The Battle on Capitol Hill.

So here’s the question: Is it better to pass climate/energy legislation now, even if it’s flawed, or is it better to fight for the right legislation, even if it takes a while?

Unfortunately, this question is almost impossible to answer, not least because the interests of those fighting for different plans are complex and often counter-productive. Let’s see, we’ve got environmental groups, lobbyists, elected representatives from across the spectrum, pollsters, business leaders, political party heads, concerned citizens… all of them pushing at the same problem from different sides. The good news is that there are finally a lot of players who understand the importance of quickly addressing the climate and energy crises. The bad news is, well, that there are a lot of players…

So now we’ve got a series of competing bills in the Senate, most of them centered around a cap & trade system, with slightly divergent goals for greenhouse gas emissions and means for reaching them. For the layperson, these differences can seem meaningless but, when you get down to it, 63% reduction by 2050 vs 80% could have a profound influence on the future of our planet. More important and controversial right now is how pollution credits will be allocated in this new carbon cap & trade system. This is where the various proposed bills really are different and where a debate is truly merited.

Grist does a pretty good job of explaining both the differences in the key pending Senate bills and how the battle is shaking out in the environmental community.

At the weak end of the spectrum of Senate climate bills is one offered by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It centers around a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions, but initially it would hand out about 80 percent of emissions credits to industry instead of making companies pay for them, and it includes a “safety valve” mechanism that would dump cheap credits onto the market if trading pushed the price above a preset ceiling. It has virtually no support among Democratic leaders or environmental advocates, but a number of power companies and unions back it.

The strongest bill — the one basically every enviro would choose to implement if given the keys to the American political system for one day — was introduced months ago by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). It would cut greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, aggressive reductions on par with what the mainstream scientific community says are needed. Boxer chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over this issue.

But much of the focus right now is on the America’s Climate Security Act formally unveiled on Oct. 18 by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). It’s projected to lower emissions as much as 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and as much as 63 percent by mid-century via a cap-and-trade system, and it doesn’t include a safety valve. It calls for about 20 percent of emissions credits to be auctioned initially, with the rest allocated freely to emitters and the states at a rate that declines over time.

All signs point to the Lieberman-Warner bill having the best chance of moving forward, gaining momentum from the enthusiastic support of Environmental Defense and Boxer’s willingness to shelve her own bill in favor of this one. Bernie Sanders was not so quick to support, but the bill passed its first legislative hurdle in sub-committee hearings. Boxer plans to put the bill before the entire Environment & Public Works Committee, which she chairs, on December 5th.

What we’re seeing here is the latest version of the political dance, with some groups playing the role of legislative purists and others the reluctant compromisers. This dance is often played out on Capitol Hill, but you have to see this dance in the larger frame of the climate crisis being a crisis, not to mention political maneuvering leading up to the very, very important 2008 general election.

It’s clear that a lot of citizens, environmental groups and representatives want climate action NOW because they feel the hot breath of irreversible climate change on the nape of their necks. A very understandable position. But a lot of groups and political party leaders also want to act NOW in order to show results to their constituencies. There is a real danger here. Case in point: Watch what happens in the House as Nancy Pelosi tries to get an energy bill passed before Thanksgiving. What kind of compromises will she accept in order to put a feather in her and her party’s cap?

Now, of course, some people can’t help but look at this situation with a more cynical (or pragmatic, depending upon your view) eye: If Bush is just going to veto legislation any way, what’s the point of this dance? Better to focus on making sure that in November 2008 this country elects a president and congressional representatives that have the courage to really tackle our climate and energy crises. I gotta say, I see where they’re coming from.

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One thought on “The Battle on Capitol Hill.

  1. Pingback: Two noteworthy pieces on pending legislation. « Climate Changers

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