Will Congress Pass a Much-Needed Environmental Bill? The Future Is Looking Dicey


If global warming is the greatest test of humanity thus far, we haven't been doing swimmingly well at tackling it. Will that all change soon? Scientists tell us the clock is ticking and finally politicians in Washington have begun to shuffle their feet. The Waxman-Markey bill, known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), which is now in day 2 of markup in the House Energy and Commerce Committee (and likely to be to the full House floor in June) represents our best shot so far at preventing the tsunami of runaway climate change that scientists fear is around the bend.

So will the bill survive? And if it does, will it merely be a shell of itself, having lost the bite it needs to actually accomplish the changes we need?

As Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column, "Right now it's the environmental community that has to decide how much it's willing to bend."

So far, the community is split. Al Gore is for the bill -- along with big enviros like the League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Defense Fund. Leading climatologist James Hansen is against the carbon cap and trade part of the bill (a hugely significant part) and instead wants a carbon tax (you can read more about those differences here). Greenpeace has also been vocal about their reservations with the bill's latest incarnation, as has Friends of the Earth and others.

Krugman's analysis is: "I'm with Mr. Gore. The legislation now on the table isn't the bill we'd ideally want, but it's the bill we can get -- and it's vastly better than no bill at all." And those sentiments are supported by many enviros who believe a stronger bill is not likely to be seen for years, if that, and we may not have that long.

Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy and Daniel Wagener, an assistant editor at American Progress, wrote a great list of the top 10 reasons to support the bill, prefacing it with the summary:

The ACES establishes a three-part program to transition to a low-carbon economy: increase energy efficiency; invest in clean-energy resources such as the wind and sun; and reduce global warming pollution. While the original draft of the bill reduced emissions sooner and had a separate national energy efficiency resource standard, the current version represents enormous progress after eight years of stasis. Passage of the bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee is an essential first step to policies that will accelerate economic recovery and achieve long-term growth.

But the bill does have some serious flaws. It has been weakened to accommodate some of our most polluting industries -- coal, electric, and auto -- as the Washington Independent reports:

For the coal and electric utility industries, for example, the compromise bill requires that U.S. emissions be reduced 17 percent by 2020, down from the 20 percent reduction promoted in the initial draft. The new bill also tamps down an earlier provision that states get at least 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, instead dropping that floor to 15 percent.

Additionally, although President Barack Obama had campaigned on a platform of selling 100 percent of so-called pollution permits to industry -- a strategy he said would generate $646 billion to fight global warming over the next decade -- the House compromise gives all but 15 percent of those permits away for free.

Writing for AlterNet, Daphne Wysham further explains some of the most serious grievances with the bill:

I'll spare you the many odiferous details and just highlight three particularly bad aspects: 1) It won't protect the poor from price-hikes as the price of carbon is slowly internalized into our energy bills, but will protect polluting industries by allowing them free pollution permits; 2) It opens the door to fraud and shell games instead of real climate action by setting up a huge carbon derivatives market; 3) It makes a mockery of our common understanding of "renewable energy," favoring dirty smokestacks over truly clean, renewable energy.

The bad news is that the bill is likely to get weaker instead of stronger as it is hashed out. As Kate Sheppard wrote for Grist: "Estimates of just how many changes to the climate bill the GOP members plan to offer run as high as 449, according to a list that has been passed around Capitol Hill. The list includes amendments that would allow individual states to opt out of the cap-and-trade program altogether, and another that would call the whole thing off should certain states lose 1,000 jobs due to restrictions on carbon emissions. Another proposed amendment would lower the 2020 emission-reduction targets."

Is the prognosis all bad? Definitely not and Sheppard points out that most Dems are squarely on board. "It appears at this point that the Dems are united in a desire to pass the bill out of committee, and aren't going to take Republican bait," she wrote.

And Krugman provides some larger perspective, "After all the years of denial, after all the years of inaction, we finally have a chance to do something major about climate change. Waxman-Markey is imperfect, it's disappointing in some respects, but it's action we can take now. And the planet won't wait."

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