11/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Where Science and Politics Intersect: Time to Win in Congress on Climate Change

This week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is expected to unveil its version of clean energy and climate legislation. The new bill will arrive just a week after the release of a sobering United Nations report that concluded that the impacts of global warming are arriving faster than the world's scientists had predicted just two years ago.

One thing we can be fairly sure of even without seeing it is that the new Senate bill -- like its counterpart in the House -- won't deliver the emission reductions scientists tell us are needed to prevent the worst impacts of global warming.

Yet, if the Senate bill looks like the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES Act) passed by the House this June, it will still be a significant step toward a clean energy future. If that is the case, it will be deserving of ardent support, especially if they fix some of the biggest flaws in the House bill.

This wouldn't be my position if I believed we were stuck with this bill forever, or if it headed us in the wrong direction. But as I see it, this is the start, not the end, of federal action to limit global warming pollution. And with the science getting clearer almost every day, we have no time to waste. It's time to stop setting the stage and start the show.

The Senate bill is likely to build on the framework of the bill the House passed in June. Here's the bottom line on that bill:

Moving us toward a clean energy future

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES Act) establishes a federal limit on global warming emissions for the first time ever. It puts a price on carbon, with some proceeds helping to transform our energy economy by investing in energy solutions of the 21st Century.

Beyond that, many of the underpinning provisions of the bill that have not received the attention they deserve take major steps to unleash the clean energy revolution this country truly needs. The bill sets new energy efficiency standards for appliances, dramatically improves building codes to lower energy use, and reduces our dependence on oil by requiring pollution standards for large trucks and ensuring that transportation investments are made with energy and global warming in mind.

The ACES Act will lead to measurable reductions in electricity consumption versus business-as-usual trends, as well as lower oil consumption, greater use of renewable energy, and a dramatic reduction in the amount of electricity we generate through the use of fossil fuels such as coal.

No doubt the bill has major flaws

While setting any cap on the nation's global warming emissions is historic, the cap in ACES has two major problems. The reduction called for in the cap-and-trade program is only 17 percent by 2020. Clear progress, but nowhere near enough. In addition, by allowing for much of the cap to be met by offsets - actions that take place overseas or in areas of the economy not covered by the emission cap - the real emission reductions could be significantly eroded in the short term.

The bill also takes away EPA's authority to crack down on pollution from the nation's oldest coal-fired power plants. It is a testament to the power of the coal industry and utilities that the dirtiest old plants have slipped through legal loopholes for decades. The House bill perpetuates that problem and makes it worse.

The requirements for energy efficiency and renewable energy are also far too low. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the renewable energy standard in the ACES Act would lead to no more clean energy than business as usual (although other provisions of the bill will encourage modest growth in renewables). And while the bill takes notable steps forward in promoting energy efficiency, it still falls well short of tapping America's full efficiency potential.

One step forward one step back? Or the first step in a journey of a thousand miles?

We have precious little time to deal with global warming before global warming deals with us. This bill is a good beginning.

I wouldn't be saying this if I didn't think we could improve the cap and other standards after we get this first version passed. And if I thought we had the support we needed to overcome the powerful coal, oil, utility and agriculture interests to do dramatically more within a year or two, I'd take a pass. But balancing the science with the politics and public opinion, this bill is the right thing right now.

Once in place, Congress will be able to improve numerous provisions in this bill. We've done just that in state after state on clean energy policy. In recent years, 29 states and the District of Columbia adopted renewable electricity standards requiring that a certain percentage of electricity consumed in the state come from clean sources. They didn't all start out as strong as we wanted, but they laid a framework that we have built on since. Of the 29 states, 17 - more than half - have increased their renewable electricity target or accelerated the timeline after adoption of the original bill. Seven states have improved their standards twice.

Good politics begets good politics. Once we enact a federal clean energy and global warming bill, and as voters start to see the benefits, I'm confident we will be able to muster the public support to put a stronger bill over the top in the near future.

Unfortunately the converse is also true. If this bill fails, or if it gets further weakened, the story will be that clean energy and global warming policy are neither popular nor winnable. Elected officials will disengage rather than engaging even further.

A dozen years ago, the Senate voted 95 to 0 in opposition to signing the Kyoto Protocol. Last year when a global warming bill was on the Senate floor, it was withdrawn after three days of ugly debate. We just didn't have the votes.

This year is different. With the Copenhagen negotiations just months away and the EPA moving forward to address global warming, our years of hard work and leadership by state governments are paying off. Passing a solid bill through the U.S. Congress won't just be a nod in the right direction; it will be the first of many steps in the journey of a thousand miles toward a cleaner, healthier, and safer world.