Book Review: The Climate War

To call The Climate War “a riveting tale,” as the cover quotes Bill Clinton as saying, would be an understatement. There have been many books written about current events in the past few years that deserve a large amount of praise, but Eric Pooley’s is the first to talk about what history will remember as the defining issue of our time: the fight to begin dealing with climate change.

In just under 500 pages, Pooley lays out in captivating detail the struggle over the past few years to pass a cap and trade bill in the United States Congress. He explains back stories, introduces us to unsung heroes whose names will never appear in the media, and hammers home, time and again, how difficult a problem our country is facing.

The subtitle of the book is telling: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth. This is not an unbiased book. That being said, readers will be surprised by the villains: science deniers and energy executives take a back seat to what Pooley sees as the destructive behavior of the environmentalist movement, from the Sierra Club leftward. There are many heroes in this book, but the two that stand out are Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest utility companies in the country.

These two men, along with many more individuals, environmental groups, and yes even corporations than can be named, fought side by side to pass a cap and trade bill through Congress. And they almost succeeded.

This is not an exposé of the massive disinformation campaign being waged by many energy companies; read Merchants of Doubt if you want to know the names of the scientists who have sold their souls. Nor is this a chronicle of the concerted attempt by the Bush Administration to have political appointees rewrite scientific findings; read Censoring Science for that. Nor is this a science book; if you want a primer on climate science, read Storms of My Grandchildren. Instead, Pooley brings us the story of the individuals in the trenches, fighting against powerful interests and science denial to pass what will be the most important legislation of our time.

The past few years have not been heartening for those who care about the planet. In 2009, the number of Americans who accepted climate change fell to a mere 57%. For comparison, the number of climate scientists is 98%, which is higher than the percentage of American scientists who accept evolution, itself an incontrovertible fact. In 2009 the world failed miserably to act on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference. And in early 2010, the cap and trade bill passed by the House died in the Senate.

Pooley expertly weaves together the stories of the diverse individuals who fought for a climate bill: environmentalists who have embraced market solutions and condemned the mantra of “polluter pays,” energy executives who cannot bear the thought of explaining to their children one day what they had done to the planet, and policy wonks who were asked to do the impossible, writing a bill that could both achieve the necessary carbon reductions while having a minimal impact on the American economy.

We follow the personal struggles of several of these individuals, perhaps the most interesting of which was Jim Rogers’ tireless efforts to pass the climate bill while at the same time suing the EPA to reduce its regulatory authority, all the while being condemned by environmentalists and his fellow coal executives alike. Or Fred Krupp’s fight with the far left groups intent on destroying utility companies, even apparently at the expense of passing a bill. Al Gore also opened up for this book, as we learn about his internal struggle over whether to publically speak out on this issue he cares so much about or whether it would be best to remain silent, avoiding attracting unnecessary controversy to the climate bill.

We learn of the deals that were struck in Congress. Many Congressmen and women could not vote for the bill if it destroyed jobs in their districts, so protections were incorporated. Many hard decisions had to be made about priorities. For example, the utilities that were willing to cooperate (coal) were to receive many of the free permits, while others who fought the bill (oil) would not; there were simply not enough to go around. Far from belittling the process, Pooley has masterfully reminded us how unbelievably difficult it is to write a large piece of legislation, painting it as an almost heroic struggle far removed from the horse trading we so often belittle the process as. Nothing is without cost and the members of Congress and their staff members involved with this bill did everything in their power to alleviate its negative effects, while at the same time being besieged from the left for not incorporating large enough carbon reductions.

It is difficult not to be moved by this story. The problem seems impossible to surmount: carbon dioxide levels are already unacceptably high and, even if the United States were to drastically reduce emissions, the rest of the world would probably continue to emit greenhouse gases. Yet the many individuals who make up this book carry on, even in the face of such a monumental defeat less than a year ago. To come so close, fail, and then try again shows their devotion to protecting the planet and our children’s future and Pooley has captured it masterfully.

Read this book if you want a captivating story. Read this book if you want to understand how Congress tries to solve intractable problems. Read this book if you wish to understand what history will remember as the most important political struggle of our time. And then please help in the next fight to pass cap and trade. Because if we do not pass a bill, if we as a country do not lead the way in reducing emissions, the effects of what we have done will be felt for tens of thousands of years. And if you think I am exaggerating, then I suggest you read the blog posts I will be writing soon explaining the science of climate change.