For months, we’ve been hearing an odd refrain from the Democrats who are pushing hardest for the Waxman-Markey climate bill. They are determined, it seems, not only to have such a bill drawn up before the Copenhagen global climate confab in December, but to have it signed into law. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency is widely expected to issue its endangerment finding for greenhouse gases, triggering what will undoubtedly be a hotly disputed regulatory process.

President Obama, according to many reports in the press, wants to sign climate legislation before the critically important Copenhagen climate conference. And Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants the president to sign a climate bill this fall as well.

They both have plenty of company in the “act first, think later” brigade.

A New York Times  article shows the sense of urgency:

“‘I think we’re still a ways away from a final agreement which will lead to a bill,’ Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) said during an August teleconference with United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard. ‘But we have, I believe, at least on the Democratic side, a significant consensus on the urgency of—the need for a climate change bill—the urgency to get it done this year, as well as, I think, a good bit of consensus, even region to region, that the House was able to work out accommodating a lot of different interests in their bill.’”

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, another Democrat (and a former Republican), seen as instrumental in moving the climate bill, said he planned to back Reid and President Obama in advancing the cap-and-trade bill soon as possible. At a mid-August conference in Pittsburgh, Specter said he generally would support cloture—or cutting off a Republican-led filibuster—on everything from climate to labor and health care bills.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told Bloomberg Television that the U.N. climate conference was one driver for fall or winter action on the climate bill. “The president has urged us to do this so that we’ll have credibility at Copenhagen,” Durbin said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke are also on board. As Reuters reports:

“The United States needs to set a very firm and clear example if we are to be successful in getting the other countries to be equally aggressive in addressing climate change,” Locke said.

Vilsack warned against delays for the climate bill.

“How are we going to be able to move other nations in the same direction we want to move on trade issues or on fighting extremists if we can’t deliver on climate change, when the rest of the world is moving forward?”

What’s fascinating is the implication of this rush to get legislation signed into law before Copenhagen. Normally, going into negotiations, one wants to have some leverage to use to gain cooperation and compromise from other parties. Thus, one could see the Democrats wanting legislation passed through the Congress, but unsigned by the president, as a negotiating lever for the Copenhagen talks.

Similarly, one could see the president telling his EPA administrator to hold off on the endangerment finding [that CO2 endangers public health, under the terms of the U.S. Clean Air Act], again to create leverage in Copenhagen. Alternately, if the Senate held off on passing a bill, the Obama negotiating team in Copenhagen could play “good cop/bad cop,” with the House acting as “good cop,” having passed legislation, while the Senate, which has previously derailed climate policy, acting as “bad cop,” waiting to see what China and India do.

But instead, the Obama administration and their congressional supporters are hell bent for preemptive capitulation at Copenhagen, going into negotiations having completely stripped themselves of leverage by having set either a legislative or regulatory process (or both) in motion that, under the U.S. legal system, is likely to be irreversible.

The only way to make sense of the Democratic strategy is to suppose that the Democrats believe that Copenhagen will fail, that China and India will not sign onto meaningful emission-reduction efforts, and that in the post-Copenhagen environment that would ensue, it would be more difficult—if not impossible—to pass a cap-and-trade scheme at all.

Try to imagine a “post-Kyoto world” without a replacement for the (failed) Kyoto Protocol:

  • Neither the public nor the Senate will buy unilateral U.S. action to reduce greenhouse emissions, meaning that the prospects of cap and trade in 2010 and beyond grow very dim.
  • As hopes for a Gore-style “wrenching transformation” fade, more mainstream scientists and opinion-makers will become more “practical” toward the issue, meaning that alarmism may give way to sensible assessments of mitigation, adaptation, and geo-engineering.
  • Exploding emissions from China and India will make developed world emissions less and less important, a fact that will become relevant in future domestic efforts to impose curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.

The end might be in sight for the mighty effort of the environmental left to put a cap on capitalism by capping carbon. What will this mean for the Malthusian worldview? We can only wait and see.

—Environmental scientist Ken Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., was a Working Group 1 expert reviewer for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. This article first appeared on the MasterResource “free market energy blog.”