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Senator Joseph Lieberman did more than perhaps any member of Congress to seek a middle ground solution on climate change—an effort that, had it succeeded, would have put the United States at least 20 years ahead of where it is today in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

But hope for bipartisan Congressional compromise on climate perished long before Lieberman, the Connecticut Democrat-turned-Independent who died Wednesday at the age of 82.

He lived long enough to see Democrats pass, with no Republican support, a law that addresses climate change by spending an unprecedented $370 billion on clean energy. But the process of passing the Inflation Reduction Act underscored just how politically unfeasible it is today to suggest a law that set targets and timetables for directly cutting carbon emissions. The few pieces of legislation that did that and reached the floor of the Senate for a vote all bore Lieberman’s name—most notably, his 2003 cap-and-trade effort co-sponsored by his friend, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.

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“Fast forward 20 years, and that approach is no longer politically tenable for all sorts of reasons,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of NRDC Action Votes. “It was never discounted as an effective mechanism. It just politically wasn’t achievable.”

In a 2018 interview with Inside Climate News, Lieberman reflected on how the McCain-Lieberman vote shook up Washington, even though it failed. By garnering six Republican votes, including McCain’s, it pointed to a way ahead on climate action. For a time, it was widely assumed cap-and-trade would eventually succeed, since it was embraced by both 2008 presidential candidates, McCain and the ultimate victor, President Barack Obama. But Lieberman recalled how a fearsome business lobby rose up against cap-and-trade, and his repeated attempts to build on their 2003 vote fizzled.

“We made progress, but unfortunately it was a high point,” Lieberman said. “I don’t think we’ve come back to it since.”

‘No Benefits From Delay’

Lieberman began his 24 years in the Senate in 1989, just months after NASA scientist James Hansen’s groundbreaking testimony to Congress on climate change. The Connecticut Democrat soon was prodding then-President George H.W. Bush on the need to act. After a Bush speech on the need for more study of global warming before government action, Lieberman scoffed that the president was “resurrecting the wimp image.”

During the Clinton administration, Lieberman became a leading Senate voice in support of an international treaty to cut carbon pollution. Climate change was “the most serious and complex environmental issue ever faced by the international community,” he wrote in a 1997 opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor.

“If we don’t set long-term greenhouse emissions limits now, and instead wait to see just how our climate changes, it may be too late when we do act,” he wrote. “There are no benefits from delay.”

Lieberman was part of a delegation of Senate observers who attended the climate talks in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, where developed countries, including the United States, agreed to cut emissions. After the pact was announced, he stood beside then-Vice President Al Gore, the lead U.S. negotiator, to endorse the Kyoto protocol as “a significant beginning.”

When Gore ran for president in 2000, he would tap Lieberman as his running mate, an historic choice that made Lieberman the first Jewish candidate on a major party’s national ticket. Gore made indirect reference to Lieberman’s work on climate and the environment when he announced his choice: “He believes, as I do, in an America that frees itself forever from the dominance of big oil and foreign oil,” Gore said.

“If we don’t set long-term greenhouse emissions limits now, and instead wait to see just how our climate changes, it may be too late when we do act.”

Lieberman foresaw how difficult it would be to convince two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the Kyoto pact, which included no emissions cuts for developing countries, including fast-growing China. ‘’We’ve got to be ready for a battle,’’ he told reporters at the time.

But Clinton, seeing the votes were not there, never sent the Kyoto agreement to the Senate for ratification.

During a 1997 hearing, Lieberman said he approached climate change as “a pro-growth Democrat who believes that new technologies and international trade are essential for the well-being of the American economy and the American people in the next century.”

Lieberman joined with Republicans like Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island and Sen. Connie Mack of Florida to develop a bipartisan approach to address climate change. They embraced the idea of giving credits to polluters for early action to reduce their emissions. It faced opposition from both industry and some environmentalists, but it was the seed of an idea that Lieberman would have an opportunity to grow into an economy-wide market-based plan.

After the bitter 2000 election, Lieberman was approached by a friend in the Senate who also came out of the presidential race with battle scars. McCain had been defeated by soon-to-be President George W. Bush in an ugly primary race memorable for dirty tricks. 

McCain told Lieberman he wanted to join with him on a climate plan. And when Bush pulled out of the Kyoto accord soon after taking office, his foes from the campaign trail, Lieberman and McCain, became his chief climate antagonists in the Senate.

Letting a Republican Friend Lead

After a series of hearings, McCain and Lieberman unveiled their cap-and-trade bill for cutting carbon emissions, based on the successful acid rain pollution program Congress authorized in the bipartisan 1990 overhaul of the Clean Air Act. Under the plan, targets would be set for economy-wide carbon pollution reductions, and businesses that surpassed their goals would receive “credits” they could sell to businesses that had a harder time making cuts.

In his 2018 interview with Inside Climate News, just before McCain’s death, Lieberman lauded his friend for approaching him with the idea of working on climate legislation. “Really that was all him,” Lieberman said. “I give him a lot of credit.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain arrive for the 50th Munich Security Conference on January 31, 2014 in Munich, Germany. Credit: Joerg Koch/Getty Images
Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. John McCain arrive for the 50th Munich Security Conference on January 31, 2014 in Munich, Germany. Credit: Joerg Koch/Getty Images

But close observers of the McCain-Lieberman fight knew that Lieberman, who had long been out front on climate, purposefully gave top billing to McCain as they tried to advance the plan in a Republican-led Senate.

“It was very intentional, strategic, and thoughtful, his willingness to not just partner with John McCain, but to step back half a step and let John McCain lead,” recalled Curtis, who was an environmental lobbyist at the time. “There was a humility there, in service of the larger goal.”

The pair had to play parliamentary hardball in order to get their measure past a strident climate science denier and environmental committee chair, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and onto the Senate floor for a vote as an amendment to a larger energy bill. They succeeded in getting a floor debate, but not the votes for passage. On the floor, Lieberman lamented that so much of the debate was focused on the denier arguments.

“I wish we could agree on the reality and then argue about what we should do about it,” Lieberman said.

“History calls us to action,” he added. “We will not leave this course until the day—may it come sooner than later—when we adopt this amendment or something very much like it.”

Even though the bill failed, 55-43, it was viewed as momentous by many on both sides of the debate. The prior Senate vote on climate had been a 95-0 resolution in 1997 to oppose any Kyoto deal that failed to force reductions in developing countries. The McCain-Lieberman vote upended the notion that the Senate was solidly opposed to climate action.

“It changed the dynamic on climate, politically,” said Tim Profeta, who was then Lieberman’s top aide on environmental issues. “It put climate actually into the realm of the possible, and not in the realm of a bridge too far.”

“Sometimes for a policy to evolve, the first thing you need to do is demand people pay attention and be politically accountable,” said Profeta, who spent two years as a senior environmental counsel to the Biden administration and is now senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability. “What he did with McCain, when President Bush got elected and the country moved away from Kyoto, he demanded that the country could not walk away from the issue and forced a debate on a legislative solution.”

In Profeta’s view, the effort bore Lieberman’s signature characteristics: “His integrity, to take on challenging issues because they needed to be solved, and his pragmatism, to try and find a way that progress truly could be made.”

But in his 2018 interview with Inside Climate, Lieberman recalled the difficulties that followed in his subsequent efforts to advance bipartisan climate legislation. By then, he had left the Democratic party due to the rift that had arisen over his strong support of the Iraq War. As an Independent, he continued to pursue cap-and-trade, first with Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, and then, in the early years of Obama’s presidency, as part of a legislative “three amigos” with then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). But Lieberman said the intensity of the business lobby proved too much to overcome.

“A lot of Republicans, basically aided by the Chamber of Commerce, ran a very effective campaign in which they turned ‘cap and trade’ into ‘tax and trade’ and it got harder for people to support,” he said.

Nevertheless, Lieberman stood by the cap-and-trade idea as striking a balance between other ideas for cutting carbon emissions. “On one side, you have a total government control regimen, and on the other side you have a carbon tax, and in between you have cap and trade,” Lieberman said. “I honestly still haven’t seen a better answer to the problem.”

In 2014, the year after he left the Senate, he joined with Profeta to author an opinion piece for Politico endorsing Obama’s efforts to act on climate through government regulation. Profeta said Lieberman viewed climate action as unfinished business.

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On climate, as on other issues, Lieberman often took heat from both the right and left for his effort to seek compromise. Some climate advocates scorned cap-and-trade, including Hansen, who called it “ineffectual and not commensurate with the climate threat.” At the time of the Kyoto protocol, Lieberman endorsed the Clinton administration’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by between 2008 and 2012—a target some environmentalists criticized as too weak.

But over the following years, with no national climate policy in place, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 16 percent above 1990 levels before peaking in 2007. And only after 2020, aided by a pandemic-triggered economic slowdown, did the U.S. reduce its emissions to the level that Lieberman sought years earlier.

Recent actions by President Joe Biden’s administration, his commitment to the international Paris agreement on climate change, Congressionally passed clean energy incentives and new regulations have made many U.S. climate advocates hopeful. But those who honored Lieberman’s climate legacy also mourned the lost time.

“Joe Lieberman was fighting for climate action two decades ago, when it was barely on the national agenda,” said Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund and one of the political fathers of cap-and-trade. “In 2003, he and John McCain forced a vote in the Senate on their bipartisan climate solutions bill—giving us a chance to deal with this issue before it became the crisis we face today. 

“His strong, practical voice on environmental issues will be missed,” Krupp said.

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