Environment

Climate SOS: Any Old Climate Bill Won't Do, Time to Scrap Waxman-Markey and Fight for Real Change

A new movement is demanding more from the president, Congress and even most major environmental groups in order to pass truly meaningful climate legislation.

The world watched last week's U.N. climate summit in anxious anticipation, hopeful that our "yes we can" president would say something earth shattering, or at least encouraging. Instead, President Barack Obama promised nothing more than that the U.S. is "determined to take action" on climate change.

While the Maldives are sinking, and floods, droughts, hurricanes and melting Arctic ice are daily headlines, all he can say is that we are "determined"? This is disturbingly reminiscent of George W. Bush stating that the U.S. "aspires" to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

What did we wantour new president to say? That the U.S. would take on strong binding emissions-reduction targets and pony up the funding required to assist the developing world in coping with the consequences of warming; that we have the laws in place, or at least shortly forthcoming, and are ready to do our part to end the stalemate and engage meaningfully with international negotiation processes!

Outside of the summit, in the bright heart of Central Park in New York City, a collaborative effort involving Avaaz and Oxfam was organized, intended to kick off a "Global Wake Up Call" on climate. People reveling in the gorgeous weather were recruited to participate in an "aerial art" project illustrating that time is running out for addressing the climate crisis and that we must act now.

Yes, but what exactly should that action look like? Are they asking for the Senate to pass a bill like the one that cleared the House in June?

The devil, as always is in the details. While many heralded the House climate bill as a great achievement, those who have peeked behind the mirrors and read between the lines, are faced with a serious quandary: while supporting the call for strong action, they find the House's American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA) to be such an abomination that notables like NASA climate scientist James Hansen, have called it "worse for the environment than doing nothing." Oops!

Why has Hansen said this, and why do many others agree?

For one thing, ACESA would have us adopt a cap-and-trade mechanism to bring down emissions. Many have been critical of this approach because where it has been tried, it has proved profitable to polluters and ineffective at reducing global-warming pollution.

It creates a very large, complex and inscrutable artificial market that runs the risk of being brought to its knees, just as any other market. ACESA sets absurdly meek targets, a 1 to 4 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. But even that would be rendered meaningless by the large offset provisions.

According to analysis by the International Rivers Network, if the 2 billion tons of allowed offsets were used, the U.S. would carry on business as usual, with rising greenhouse-gas emissions, through 2029.

ACESA would also seek to repeal EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, essentially removing the one regulatory tool that we have in place.

And, the renewable-energy provisions of ACESA is a nightmare for those concerned with the growing tendency to offer up the world's forests, grasslands and biodiversity as "renewable energy" to be burned in power plants as "carbon neutral," or refined into biofuels for cars.

The Peterson Amendment forced into ACESA by the House Agriculture Committee, would exempt agriculture, one of the most-polluting sectors, from the cap, and instead establish a massive agriculture and forestry offsetting program.

This would enable polluters to offset their emissions by supporting practices like "no till." But no till generally involves industrial farming of genetically engineered soy, and without tilling, more toxic chemical weed killers are used. These practices can hardly be considered "climate friendly." Regulation of these offsets, would be taken from the EPA and handed over to the agribusiness-friendly USDA.

The environmental integrity of such land-based offsets is suspect, one reason that the "clean development mechanism" of the Kyoto Protocol limited the use of forestry-based offsets and has thus far not delved into agricultural offsets. Measuring emissions from a smokestack is easy compared to measuring those from a farmed field or forest!

Even if one were to hold faith in the reliability of offsets, the bottom line is that actual, verifiable reductions, not offsets are essential at this point. Smoke and mirrors simply will not fool Mother Nature.

The international community has made it crystal clear that it expects developed countries like the U.S. to adopt strong emission-reduction targets, and also to help pay the ecological debt that is owed to the "developing" world. International negotiations have been stalemated over this issue now for some time, so one would hope that a U.S. climate bill would provide something substantial along these lines, but not so.

According to Friends of the Earth:

The costs of adapting to climate change in the developing world are estimated at $86 billion a year by 2015; estimates for financing a clean-energy transition and tropical forest protection in the developing world are between $65 billion and $120 billion a year. Starting at $500 million a year for adaptation, $500 million for clean technology, and $2.5 billion for tropical forest protection, the ACES Act does not come close to what the U.S. contribution would need to be for these efforts.

So, as the planet heats up, so does the political landscape: the lack of firm action on behalf of the U.S. led one E.U. minister to refer to the state of climate debate in the U.S. as "prehistoric."

Indeed, when even in the halls of Congress the conversation frequently devolves into debates over whether climate change is real or not, one cannot help but agree.

Equally frustrating and prehistoric is the role of the most corporate-friendly environmental groups, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy for example, who are all members of the U.S. "Climate Action Partnership" with Dow, Shell, Alcoa, Duke, BP and the big three automakers, among other major polluters.

With their access to Washington lawmakers, they served to lay out the major features of the climate bill, ensuring that tradeable emissions, freely allocated permits and offsets were embraced, and hence, the impacts of climate-change legislation on corporate bottom lines minimized. Now these "big greens" appeal to their members to encourage legislators to pass the bill.

For the average concerned citizen, a climate bill sounds like a good idea, and calls for strong action on climate are sincere. But not any old climate bill will do.

Without being more informed and more specific about what they are asking for, many are hoodwinked into simply throwing the doors wide open to a panoply of false solutions and misleading scams while slamming the doors on the many more effective possibilities that should be, and could be, considered. Strong climate action indeed, but best be clear what you ask for!

In an attempt to counter the progress of a climate bill that would be "worse than nothing," a new coalition of activists, calling itself Climate SOS also showed up in New York this past week.

Believing that the climate bill is inadequate and manipulated by special interests, members handed out faux $2 trillion bills (the future value, by some estimates, of the carbon market), featuring Al Gore brandishing a compact fluorescent bulb in one hand and a monkeywrench in the other.

An enlarged banner image of the bill was presented at Columbia University to the Danish minister of environment, who will be chairing the upcoming U.N. climate negotiations in Copenhagen and is a rock-hard advocate of cap-and-trade and carbon markets.

Offering a U.S. climate "bill" ahead of the Copenhagen schedule, activists led by "Cap'n Trade," dressed in pirate regalia, told the assembled crowd: " 'Tis a bloody shame for the climate that Congress has chosen me to clean up this mess for 'em. But I don't mind a bit, 'cause rising seas and booty and plunder are just my thing, and soon the land, air and water will be all mine."

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, activists with the Mobilization for Climate Justice gathered under the intimidating threat of police crackdowns. They marched outside of the G20 meeting with banners reading "Corporations out of Copenhagen" and "Our Climate is Not Your Business," as the leading economies met inside to discuss their vision for the fate of the planet.

A week earlier, a large protest was staged at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., and a message delivered opposing the ACESA and calling for "climate justice or climate chaos."

In the countdown to Copenhagen, a movement is growing, as people increasingly recognize not only what is at stake, but also see through the veils of deceit that have left policy makers in the stranglehold of corporate greed, offering nothing more than greenwashed versions of "business as usual."

This new movement recognizes that the numerous crises -- the climate, economy, ecology, food and human rights -- are all growing from the same roots. The only path forward from here, they say, is one that places justice equity and ecology at the core, not corporate profiteering.

Summing it up eloquently was Ana Pinto, a speaker with the Global Justice Ecology Project's "New Voices for Climate Change," who said: "Climate justice is not abstract. It's practical, it's about survival. It's about need against greed."

In spite of police crackdowns, the demand for survival, not greed, will not be silenced.

Rachel Smolker is co-director of Biofuelwatch and is an organizer with Climate SOS. She has Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan. After spending many years studying ecology and zoology in natural ecosystems, she turned her attention to climate change and activism. She has written extensively on biofuels and biomass, written the report, "The Real Cost of Agrofuels: Food, Forests, People and Climate," and is a longtime participant in the global climate justice movement. She lives in Vermont.
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