The Challenges of Climate Change Policy: Explaining the Failure of Cap and Trade in the United States With a Multiple-Streams Framework

By Dustin R. Turin
2012, Vol. 4 No. 06 | pg. 3/3 |

Turnover in elected officials gave policy an opportunity to rise on the national agenda. In the House, the Waxman-Markey proposal was already in the works, and both Lieberman and Kerry had previously tried and failed to spur climate legislation. Assuming the presidency, Obama set priorities for two agenda items: health care, which was a major feature of his campaign, and the environment.22 In February 2009, Obama asked Congress to “send [him] legislation that places a market-based cap on pollution.”23 Lizza quotes an official for the Obama administration indicating plans to pursue both health care and the environment simultaneously, “and see which one looks more promising.”24 Election turnover and Obama as the most prominent national agenda setter were thus essential in putting climate change—cap and trade, in particular—on the national agenda.

After the Waxman-Markey legislation passed in the House, the political dynamics of the Lieberman-Kerry-Graham relationship became essential to the development of a plan that could pass in the Senate. Even though the Democrats held a majority in the Senate, they did not have a ‘filibuster-proof’ majority (requiring sixty seats, to the Democrats fifty-seven). Lizza offers an exhaustive discussion of each man’s political calculations: Lieberman, an Independent, was a long-time supporter of cap and trade policy, had tried and failed to bring forward a plan in the past, and was morally committed to seeing a plan implemented. Kerry is described as a political opportunist, motivated in the past by environmental issues but particularly concerned with “[proving] that he could be in a major, really historic piece of legislation.” Graham, meanwhile, as the lone Republican, faced the greatest political headwinds for joining the effort: angry constituents, attacks from far-right movements such as the Tea Party, and the risk of “angering” the leader of the Republican party in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who called on his party to block all aspects of Obama’s agenda. Conversely, Graham was brought in as a “dealmaker” who saw an “opportunity to boost nuclear industry and expand oil drilling.” He was the middleman for industry lobbyists and a “central person in the process.”25 Thus, an image emerges in which Lieberman and Kerry organize political support for their proposal, while Graham is essential in gaining the support of industry by dolling out incentives.

While Lieberman, Kerry, and Graham organized support for a cap and trade agreement in the Senate, there was a lack of coordination with the White House that ultimately undermined their proposal. As previously mentioned, the KGL effort hinged on three big industry ‘carrots’: expanded loan guarantees for nuclear , increased offshore drilling, and promises that the EPA would not use a top-down approach to regulate emissions. The White House, nevertheless, started to give these carrots away. In late-January, Obama announced a plan to triple federal loan guarantees for nuclear power;26 in March, the Administration announced a plan to open a large stretch of the East Coast to oil and natural gas exploration for the first time;27 meanwhile, there was movement from both sides of the aisle, independent of the coalition effort, to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.28

As the available carrots for attracting support to their bill disappeared, other changes occurred in the political atmosphere. As highlighted in the problems stream, support for environmental protection over was fading quickly in the public, as the national mood became increasingly mired in financial worries from the stalled economy. Conservative groups and media outlets, characterized by an ideological opposition to global warming, attacked Graham for supporting “cap and tax” and referred to climate science as “climate-gate.”29 By the end of April 2010, as discussions for the KGL proposal reached a pinnacle, the oil spill at the offshore BP oil platform became the largest in history. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, decided the Senate would take up in advance of a climate bill, spurring Graham to leave the coalition30—and dashing hope of significant Republican support—while Lieberman and Kerry “were left sponsoring a bill with a sweeping expansion of offshore drilling at a moment when newspapers were filled with photographs of birds soaking in oil.”31

Obama, the nation’s most important agenda setter, set two priorities on taking office: health care and the environment. Healthcare succeeded, at great political expense, in the midst of criticism and growing concern for the economy.32 In the wake of the healthcare battle, climate change legislation appeared volatile and of little political appeal. Schattschneider argues that “conflicts compete with each other” (p. 63), and “every major overwhelms, subordinates, and blots out a multitude of lesser ones” (p. 65); Kingdon agrees there is only limited space on a national agenda, while policy entrepreneurs—“even presidents”—have finite political resources that cannot be spent on “everything at once” (p. 184). Obama turned his attention to other priorities, dropping climate change from the national rhetoric and making no mention of the environment in his 2011 State of the Union address, although he specifically addressed climate change as a national priority in the preceding year.33 In Congress, Reid called off efforts for a comprehensive climate bill.34 At the same time, turnover in the 2010 Congressional once again changed the structure of formal political power in Washington, with conservative Tea Party Republicans sweeping the House and Democrats losing six seats in the Senate.35

Conclusion: On Policy Windows and Missed Opportunities

As a policy tool, cap and trade should appear particularly palatable for addressing global warming in the United States. It proved effective in other similar issues, such as cleaning our air of sulfur dioxide, and has been tested in other countries and through regional initiatives. Implemented properly, it is likely that cap and trade would please environmentalists while incurring a relatively small impact on industry, reducing the federal budget deficit, and creating new employment opportunities.36 Nevertheless, cap and trade is not currently within sight of the national agenda.

This discussion showed how problems, policies, and politics interacted, ultimately failing to provide a cap and trade bill. In particular, it is apparent that for a brief period, a policy window—an opportunity for major legislative change—appeared to be open. That period occurred immediately in the wake of Obama’s election, toward the beginning of 2009. At that point, the American public still perceived global warming to be relatively important, an appropriate policy alternative—as evidenced by the successful Waxman-Markey legislation—was available, and the major Democratic victories accompanying the election of created a political environment conducive to change.

But, as Kingdon asserts, “once the window opens, it does not stay open long” (p. 169). Public support for the environment faded quickly as the financial crisis dragged on, and the American public—thanks to the efforts of political and industry activists—began to seriously question the science of global warming. While the House passed a climate bill, the Senate failed to take the issue up with the same speed and rigor, instead attempting to create an entirely new bill and lacking a policy entrepreneur who could coordinate efforts in the Senate with the Presidential agenda. The Senate alternative became bogged down with incentives and giveaways, and when the BP oil accident ballooned into a disaster—instead of increasing calls for environmental regulation, which would seem the intuitive response—the cap and trade bill was appeared further tarnished. Meanwhile, Obama and the Democrats exhausted their political resources on passing a controversial healthcare bill, so that at the last minute—while a deal was still within sight—cap and trade appeared too politically expensive, subordinated by other efforts. The nail in the coffin of cap and trade—at least for the time being—came only shortly thereafter as Democrats lost their overwhelming mandate in the 112th Congress.


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Bremer, L.L. & Farley, K.A. (2011). “Carbon trading/Emissions Trading.” In Schiffman, H.W. & Robbins, P., Green Issues and Debates. Los Angeles: Sage.

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Gropp, E.R. (2011). “New Congress, old climate rhetoric.” BioScience, 61(2), 106.

Kingdon, J.W. (1995). Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2nd Edition). University of Michigan: Longman Classics.

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Kraft, M.E. (2007). and Politics (4th edition). Pearson .

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Paltsev, S., Reilly, J.M., Jacoby, H.D., Gurgel, A.C., Metcalf, G.E., Sokolov, A.P., Holak, J.F. (2007). “Assessment of U.S. Cap-and-Trade Proposals.” MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Schattschneider, E.E. (1960). The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of in America. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Schiffman, H.W. & Robbins, P. (2011). “Carbon Markets.” Green Issues and Debates. Los Angeles: Sage.

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1.) --. (2011). “Americans increasingly prioritize economy over environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

2.) --. (2011). “Three key findings on American’s views of the environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

3.) Rosenthal, E. (2011). “Whatever happened to global warming.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

4.) Broder, J.M. (2009). “From a theory to a consensus on emissions.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

5.) --. (2009). “FY2010 Presidential Budget.” United States Office of Management and Budget. Retrieved from:

6.) --. (2011). “Three key findings on American’s views of the environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

7.) --. (2011). “Americans increasingly prioritize economy over environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

8.) Ibid.

9.) --. (2011). “Worldwide, blame for climate change falls on humans.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

10.) --. (2011). “Three key findings on American’s views of the environment.” Gallup. Retrieved from:

11.) Broder, J.M. (2009). “From a theory to a consensus on emissions.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

12.) Ibid.

13.) Ibid.

14.) Tutwiler, P. (2010). “Climate change legislation: where does it stand?” GovTrack. Retrieved from:

15.) --. (2009). “H.R.2454: American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 – Congressional Research Service Summary.” GovTrack. Retreived from:

16.) Lizza, R. (2010). “As the world burns: how the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from:¤tPage=all

17.) Tutwiler, 2010.

18.) Lizza, 2010: 2.

19.) Ibid.

20.) Ibid, 7.

21.) “Party divisions of the House of Representatives (1789 – Present).” U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved from:; “Party divisions in the Senate (1789 – Present).” U.S. Senate. Retrieved from:

22.) Schroeder, R. (2009). “Obama’s ambitious agenda faces test on day one.” MarketWatch. Retrieved from:

23.) Obama, B. (2009). Address by the President to the Joint Session of Congress. Retrieved from:

24.) Lizza, 2010: 3.

25.) Ibid.

26.) Wald, L.W. (2010). “Obama acts to easy way to construct new reactors.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

27.) Broder, J.M. (2010). “Obama to open offshore areas to oil drilling for first time.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

28.) Bravender, R. (2010). “Two key house Dems move to block EPA regulatory authority.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

29.) --. (2010). “New revelations on climate-gate” [Transcript from Hannity]. Fox News. Retrieved from:,2933,591415,00.html

30.) Broder, J.M. (2010). “Graham pulls support for major senate climate bill.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

31.) Lizza, 2010: 19-20.

32.) -- . (2011). “Health Care Reform.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

33.) Obama, B. (2011). 2011 State of the Union Address. Retrieved from:; Obama, B. (2010). 2010 State of the Union Address. Retrieved from:

34.) Hulse, C. & Herszenhorn, D.M. (2010). “Democrats call off climate bill effort.” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

35.) “Party divisions of the House of Representatives (1789 – Present).” U.S. House of Representatives. Retrieved from:; “Party divisions in the Senate (1789 – Present).” U.S. Senate. Retrieved from:

36.) Tutwiler, 2010.

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