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In Review

Battle Royale

The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth
by Eric Pooley
496 pages, Hyperion, 2010

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Why, in the face of mounting evidence about the dangers of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, have US politicians failed to act on climate change? Eric Pooley’s The Climate War seeks to answer that question through a gripping account of the struggle between fossil fuel interests and advocates of climate action. It’s an insiders’ tale, told from the perspective of key players such as Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Jim Rogers of Duke Energy, and former Vice President Al Gore. Pooley places the reader at the round tables of the power brokers and even in the heads of his key characters. But the allure of access comes at the expense of journalistic skepticism: Too often, we’re left wondering whether we’re getting the full story. Still, the book is a must-read for new entrants to the climate battlefield and old warriors alike. It is, if nothing else, a cautionary tale.

A decade ago, Jeremy Leggett’s The Carbon War told the story of how a brave band of climate campaigners fought to a standstill the forces of the oil, gas, and coal industries and built an alliance of environmentalists, insurance magnates, and the leaders of small island states to create the Kyoto Protocol (a victory that today looks Pyrrhic). The book ended before the US elections of 2000, on the knife’s edge of hope and despair. Pooley’s book neatly sidesteps the administration of George W. Bush and with it the complete stalling of federal progress on climate change for close to a decade. Instead, he pulls back to the first Bush administration and tells the back-story of how EDF, under Krupp, introduced cap-and-trade to tackle acid rain, always intending that it would someday be the policy mechanism for addressing greenhouse gases.

If that seems a bit wonky, the book also comes with plenty of personality. The Climate War is a study in how ego can derail well-intentioned action. Pooley shows how Senators like Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and John McCain (R-AZ), consistently put pettiness over policy. One stunning incident comes when Senator McCain drops all pretenses at climate leadership, due to both a primary challenge and petulance toward President Obama for not asking him personally to vote on the bill.

However, Pooley reveals that the true legislative knife-in-the-back came from the White House, when West Wing staffers Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, after a stealth vote-whipping operation on the House climate bill, dropped their efforts on the Senate bill in favor of health care legislation. The absence of any US carbon legislation before Copenhagen drove a stake into the heart of the international climate conference.

While keeping tabs on the legislative goings-on, The Climate War checks in occasionally on the forces of misinformation representing coal, oil, and gas interests. Usually they’re in the middle of an effort to control their most recent scandal, like sending out animated carolers as the largest coal ash disaster in US history buries a town during the Christmas season. Or being forced to admit that their Astroturfers have forged – whole-cloth – letters against climate legislation. Yet, even with those controversies, the fossil fuel lobby succeeds at spreading cooked statistics and conspiracy theory to the American public.

The Climate War excels at putting us next to the power players in the battle for climate legislation; almost all of the action takes place in luxurious boardrooms. The book falls short when it comes to tracking rank-and-file climate activists. Ordinary people are seen only through the distorted lens of polling. The concerns of people outside the United States barely warrant a mention. And many of the “true believers” – those who have fought hardest for addressing the climate crisis – are sidelined due to their skepticism toward the cap-and-trade policy that EDF made the centerpiece of its lobbying. The book ends with an account of how the international negotiating process went from “warm, young, and naïve” in Bali to “old, cold, and embittered” in Copenhagen due to the maddening obstructionism of the US political system.

With US politics deadlocked, and climate science “know-nothings” and oil-funded Astroturf operations gaining ground in the fertile soil of the Tea Party movement, the situation today looks grim. Climate campaigners will likely have to find new ways to storm the ramparts of Washington, DC. A decade from now, I hope that instead of reading another chapter in the never-ending carbon war, we’ll find a way to achieve victory without the scorched-Earth politics that have burned out so many dedicated activists in a battle against the deception, money, and power of the dirty energy era.

—Richard Graves


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