Behind the scenes of climate legislation

By Aaron Wiener
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2010

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When Eric Pooley set out to tell the story of Washington’s battle against global warming back in 2007, he hoped that his tale would have a happy ending. Instead, “The Climate War’’ is a book without an ending — a cliffhanger that takes us through all the deals that put comprehensive climate legislation within reach but ultimately leaves us at a precipice, with a failed international climate conference in Copenhagen and a Senate cap-and-trade bill on life support.

The journey, though, is a good one, as Pooley, an editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and a former Time White House correspondent, gives us the first true insider’s account of the evolution of carbon-capping legislation from fringe notion to near-reality in America.

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press taken in October 2009, just 36 percent of Americans believe there’s solid evidence that human activity is heating up the planet. Those 36 percent are Pooley’s target audience; the others are not just skeptics but “deniers.’’ Much to his credit, Pooley dispenses with the “he said, she said’’ journalistic approach that gives equal weight to accepted science and what he terms the Denialosphere, preferring to discuss not whether global warming is a problem but how best to tackle it.

That’s not to say he’s in bed with the Greenpeaces of the world; Pooley has little patience with the left wing of the environmental movement, which is often unwilling to compromise its principles for the sake of actually getting something done. Instead, Pooley’s heroes are the people in green groups and industry who risk scorn from their more ideological counterparts in order to try to find common ground.

The bulk of the book focuses on three men: Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp, Duke Energy chief executive Jim Rogers, and, to a lesser extent, Al Gore. Each has his own distinct role. Krupp, “a brilliant salesman’’ and “a brilliant policy wonk,’’ is, in Pooley’s telling, the only person capable of uniting key sectors of the environmental movement behind proposals that can actually pass. Rogers fills a similar role among industry leaders, convincing them that there is profit to be made if they cooperate on climate legislation and consequences if they don’t. Meanwhile, Gore works in the background, slowly building a grass-roots campaign to convince the public that the global warming threat is real and requires action.

Of course, Pooley’s focus on Krupp and Rogers is necessarily reductive and “The Climate War’’ should not be mistaken for a comprehensive history of US environmentalism. Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt share a single sentence of the book, while Rachel Carson gets the next. Politicians receive only slightly more attention and fall somewhere on the spectrum from “ineffective’’ (Barbara Boxer, James Inhofe) to “willing to play ball with Jim Rogers’’ (Henry Waxman, Ed Markey), about the highest praise Pooley can give.

Despite the sometimes limited focus — a consequence, no doubt, of Pooley’s broad access to his three protagonists — it’s a refreshing departure from the approach to which political junkies have grown accustomed, which tends to speculate on the eventual votes of one or two Midwestern Democratic legislators. And it’s an important reminder that legislation is made behind the scenes, not on the Senate floor. Pooley captures these backroom talks in their full drama (“The room stopped. People held their breath. The storm clouds rolled past the windows. Everything hung on Rogers.’’).

Pooley does occasionally seem to fall into the trap of assuming that the climate bill eventually passed by the House last year was the best possible one and that anyone who objected to portions of it was missing the point. But that’s the danger of writing an unfinished story — only in hindsight will we know if Krupp, Rogers, and Co. were the visionaries Pooley makes them out to be.

Aaron Wiener, managing editor of The Washington Independent, can be reached at


True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth

By Eric Pooley

Hyperion, 496 pp., $27.99