortunate than even he could have realized. The reference to a Nero-like performance by the Senate inadvertently captured one of the underlying reasons for the failure and quick death of the bill, and had he thought more deeply about the analogy, the Senator would have surely second guessed himself. He would have realized that in spreading the falsehood of Christian culpability for the burning of Rome, Nero exhibited a monumental appreciation for the importance of messaging and public outreach. In fact, the narrative of Nero’s historic duplicity cannot be uncoupled from his epic and successful endeavor to gain huge public buy-in for his bold fiction.

There was little in the way of comparable effort for the Climate Security Act. While the failure of the bill was caused, in part, by the caving of Senators to special interests such as big oil, coal, etc., the bill also died a quick death because of the failure to elicit the support and interest of the American public.

And so, banking on the ignorance and disinterest of the American public, the debate was given more over to political theater than to a substantive exchange about climate change policy. What little discourse there was came to a dead stop on Wednesday when Republicans, stoking up antipathy over languishing judicial appointments as an excuse to not play ball, insisted that Senate clerks read every word of the 492-page bill.

After a grueling nine hours of fulfilling that task, a series of memorable quotes and surreal exchanges ensued in the august chamber, which demonstrated the futility of any attempts at substantive discussion. Senator James Inhofe observed that “[o]ne of the good things about this discussion and this debate is we are not going to be discussing the science.” He then proceeded to attack the United Nations climate panel, decrying their scientific conclusions while at the same time, curiously enough, remarking on observable climate changes in his own home state of Oklahoma. Senator Kyl of Arizona seemingly had found a way to boil down the complexity of the bill for the non-attentive American public when he stated that the bill meant that Americans would have to turn off their air conditioners this summer. Other speakers talked up the bill’s menacing promise of astronomical energy prices even as tickers scrolled beneath them on television screens across the nation announcing that market hydraulics had boosted the price of oil to the historic high of $139.00 per barrel -- a hike of $11.00 in one day. And, given the true failure of the bill to offer genuine solutions to climate change, Senator Corker of Tennessee spoke more truth than he intended when he declared in a vitriolic political huff, “This bill is going down in flames, as it should.”

After a 48-36 procedural vote to limit amendments and move the bill forward nailed the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill in its coffin on Friday, another curious thing occurred: victory was declared by all sides. Senate Republicans congratulated themselves on defeating the bill. Senator Boxer, who with her substitute amendment ended up sharing co-sponsorship with Senators Lieberman and Warner, also declared victory when she said that the bill will offer a political roadmap to the next president as to where the nation needs to go in addressing climate change. And a number of green groups also declared victory, citing the fact that lawmakers were forced to take up the issue of climate change for a few days and that a path has been laid for more legislative action in 2009.

This, of course, all begs the question of whether the American people have had a victory. The answer surely can’t be yes, for they haven’t been shielded from rising energy costs by the defeat of this bill, not with historic rises in oil prices and the sure promise of more to come within the next few weeks. And they haven’t been served by the crafting of climate change legislation that does not match up with the requirements of science, that fails to address the problem at scale and that can’t be translated facilely for public consumption.

Nero may have fiddled as Rome burned, but every citizen knew the words to the tunes he played. It’s not enough to organize words and provisions into a document and then introduce it into the legislative process. There must be vigorous and energetic outreach to the public so that the debates and discussions can be genuinely understood, and so that the public can in turn hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions or lack thereof on climate change. It’s not enough to hold rallies on the steps of the nation’s Capitol on the day before scheduled debate. Climate change is political – there is no denying that. But it is also a pressing reality.

Organizations like 1Sky and its allies are keenly aware of the importance and significance of public education on climate change issues and they are working and planning to fill the public education and outreach deficit. However, Congressional champions must also understand the importance of building support for climate change legislation as vehicles for constituent organizing and engagement. It can truly mean the difference between failure and true success.

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