Why is the United States so bad at adopting climate policy? It’s by design.

A Democratic president was in the White House. The Democratic Party held the majority of seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. But only one senator – a moderate Democrat from West Virginia – blocked the White House’s favorite climate plan.

No, it was not in 2021, it was in 1993: jurassic park had just been released, Bill Clinton was president, and atmospheric carbon dioxide was only 357 parts per million (it’s 415 ppm today). West Virginia’s fossil fuel Senator Robert Byrd was the chairman of the Senate Credit Committee, and without his support, the Clinton administration could not pass a carbon emissions tax to combat climate change. The White House has chosen to support an energy tax instead, which passed the House but, in the face of substantial opposition and lobbying on fossil fuels, never became law.

It was the first climate policy failure of many. Four years later, Byrd led a resolution which prevented the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Further efforts to pass climate legislation have stalled almost every year since. Indeed, the last three decades of US climate policy look like a graveyard of failed bills: Carbon taxes have died on the Senate floor and been set ablaze by attack ads. Cap-and-trade systems were approved – and then abandoned – by Republicans and Democrats.

According to the Climate Change Performance Index, the United States is 55th in the world in climate policy; another one an analysis by Yale University and Columbia University ranked the country 24th in environmental performance. Now, as Democrats struggle to regroup after current West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin refuses to back President Joe Biden’s landmark climate and welfare bill, it seems to be happening again. The United States is within reach of adopting climate policy, but dangerously close to failing.

Biden’s giant climate bill – known as the Build Back Better Act – is still in effect. Democrats have pledged to try to pass it regardless of Manchin’s position, while the West Virginia senator has said publicly that it is perhaps easier to come to an agreement on the climate sections of the bill than, say, the child tax credit. But earlier this week, Manchin also claimed there had been “no negotiationsOn the bill. For now, Build Back Better looks like a grim bookend to decades of inaction on climate change.

So what’s wrong with the American political system? Is American democracy particularly incapable of combating global warming?

“In most countries around the world, pushing through climate reform is extremely difficult,” said Matto Mildenberger, professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. But, he added, there are some things that make dealing with global warming particularly difficult in the United States; not impossible, but very hard.

In his book, Carbon capturedMildenberger argues that the most difficult part of adopting climate policy is that fossil fuel interests benefit from what he calls “dual representation.” This means that they are represented both on the left, by trade unions and industrial workers, and on the right by corporate interests. This “double representation” sounded the death knell for climate policies.

This is because in most democracies it is easier to block change than to create it. And the government of the United States, with its constitutionally enshrined separation of powers, offers far more blocking possibilities than other democracies. “The United States has a lot of what we call ‘veto points’ in political science,” Mildenberger explained. “There are a lot of different individuals in different places who can block a policy, ranging from a majority in the House of Representatives to a truly conservative Supreme Court. ”

These “veto points” have been visible in many major climate flops in the United States to date. In 2009, a cap-and-trade bill, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s climate strategy, died in the Senate after it became clear Democrats could not muster 60 ‘yeses’ to overcome the systematic obstruction. (Filtration: a veto point.) Later, Obama’s back-up plan – an ordinance requiring utilities to switch to clean sources of electricity – was challenged in court and never been implemented. (The courts: another veto point.) Then, in 2017, President Donald Trump announcement that he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, even if the treaty was not binding. (Executive action: yet another veto point.) Whenever climate advocates have tried to advance change, the story has been distinctly American: no veto, no veto, no veto.

The American electoral system doesn’t help much either. The United States has a presidential system rather than a parliamentary system, which means that the president or head of state does not necessarily belong to the same party as the majority in Congress. This means that two branches of government often pull in different directions, dooming bills to a no man’s land of inaction. Studies have shown that parliamentary systems are generally faster at establishing climate-friendly policies: many parliamentary democracies like the UK, Japan and Germany have already been successful in pricing carbon or similar carbon reduction measures. carbon, but there are exceptions, like the climate policy -Averse Australia.

Then there are single-member ridings in the United States that create members of Congress who are more focused on representing their geographic areas than on maintaining party unity. Taken together, the system creates what Roger Karapin calls “centrifugal” forces that separate and divide lawmakers. “We have 50 states, a huge land area, and a huge population,” said Karapin, professor of political science at Hunter College, City University of New York. “By their very nature, members of Congress appeal to their base at home – and those bases are far from each other. ”

Karapin says congressional makeup tilts the country towards fossil fuel interests: two senators per state means states dependent on oil, gas or coal have disproportionate clout while less populous states gain disproportionate representation in Congress . Several of these less populous states – Wyoming, Alaska, the Dakotas – also have significant reserves of fossil fuels.

Combine these barriers with an extremely polarized political system and a powerful fossil fuel industry that can use money to influence politicians, and America’s idea of ​​democracy doesn’t seem like a great place to adopt climate policies. positive.

But veto points and double representation are not inexorable. In the right hands, they can even look like perks. The separation of powers means a struggle to pass national climate laws, but it can also allow some states, like California or Washington, to create climate policies without federal support. The Supreme Court can suspend executive actions aimed at cleaning up the electricity sector, or can give the president increased powers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as in Massachusetts v. EPA.

There is also a stochastic element – random political events that can make or break the future of the planet. The past three decades have looked like an endless chain of “what ifs”. What if Democrats won the Senate seat in North Carolina last year, giving them a voice around Senator Manchin? What if the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – which destroyed nascent attempts at bipartisan cooperation around Obama’s climate plan – had never happened? What if the Supreme Court only had one more liberal judge supporting the president’s emergency climate plan?

All this to say that an American failure on climate change is not guaranteed. Today, global warming is attracting more attention than it has in the past three decades. In recent years, climate advocates have figured out how to get around the filibuster and create a vast network of activists for change. Mildenberger argues that, if all goes well, the United States also has the opportunity to do a lot Following on the climate than many other countries. Everything has to line up for a moment, for a vote. “There is a capacity for transformative change that may not exist in other countries,” he said. “It’s just hard to make this recipe a success. ”

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