Paul Krugman's column yesterday blamed the failure of the climate bill on industries that promote skepticism of the science of climate change along with cowardly politicians who failed to follow their conscience. Those factors are correct on their own terms. You can also add in the filibuster and the failure of industries like coal to recognize their need for some kind of regulatory certainty.
But the truth is that public opinion played a major role as well. It's not that Americans oppose action on greenhouse gas emissions -- most polls show they favor it. It's that they lack strong enough convictions to support the dislocations that any meaningful bill would impose. An AP poll, for instance, found that 59% of Americans would oppose any climate bill if it would cause their electricity bill to rise by even $10 a month. In an environment like this, opponents have a huge advantage in the battle for public opinion.
None of this is to say that a climate bill would be impossible without stronger public support. It's the kind of issue that requires responsible elites. You would need Republicans to decide that the issue was vital and work with Democrats to craft a mutually-acceptable solution. Instead they positioned themselves to fan the flames of public opposition to any sacrifice or dislocation. The combination of a public with soft views on the issue and an opportunistic GOP made a bill impossible.
My other difference with Krugman is that I don't think the failure of a bill means the planet will burn. I think it means that the Environmental Protection Agency will take over the issue. This isn't ideal from an economic point of view. But it is ideal from Congress's point of view -- or, at least, the conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who hold the deciding votes in Congress. Decreasing economic efficiency by limiting carbon emissions through regulation, rather then a more efficient cap and trade bill, in order to let the Senate avoid voting on the issue is a win for Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.
If Obama can hang tough on carbon emissions, he can force the energy industry to put real pressure on Congress to pass a climate bill. Obviously the threat is too abstract right now. But liberals need to get used to the idea that the EPA is the short-term solution and start figuring out how to make that work. the death of legislation in 2010 is not the death of a solution.