A Clean Energy Moment: Where Hope and History Rhyme

08/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Margie Alt Executive director, Environment America

"'There's a point in time where hope and history rhyme.' I think we have now reached that [point] on the issue of energy and global warming."
-- Congressman Ed Markey, quoting the poet Seamus Heaney, upon passage of the Waxman-Markey bill 11 days ago.

If you're like many of our members, you're probably wondering if Congressman Ed Markey is right.

Does the American Clean Energy and Security Act, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, deliver the transformative change that President Obama promised during the election? Will it launch a revolution in the way we produce and consume energy and initiate change quickly enough to spare our children from a climate catastrophe? Or is the bill so seriously compromised, as a few of our close friends in the environmental movement have suggested, that we who care about clean energy and the fate of the planet should have opposed it?

I wish the answer were quick and simple, but it isn't.

There are three main reasons why Environment America decided to support the legislation, even though it's far from perfect.

Reason #1: It's a sharp break from the past.

For the last eight years, our country's federal policy toward global warming could be summed up in three words: denial, delay and distraction.

President Bush reversed his campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide, belittled the "bureaucracy" that warned of global warming's consequences, censored federal scientists who spoke about the issue, effectively ignored a Supreme Court ruling requiring the government to regulate carbon emissions, opposed renewable energy requirements and refused to let states reduce carbon pollution from cars and trucks.

The Waxman-Markey bill is an honest attempt to reverse course. It commits our country to energy efficiency, clean and renewable power, and a cap on the carbon pollution that's driving global warming.

Unfortunately, there are problems. The bill's clean energy mandates don't get us much further than business as usual. The bill undermines President Obama's authority to enforce the Clean Air Act. It hands billions of dollars to some of the industries that create and use the dirtiest energy. And it may allow the most polluting industries to exploit loopholes in the cap on global warming emissions.

How and why were these provisions included in the bill?

Simply put, powerful special interests pushed for them and the bill's sponsors had to acquiesce in order to win passage on the House floor. Indeed, even with these concessions, and a full-court press for votes waged by President Obama, members of his administration, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team, the bill passed by only seven votes.

Believe me, seeing the bill compromised in this way has turned my stomach. Yet I can't get past this reality: As ugly as the process has been, passage of this bill would mean we'd see billions of dollars invested in energy efficiency and renewable power, we'd see new green buildings sprouting up across America, and we'd see a path opened toward significant, mandatory reductions in carbon pollution.

Reason #2: Time is not on our side.

Nature often has the power to heal itself. We've seen wildlife return once we curb the polluting of our lakes, rivers and bays. We've seen skies clear once we cut emissions from power plants and cars. If the worst impacts of global warming occur, science tells us that the planet will inevitably recover and survive -- but many species, including our own, may not.

We have precious little time -- a few decades, perhaps only a few years -- before we reach an irreversible turning point on global warming. If we do too little or act too slowly to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels, future generations will face rising seas, drought, floods, hurricanes and spreading disease.

We know staving off the worst impacts of global warming requires acting swiftly and boldly. This bill heads in the right direction but doesn't go nearly far enough. Thus the question is whether establishing a framework for capping global warming emissions, albeit a compromised one, is better than waiting and hoping that the next Congress (or the next one or the next one after that) will have the political will to do what scientists say is truly needed.

In December, President Obama will travel to Copenhagen to negotiate a climate treaty with other world leaders. We don't want him to arrive empty-handed. We believe that, given the closing window of opportunity to solve global warming, given the uncertain future on Capitol Hill, and given the pressing need to reach an international agreement, passing legislation now offers our best hope for saving our planet and future generations.

Reason #3: It sets us on the path to a greener future.

Imagine a future where every home, every workplace, every school is powered by the sun or the wind or other clean energy source that will never run out. Imagine a future where millions of Americans are employed in this project, erecting wind turbines, installing solar panels, weatherizing homes, and building new mass transit and high-speed rail. Best of all, imagine a future where we no longer need to pump pollution into our atmosphere, blast away the tops of mountains to extract coal, clean up spills on our beaches, or risk the very lives of future generations.

This clean energy revolution has already begun, but it needs to happen faster, and on a bigger scale, than anything we've seen so far. The Waxman-Markey bill is a step in the right direction.

The bill's energy efficiency and green building standards will reduce our dependence on coal and create new green jobs that can't be shipped overseas. The bill's renewable energy standard and federal clean energy purchasing requirements provide a push for the wind, solar, geothermal and biomass industries. Most importantly, the bill's global warming emissions cap, if done right, will set a price on carbon that will unleash the transformation of our energy systems.

In summary...

These are the reasons why we decided to support, and to work extremely hard for, passage of the Waxman-Markey bill -- even as we endeavored to strengthen it at every opportunity.

Since the bill passed, I have talked with some of the strongest clean energy champions in Congress, including Congressman Markey and Speaker Pelosi. We all agree that we wish the bill were stronger and we need to do much more to drive clean energy and stop global warming. But given where we are -- the powerful interests arrayed against us, the only lukewarm support for change on this issue in a few politically important parts of the country, and the economic slump facing the nation -- this is the best the House can do at this time.

During the July 4 recess, our adversaries aired a series of television ads harshly criticizing members of Congress -- especially those who risk losing their seats in the next election -- for supporting the Waxman-Markey bill. Our organizers were hard at work drumming up grassroots support for members of Congress who voted the right way and holding members who voted the wrong way accountable. But it is clear from the reaction to this bill that the opposition is more energized than ever and will continue their assault on this legislation and those who support it.

Looking ahead, our first priority is to push the Senate to improve the bill and avoid any further backsliding. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hopes to hold a vote on the bill this fall in time for President Obama to sign it before he travels to Copenhagen in December.

We know that the most critical thing we can do is the thing we do best -- building the breadth and depth of public support we need in states across the country to overcome the global warming deniers and the powerful polluting industries aligned against us. Join us.

Margie Alt is the executive director of Environment America. Environment America's federation of state-based, citizen-funded, environmental organizations advocate for clean air, clean water, and open space in 28 states and our nation's capital.