05/18/2010 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Climate debate heads into "Murky" waters

These can seem like very discouraging times. As our planet continues its dangerous trajectory towards a steady boil, many of our politicians, like latter-day Neros, choose to fiddle around with short sighted politics as our planet burns. Even with the effects of our addiction to fossil fuels appallingly visible in the Gulf of Mexico, most of our leaders in Washington don't appear to feel the slightest sense of urgency beyond saying whatever will maximize their chances in November's mid-term elections. Many of them continue to deny the scientific reality of climate change -- or they parrot the right words but fail to back those right words up with the right actions.

As an activist, it's among the most frustrating things I've ever had to deal with: realizing that our politicians either don't see or are ignoring the cliff towards which we are all heading. And I know that I'm not alone in this feeling, and the anxiety and angst it creates.

This is the climate (no pun intended) into which the American Power Act made its debut last week. While we all know Senator John Kerry is a true champion of the environment and we salute his tireless work over the last nine months to move the conversation forward, the APA is designed to be viable in the current political context, so it's no wonder it doesn't quell the frustration and ambivalence that we are all feeling about this Congress and its remarkable stalemate on so many fronts.

On the upside, the bill would put a badly needed price on carbon via a cap on global warming pollution. A cap is absolutely critical: a strong cap on carbon would send the proper signals to the market that the true price of dirty energy to our planet and our health will finally be taken into account, and that clean energy will be the wave of the future.

But on the (serious) down side, the bill reads something like a love letter to polluting industries, with numerous giveaways to the fossil fuel bandits like coal and oil, and it lays the ground work for substantial expansions in nuclear power. The APA overturns existing state caps on carbon which may be stronger than the federal standard and doesn't do anywhere near enough to invest in energy efficiency technology -- thereby leaving millions of potential new jobs and significant pollution reductions on the table. And while the bill acknowledges the need for some Clean Air Act regulations of the oldest, dirtiest coal plants, it must be strengthened to ensure swift retirements of outdated coal plants, and guarantee a moratorium on new dirty coal plants and expansions.

Meanwhile, there was a ray of sunshine last week. On Thursday, the Obama administration announced a common sense proposal to use the Clean Air Act to crack down on the oldest, dirtiest coal plants. This plan will ensure that the big polluters with the greatest carbon emissions will have to clean up their act, while ensuring that no small businesses will have to suddenly worry about a changed regulatory climate.

This was an enormous step forward. The administration had previously only been vocal about using the Clean Air Act to regulate fuel economy (another very important step). But this announcement means that even if a weak climate bill goes down in flames, we have a real tool to go after the oldest and dirtiest coal plants that account for the highest percentage of American carbon emissions.

This announcement signals two things for the 1Sky campaign:

  1. We need to make sure to not back down in our fight to keep the Clean Air Act strong in any final version of the climate bill. Now that we know we have an administration that is willing to use this tool in the way the Supreme Court said it must be used, we have to ensure that it is not suddenly taken away from us.
  2. We need to continue to hold a strong line against attacks in Congress on the Clean Air Act outside of the boundaries of the climate bill. Especially critical will be beating back a renewed attack from Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski this week.
It appears likely that Senator Murkowski's "Dirty Air Act," which would gut the Clean Air Act, will be up for a vote this Thursday, and the vote count appears to be very close. 1Sky will be mobilizing all of its supporters this week to let their senators know that a vote for the Murkowski "Dirty Air Act" will be a vote that they will regret for a very long time. You can help out by making a call yourself using our easy to navigate website tool.

While I truly wish we were further along at this point, I'm confident that one way or another, we will continue to organize and win victories in our fight to stop the deterioration of our planet and transition the United States to a stable, clean energy economy. The "Murky" waters in the Gulf of Mexico, around the APA, and around the Clean Air Act means we need to continue pushing forward for new ways to combat climate change while, at the same time, keeping a close watch on tools we already have, making sure they are not snatched away from us by those who would put their own profits ahead of the people of this planet.