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Time for the Bully Pupit

May 16th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Mr. President: The time has come. You have spoken, eloquently and frequently and powerfully, about clean energy, energy efficiency, about climate change. You have stated the necessity and opportunity before us, as individuals and nation and global community, with addressing Climate Change.

In the House of Representatives, two Committee chairs, Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, have been leading the struggle to develop meaningful energy and climate legislation. The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act began with high hopes. These legislators understand the serious threats to our nation from dependency on oil and global warming. Waxman and Markey understand the very real opportunities that energy efficiency and renewable energy offer this nation on economic, security, health, pollution, and other grounds. They “get it”. But, looking at the path that ACES is taking, it seems clear that not enough of their colleagues understand the opportunities, the threats, the necessities of action.

When introduced, ACES was a good start that required strengthening. As it has gone through the negotiating process within the House Energy & Commerce Committee, ACES has moved from being an extremely good energy and energy efficiency bill with an uncertain (both good and bad elements) climate section, to a potentially good energy efficiency, rather uncertain energy, and weakened (and too weak) climate bill.

There are three basic principles against which we should judge climate legislation:

1. Scientifically Sound
2. Polluters Pay
3. Improves Social Equity

Sadly, it looks as if ACES might well fail on all accounts.

Let us be quite clear: if there is any intention of serious action to avert catastrophic climate change, the ACES must be significantly strengthened.

SIGNIFICANTLY … STRENGTHENED …

If this does not occur, all should acknowledge that passing ACES, as it stands, will be a failure to mold “political reality” to meet what actual reality tells us is required.

Mr. President, you are in the cat birds’ seat. You can make the call. You are the only one who holds the lever to bend “political reality” closer to real-world necessity.

You understand the challenge and opportunity before us. You speak eloquently and powerfully to this. While the efforts to achieve a bipartisan, cross-economy, cross-ideology bill might merit praise, the resulting bill is not as stupendous as listeners to, as per your Saturday address 16 May will believe:

Chairman Henry Waxman and members of the Energy and Commerce Committee brought together stakeholders from all corners of the country – and every sector of our economy – to reach an historic agreement on comprehensive energy legislation. It’s another promising sign of progress, as longtime opponents are sitting together, at the same table, to help solve one of America’s most serious challenges.

For the first time, utility companies and corporate leaders are joining, not opposing, environmental advocates and labor leaders to create a new system of clean energy initiatives that will help unleash a new era of growth and prosperity.

It’s a plan that will finally reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil and cap the carbon pollution that threatens our health and our climate. Most important, it’s a plan that will trigger the creation of millions of new jobs for Americans, who will produce the wind turbines and solar panels and develop the alternative fuels to power the future. Because this we know: the nation that leads in 21st century clean energy is the nation that will lead the 21st century global economy. America can and must be that nation – and this agreement is a major step toward this goal.

This bill does not achieve what is necessary and, perhaps more critically, might undermine and prevent future efforts to achieve what is required.

It is time to step out and declare it time to strengthen the Waxman-Markey Bill, to find a path toward legislation that offers the potential for dampening catastrophic climate change while seizing the economic potentials of a clean energy economy.

Mr. President, while a bipartisan path forward is desired, should physical reality bow before political reality, or do we need to shift political reality to enable us (the US) to do what is necessary?

Those who care about securing a better future for Americans (and the rest of humanity) face a serious dilemma.

Do we hold our noses, praise the ACES, call for some marginal improvements, and sit back and watch the fossil-fuel industry and their anti-science syndrome suffering allies (and servants) continue their full-throated (truthiness and deception-laden) attacks on any attempt to move forward with any legislation? Should those who care about the future living conditions for themselves, other Americans, and others around the globe remain mute, hoping (without hope) that Democratic Congressional leaders will magically find a path to strengthen ACES and deliver adequate climate legislation even as the fossil fuel and polluting industries continue to flex their muscles?

Or, do we launch an all-out assault, crying out from the rooftops the realities of what the scientific community states that we should do to mitigate climate change? Do we risk alienating those on Capitol Hill working hard to achieve something to move the United States forward with tangible climate legislation?

At this time, do we face “perfect the enemy of the good enough” or is it that what is on the table is simply nowhere near good enough?

I have been very mild when it comes to public discussions of Waxman-Markey, as have most of us who have serious reservations. I really am not “sure” of best strategies, of what is the most effective political strategy, of how to achieve “the best possible outcome”. I tend to believe that, writ large, “we” have ‘failed’ by not being aggressive enough in pushing Chairman Waxman and Chairman Markey (and others in the Congress) ‘from the reality-based world’ for a very serious bill.

And, evidently, others are thinking the same thing. Friday, Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford issued the following statement.

“Despite the best efforts of Chairman Waxman, this bill has been seriously undermined by the lobbying of industries more concerned with profits than the plight of our planet. While science clearly tells us that only dramatic action can prevent global warming and its catastrophic impacts, this bill has fallen prey to political infighting and industry pressure. We cannot support this bill in its current state. We call on President Obama and leaders in Congress to get back to work and produce a bill, based on science, which presents a clear road map for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, transforms our economy with clean, renewable energy technology, generates new green jobs and shows real leadership internationally.”

A pause for considering the difficulty of commenting

We are talking a 932 page draft piece of legislation, released just Friday. Virtually every page has the potential for hidden implications and it is quite difficult to understand the intertwined implications of one page with another. What “hidden” elements might strengthen climate action? What “hidden” elements represent undermining of any ability to move forward? To understand this bill fully requires a serious team that will sit down and review this closely, section by section, and then work out a larger understanding together. And, even better, having access to staff involved in the actual bill writing. There are few institutions that can afford to do this … but among those are numerous portions of the fossil fuel industries. … This blogger, however, does not have that team of lawyers and researchers at his finger tips. Thus, crossing fingers, perhaps I’m simply wrong and this bill is far stronger than anything currently understood. After all, there are people meriting respect screaming out loudly that this is a good bill (as well).


Thinking through principles … and the failure to meet them

Through the discussions of the Lieberman-Warner Coal Subsidy Act, eventually, I distilled my perspective as to core principles to three basic points:

1. Scientifically Sound
2. Polluters Pay
3. Improves Social Equity (and, well, strengthens the economy)

I think, if articulated strongly, these three core principles are defensible to the American public and would be able to garner support.

At this time, I find it hard to see as to how ACES meets these three criteria.

1. Scientifically Sound: The IPCC benchmark, which is quite likely far too conservative (e.g., is not nearly aggressive enough), calls for the developed world to cut emissions by 2020 by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels. (2005 levels, being used as a benchmark for Waxman-Markey, are about 14 percent higher than 1990.) Generously speaking, W-M might achieve a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 and is more likely to be a near wash with those 1990 levels, leaving the United States (and the globe) significantly more polluting than the planetary system seems likely to be able to handle.

2. Polluters Pay: A very basic element of any sensible climate policy is actually establishing a price for “carbon” (actually, any GHG) that will create economic incentives to reduce polluting. Waxman-Markey is stuffed with permit giveaways (especially in the near term) that simply violate what is a basic core principle. (Note: Revenues from making polluters pay certainly could be plowed back to help polluters cut their pollution (whether energy efficiency, new processes, renewables, etc). There could even be a discounted price (e.g., have “allowances” given at the “lowest” fee level) for some specific groups, but with placing some degree of costs. At the end of the day, it is fundamentally wrong to be handing over pollution permits … it is not just immoral, but it is counterproductive to the very desires to help drive down pollution levels, ASAP. And, by the way, it is uncertain as to whether will even be a meaningful price on carbon in the coming decade or so. (In the past week, crossing the desk have been assertions that the price will be essentially zero to, high end in 2020, $15 per ton of CO2 … which is a near meaningless amount a decade+ into the future.) (Note that President Obama’s full budget submission to Congress, from just a week ago, called for 100% auction of permits and no giveaways.)

3. Improves Social Equity: Waxman-Markey holds many elements seeking to reduce any fiscal impacts on lower-income Americans through giving away permits and reserving permits to help poorer Americans. But, this bill also gives two percent of permits to oil refineries and similiar give-aways to other major polluting corporations. The overall balance is unclear.

Grading it generously, the ACES might merit a C- on Principle 1 (lookback provisions raise it from D to the C level), perhaps a C on Principle 2 (yes, eventually, polluters are scheduled to pay, but there are a lot of giveaways), and gets an incomplete (or not yet graded) on Principle 3.

Should we be thinking beyond Waxman-Markey?

There are many other options on the table, include introduced Cap & Dividend legislation and proposals for a Carbon Tax. ‘Political Reality’ suggests that it is likely not productive to lay out alternative approaches. Nor, thinking back, does it seem the moment to discusses what might have been better approaches, whether there were different paths / tactics / etc toward dealing with the legislation that might have left us in a stronger position, and so on … Thus, …

Uncertainty …

The question becomes: how does an activist blogger best engage in this discussion at this time?

I do not think that it is simply to pull out the pom-poms and cheer. Besides the fact that I would sleep even worse at night taking that path, I don’t think it effective.

I do not believe that “ACES is a bloody sell-out” and that we “must kill the bill” is the path to helping achieve something better.

I am left with a need to criticize the path the bill is taking while praising the named authors for their efforts and good intentions.

But, as is said, the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

And, is becoming far too clear, we are talking about Hell on Earth, quite literally.

We should be fighting like crazy to avert that Hell (or reduce its impacts) …

And, massive sigh, the ACES just doesn’t come close to meeting the reality of what is required.

Thus, perhaps the role of this blogger is to be striving to push the Overton Window and to be reminding those on the Hill ‘who get it’ that this bill simply doesn’t meet basic principles and doesn’t meet actual necessity.

And, to call on President Obama to seize the Bully Pulpit to call for a bill that is as serious as the challenges and opportunities before us.

Tags: Congress · Energy · Global Warming · government energy policy · politics · waxman-markey

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 A Coal Subsidy Act? // May 21, 2009 at 10:21 am

    [...] American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act later today. As this bill has developed, from an already compromised draft bill through massive compromising to reach a bill submission to committee …, it has reached the point as to whether it is more appropriately called the “Assuring Coal [...]

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