On the Climate Bill Fence: What Sen. Brown Is Thinking

The fifth in a series on what senators on the fence are thinking.

The fence for senators who are undecided about climate legislation is lined with conservatives and moderates, but Ohio’s Sherrod Brown is decidedly liberal. What’s that about?

Jobs Versus the Environment

Senator Brown appears to find himself in a conundrum.

    • Brown prides himself on his environmental record, defending it in early July like so: “I have close to a 16-year, 100 percent environmental record. And I want to support this [climate] bill.” According to the League of Conservation Voters, he has voted in support of the environment at least 87 percent of the time each session. Not quite the 100 percent rating that Brown boasts, but not bad either. He is also a strong supporter of clean energy.
Senators Sitting on the Climate Bill Fence Series
Lamar Alexander (R-TN) »
Evan Bayh (D-IN) »
Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
Robert Casey (D-PA) »
Kent Conrad (D-ND) »
Byron Dorgan (D-ND) »
Russ Feingold (D-WI) »
Al Franken (D-MN) »
Lindsey Graham (R-SC) »
Tim Johnson (D-SD) »
Carl Levin (D-MI) »
Dick Lugar (R-IN) »
John McCain (R-AZ) »
Arlen Specter (D-PA) »
Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) »
  • But Brown represents the state of Ohio, part of the Midwest’s rustbelt, still tied economically to carbon-intensive industries like steel. These industries have been largely exported overseas and to the South, but Ohio is still the third largest producer of U.S. manufacturing output — and it would like to stay that way. Brown’s fear is that in a carbon-constrained economy (such as the one scripted by the Waxman-Markey climate bill), Ohio’s lingering manufacturing base and the jobs it supports will disappear to parts of the globe that don’t have such restrictions.

So Brown might want to support the climate bill, as he says, but there’s a caveat: “It’s got to protect manufacturing,” he says. And he is serious about this — last summer, because he felt the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act did not adequately safeguard U. S.manufacturers, he along with three other Democrats voted against cloture on the bill, dashing the chances of a climate bill getting a full vote in the Senate in 2008. Now, in 2009 with a vote on climate legislation expected this fall, the senator finds himself on the fence next to his more conservative colleagues.

Protectionism or Sealing Up the Leakage

OK, so a key condition of a climate bill for Brown is one that protects U.S. manufacturers from foreign competitors not operating under carbon constraints. (Read China.) Sounds like protectionism, but Brown would probably not take umbrage at such a label since he has been a staunch opponent of “free trade” for some time.

Brown also argues that his stand on American jobs is not just about protectionism — it’s also about the environment. “If we don’t [protect American jobs], it’s worse for global warming,” he has said. And he’s got a point.

The phenomenon that cap-and-traders call “leakage” could effectively erase greenhouse gas pollution cutbacks gained by a climate bill. Here’s how. If carbon-intensive industries move from a carbon-constrained United States to an anything-goes country overseas, carbon emissions would not necessarily be reduced — because some emissions would essentially “leak” from the United States elsewhere. To avoid this, Brown and many others argue we must have, if you will, protectionist protections in any U.S. climate bill.

Protectionist Measures in Waxman-Markey

But if protectionism is what you want, the Waxman-Markey climate bill recently passed in the House has got it. It comes in the form of a border tariff that can be imposed on imports from nations that do not have carbon-capped economies. And Brown has indicated his support for such border tariffs.

Others, most notably the president, do not support such a measure because of the looming specter of a trade war and the prospect of the abandonment by developing economies of an international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. So it is not clear if a final bill passed by Congress and signed by the president would have border tariffs. And there’s a rub for Senator Brown.

Brown’s manufacturing support also comes in the form of clean energy initiatives, such as his “IMPACT” bill. The Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technology Act would establish a $30-billion loan fund designed to help small- and medium-sized manufacturers transition to clean-energy manufacturing operations via access to easier credit. The measure was incorporated into Waxman-Markey through the efforts of fellow Ohio Democrats, Representatives John Boccieri and Zack Space.

“Clean energy legislation is an opportunity for Ohio manufacturing,” said Brown. “By creating a funding source to help Ohio manufacturers retool, we can revive Ohio manufacturing through investments in clean energy. This will go a long way toward making Ohio the Silicon Valley of clean energy manufacturing.”

How Much Protection Is Enough?

Clearly, to get Brown off the fence and in support of a climate legislation, the bill has to take care of manufacturing.

But how much protection is enough? And will the amount of protectionism Brown wants scuttle any international agreement? For now, the senator is playing it close to the vest.

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