A fast-paced, engrossing read about . . . global warming? You bet. Sure, it's a tough public policy issue, easily evoking confusion or boredom. But a smart storyteller knows to steer clear of abstractions and tell the story through real people.
That's what journalist Eric Pooley does in The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, a snapshot of the past few years of the politics of climate change.
We meet Fred Krupp, the head of the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the largest environmental groups in the country. Though the head of a nonprofit, Krupp prides himself on working with businesses to get actual legislation passed. Krupp "looked at corporations the way Willie Sutton looked at banks: business was where the pollution was. Altruism wasn't going to save the planet, he figured, but the profit motive might, if it could be properly harnessed," Pooley reports. Naturally, this makes all the other environmental groups suspicious.
Another character is Jim Rogers, the president and CEO of the electric utility Duke Energy. Rogers is a wily business executive who accepts that climate change is real and works to make a deal on climate regulations — as long as the price is right. His candor and willingness to negotiate make the policy wonks hang on his every public pronouncement: "If he supported a bill, he'd bring other power executives and important politicians along with him. If he denounced a bill, that meant it was probably dead."
And then there's Al Gore. We all think we know him, but Pooley's Gore is a fascinating series of subtle contradictions. He's world-weary but has a steely sense of mission. He's embraced by President Barack Obama and environmentalists but seems to prefer going his own way. He knows how dismal the chances are for climate change legislation, yet he's willing to put his time and fortune on the line anyway.
Pooley is a deputy editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek, which gives him particular insight into the market-based reforms that his cast of characters are fighting over. The most promising means to limit carbon emissions, Pooley says, is a market-based cap and trade program that sets an overall limit on carbon emissions (the cap) and then lets companies buy and sell pollution permits (the trade). The cap is gradually lowered as companies innovate and compete to become more efficient; it's the same type of plan that helped end acid rain.
Pooley manages to explain the policy intricacies without getting bogged down in too many details. From a scientific perspective, he takes for granted that human-made climate change is real, but he provides evidence to prove his points, and he specifically refutes claims from what he calls the Denialosphere — the professionals intent on debunking climate change.
But the book isn't just policy points, it actually has a plot, which is the attempt to get a cap-and-trade bill through Congress. Newspaper readers know the ending: Cap-and-trade legislation passed the House of Representatives in 2009, but the legislation stalled in the Senate, and prospects look grim.
Part of The Climate War is an insiders' look at the fight in Congress, even though it ends without resolution. The book's epilogue is President Obama's trip to the climate change conference in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Pooley gives Obama mixed marks on fighting for climate change legislation, depicting a president who talks a good game on green jobs but hasn't put his presidency on the line in support of specific legislation.
One of journalism's biggest challenges these days is explaining big, complicated problems to time-pressed readers. Books like The Climate War are long enough to tackle big issues without having to dumb them down and interesting enough to retain people's attention. Pooley's book makes an intimidating issue understandable and challenges citizens to engage.