Clean Energy Bill Survives: Political Realists Rejoice, Climate Science Realists Demand More


NOTE:  Unexpectedly, Rep. Bono Mack (R-CA) voted "yes" -- and the bill passed 33-25!  She later said, “"While I still have significant concerns about this bill, particularly with regard to its cost and its failure to recognize innovative technologies like advanced nuclear energy, I believe this is the right direction for our district, for our nation and for our future.”

UPDATE:  Al Gore's statement is at the end.  The New York Times labels Waxman-Markey "the most ambitious energy and global warming legislation ever debated in Congress."

Every journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step -- including stopping human-caused global warming at "safe levels," as close as possible to 2°C.  Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill.

The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town.  If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead.  Warming of 5°C or more by century's end would be all but inevitable, with 850 to 1000+ ppm.  If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe -- not high, but not zero.

Today was the first genuine step that the U.S. House of Representatives has ever taken on climate.  And since the Committee is stuffed with members representing traditional (i.e. polluting) energy industries, it shouldn't be harder for the full House to pass this bill than it was for the committee.  That said, the House GOP leadership is certainly much savvier than Joe Barton (see here) -- and agricultural and other interest groups have yet to flex their muscle.  Much work remains keep the bill as strong as possible even in the House.

For climate politics realists, it will be a staggering achievement if, in 12 months or so, an energy and climate bill that looks something like Waxman-Markey is signed into law by President Obama.  After all, the United States hasn't enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, short-term health threats to Americans.

The forces that are lined up against serious climate action today are incredible:

The Congressional GOP are almost unanimous in their opposition to any serious climate bill or any clean energy bill (see "Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies) -- and they are committed to demagoguing the cost issue even to the point of embarrassing the outside-of-the-beltway GOP (Republicans (sic) for Environmental Protection "call out those Republicans who continue to spread the false claim that capping greenhouse gas pollution will -- supposedly -- cost American families $3,100 every year.")

The polluting industries spend vast sums of money on lobbyists, on deceptive ads, and on right wing think tanks who spread disinformation.  The status quo media under-reports and misreports the climate science and climate economics.  The climate science activists can't even agree on a message or whether they should even talk about climate science.  From a political perspective, Democrats are being asked to face an onslaught of deceptive campaign ads claiming they have raised energy taxes in order to pass a bill whose climate benefits will not be apparent for a very long time -- although the clean energy and jobs benefits will begin almost immediately (Nobelist Krugman: Climate action "now might actually help the economy recover from its current slump" by giving "businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities").  And many of their constituents, primarily the conservatives and the conservative-leaning independents, don't even think human caused global warming is a problem that needs aggressive government action, assuming they think it is a problem at all (see here).

From the perspective of political realism, it will be a great challenge just to stop this bill from being weakened as it winds itself through the House and especially the Senate.

From the perspective of climate science realists, the bill has two gaping flaws.  And I don't mean the allocations for big polluters.  I know many of my readers disagree, but I just don't think that the allocation undermines the goals of the bill at all, and in fact are a perfectly reasonable way of satisfying political needs while preventing windfalls for polluters and preserving prices.

The first flaw is the 2 billion offsets that polluters can potentially use instead of their own emissions reductions.  I have previously explained why I am far less worried about domestic offsets (see here).  In a regulated market with a cap, many of the domestic offsets will represent real reductions of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the total supply of cheap domestic offsets will be limited.  I will blog tomorrow on why I do not believe the international offsets threaten the overall integrity of the bill.  The bottom line is that the vast amounts of moderate-cost near-term domestic emissions reductions strategies -- energy efficiency, conservation, replacing coal power with natural gas-fired power, wind power, biomass cofiring, concentrated solar thermal power, recycled energy, geothermal, and hydro power (see "An introduction to the core climate solutions") –  will be cheaper (in quantity) than most of the offsets will be in 2020.

Second, the 2020 target is too weak (see here).  Given the lost 8 years of the Bush administration, it was inevitable that a bill which doesn't even impose a cap until 2012 could not have the same 2020 target (compared to 1990 levels) than the Europeans are considering.

That means we're going to build too much polluting crap in the next decade.  That means we'll have to go back and unbuild it at some point.  More expensive, sure, than doing it right the first time, but no more difficult than deploying a dozen or so accelerated stabilization wedges globally in three to four decades needed to beat 450 ppm.

For me, a two-term President Obama (together with the next three Congresses) cannot solve the global warming problem, but can create the conditions that allow the next couple of presidents to do what is needed.  Or he can be thwarted, making it all but impossible for future presidents.

The only hope for stabilizing at 350 to 450 ppm is a WWII-scale and WWII-style effort as I have said many times.  And that implies a level of desperation we don't have now (see "What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?").  When we have that desperation, probably in the 2020s, we'll want to already have:

  • substantially dropped below the business-as-usual emissions path
  • started every major business planning for much deeper reductions
  • goosed the cleantech venture and financing community
  • put in place the entire framework for U.S. climate regulations
  • accelerated many tens of gigawatts of different types of low-carbon energy into the marketplace
  • put billions into developing advanced low-carbon technology
  • started building out the smart, green grid of the 21st century
  • trained and created millions of clean energy jobs
  • negotiated a working international climate regime
  • brought China into the process

This bill is crucial to achieving all of those vital goals.

Kudos to Henry Waxman and Ed Markey -- and a great many other progressive politicians and advocates -- for making this historic moment happen.

UPDATE:  Nobelist Al Gore today issued the following statement on the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

I commend Chairmen Waxman and Markey for their leadership in this historic action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill represents a crucial step forward in addressing the global climate crisis, the need for millions of new green jobs to end the recession, and the national security threats that have long been linked to our growing dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels.

I encourage Congress to further strengthen this excellent legislation during floor consideration and move to pass this bill in both the House and the Senate this year.

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