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ACES Is Not a Victory for the Environmental Movement

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Later today the United States House of Representatives will vote on the American Clean Energy and Security Act. All indications are that it will pass, though both the margin and the state of play on various amendments are still not entirely clear. Many Members of Congress have an extremely difficult choice to make. There are good reasons to vote for this bill and good reasons to vote against it, and I won't begrudge Members who vote either way if they do so for the right reasons. As soon as the vote takes place we will undoubtedly see statements from nearly all major environmental groups patting themselves on the back for this "historic victory". President Obama will either hold a press conference or release a statement touting this as a major legislative victory Americans should be celebrating. Likewise, Al Gore will sing the praises of this legislation and hail it as a major step forward in the fight to stop global warming.

They are all wrong.

Put simply, the bill does not go nearly far enough to spark the transition to a clean energy economy we need to avert catastrophic climate change. It does not meet the science. It does not meet Obama's campaign promises. And it does not match public will. Infuriatingly, President Obama is well on his way to squandering the best political environment we have ever had, without using an ounce of political capital to improve the legislation.

Consider these facts.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions

The world's leading scientific body on the issue of Climate Change, the IPCC, says we'll need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25-40% from 1990 levels by 2020 in order to prevent temperature increases of 2-4 degrees Celsius.

This bill calls for emissions to be reduced 17% from 2005 levels. This represents a 4% reduction below 1990 levels, which is wholly unacceptable.

On top of the already weak near-term emissions cap, the use of offsets threatens to severely compromise the environmental integrity of the cap, which would render it meaningless. Between the weak 2020 target and the extensive offset provisions, the bill may not reduce emissions from 1990 levels whatsoever by 2020.

Talk of this legislation putting the United States on a path to being a leader in the fight against global warming is disingenuous. Case in point: Scotland just committed to 42% reductions by 2020.

The near-term emissions reductions alone are enough to consider this bill a failure for the environmental movement.

Renewable Electricity Standard

During the Presidential campaign Barack Obama campaigned on (PDF) a 25% by 2025 standard, which would require that 25% of all electricity be generated by renewable energy sources 16 years from now. Europe's target for renewable energy is 22% by 2010. The American Clean Energy and Security Act's 2020 target doesn't even come close:

15% Renewable and 5% Efficiency Gains -- Governors can adjust to 12% Renewable and 8% Efficiency Gains.

So basically, states that will likely not need a mandate to ramp up renewables will be given a weak 15% target. Those states that need a strong mandate the most will, with a flick of a pen from the governor, lower their requirement to 12%. Do you trust Mark Sanford and Sarah Palin to make the right decision? Neither do I.

Organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Breakthrough Institute, among others, argue that the bill will not actually ensure any increased renewable electricity deployment in the next decade when compared to business as usual scenarios.

Yes, the bill is in some ways a step forward. But it pales in comparison to what the United States should and could be doing. That much is clear.

So Why Will President Obama Tout This as a Major Victory?

To put it bluntly, he may be able to walk and chew gum at the same time as he claims, but he is apparently not able to expend political capital on health care and energy at the same. He seems to have made the decision very early on in his Presidency to let Congress do all of the heavy lifting on climate change and clean energy. It has become clear lately that the President's #1 priority is no longer what it was during the campaign. At the time he said it was climate; he now says health care. He has put exactly zero effort into strengthening the legislation. Over the past several days and weeks he has repeatedly called on Congress to pass the bill, but has not so much as mentioned that it needs to be improved: And the environmental organizations, why will they celebrate today's vote as a major victory?

Membership-based environmental organizations need victories to sustain their fundraising and the enthusiasm of their members. While some may have worked to strengthen the bill relatively early in the process, others were happy to idly sit by and leave it to Congress to do the best they could. Worse yet, some of these organizations actually lobbied against strengthening the bill, on the grounds that it would make passage less likely. A majority of the environmental organizations, with the notable exceptions of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, have effectively relegated themselves to the roles of Democratic cheerleaders, unwilling to put up a real fight for stronger legislation.

I take NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen's view on this and many other legislative fights:

"I am not a politician. I am a scientist and a citizen," said Dr. James Hansen. "Politicians may have to advocate for halfway measures if they choose. But it is our responsibility to make sure our representatives feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not what is politically expedient."

I think this is exactly right, and I can't help but think that if more environmental organizations had adopted this strategy for the past several years we'd have a much more favorable political reality to work with. Many in the advocacy community lament the "political reality" of the situation as an excuse for not insisting on stronger legislation by drawing bright lines in the sand. They do without a hint of irony, apparently oblivious to the fact that their statements and campaigns on legislation play a major role in creating political reality in the first place. It is no wonder this is the best a strong Democratic majority can pass through the House. With a broken special-interest oriented Congress, timid environmental organizations who don't know how to throw their weight around, and a President unwilling to fight for his campaign promises, it couldn't have happened any other way.

Bill Scher at Campaign for America's Future argues that the missing ingredient in this process has been grassroots intensity. While I agree with this, the conclusions of his argument do not make sense to me:

Berating the Big Green groups for being strategic realists is not a useful internal debate to have.

I don't understand how you can blame weak legislation on the lack of grassroots intensity and let advocacy organizations off the hook in the next breath. Bill is exactly right that grassroots pressure is what this fight needed, but he doesn't seem to realize that advocacy organizations and President Obama (under pressure from these organizations) are the only entities capable of generating the grassroots intensity we needed. It is a chicken and egg problem, and Scher seems to want the chicken without the egg.

Moving forward from here, I'm in the same boat as Natasha Chart:

Particularly recalcitrant members of Congress need to be primaried and made to fight for their seats. Problematic regional power bases need to be identified and have their rugs pulled out from under them. Local organizing should focus on finding ways to directly pick up the slack for the federal government's dereliction of duty. Charitable donations to 'green' organizations need to be put under a more critical lens, and should stop going to groups that have stopped getting results and don't even seem to realize it.

In addition to Natasha's takeaways, I'll just add that this should be the last evidence anyone needs that FDR's famous "make me do it" statement applies as well to President Obama as it did to President Roosevelt:

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

On issues across the board, from health care to Afghanistan to the climate crisis, activists and advocacy organizations are going to have to make President Obama do it. He simply won't do what is necessary otherwise.

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