Environment

Follow the Bouncing Climate Bill

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 18, 2009 10:50 AM

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If you thought the debate over cap and trade legislation (as embodied in the Waxman-Markey bill) was already overheated, ridiculous, and divisive, you ain't seen nothing yet. The real fun begins today, with amendment madness unleashed by the Republicans. That will amount to little more than a sideshow, but as the markup process plays out this week, even (cautiously) supportive green groups, such as the Sierra Club, are waiting to see which way the bill bounces. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, however, announced on Friday that they had seen enough (compromises) to sour on the existing House bill. This split among green groups seems to mirror the tortured reader comments of recent weeks posted on Grist and Climate Progress, a good many which expressed doubts about the merits of cap and trade (versus a carbon tax)--and that was before the full details of the Waxman-Markey bill were known. For those still undecided and open to varying interpretations of the bill's efficacy, the following two assessments frame the polar ends of the spectrum: Joe Romm's take, after getting a look at the text:

The bill remains a stunning legislative achievement that (if enacted) would require the United States to eliminate virtually all greenhouse gas emissions in four decades "” no mean feat, even for those of us who know that is eminently doable (and climatically crucial)!

Roger Pielke Jr. reads the same text but comes to a notably different conclusion:

It is bizarre, even farcical, that the U.S. Congress says that it is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time it is spending a huge effort and political capital creating a Byzantine system of rules that will allow, even encourage, exactly the opposite to happen.

There are those who also contend that any congressional action on global warming is better than none, an argument that Paul Krugman makes today in his column:

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.

In recent weeks, particularly after James Hansen raised the rhetorical stakes, I've wondered if the see-saw debate Michael Tobis has had with himself reflects the confusion felt by the typical climate advocate. Tobis, though, has just made up his mind based on a seductive rationale that I think will end up being the default choice for people still wavering on whether to support the Waxman-Markey bill. To Tobis,

The dominant factor in the present circumstances is the upcoming Copenhagen negotiation. It makes a great deal of difference to all the other countries whether the US shows up having made real substantive cuts, by which the participants will mean, exactly, large symbolic actions that might eventually lead to real substantive cuts.

Here's the problem I have with this logic: Joe Romm's grade for the current bill is a B to B-. (And I think that's inflated.) What happens if the House legislation gets further watered down in the coming weeks? Romm will be forced to acknowledge this and assuming he still supports it, will then have to adjust his grade. Let's say he gives it a C or C-. If the bill ends up being that sucky, and there's a good chance that could happen, what "symbolic" message does this send to the rest of the world? Seriously, if this so-called landmark legislation ends up being perceived as widely flawed and ineffectual, then how can it be legitimately viewed as a jump-starter for world action in Copenhagen? Will there come a point for Romm and other Waxman-Markey supporters when the negatives of the bill override the positives? That'll be something to watch for as this whole process plays out. And in the unlikely event that Romm and perhaps Gore do jump ship? What then? Here's an excellent, alternative road-map offered by one Grist reader on Friday:

If the American public is not ready for an effective climate bill, we should not substitute an ineffective climate bill. We should ask the Administration to provide town hall meetings that improve public understanding of the threat and the potential solutions, staffed by the National Academy of Sciences, our National Security Advisor, and other experts.

Actually, why hasn't that happened in the first place?

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