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Grading a Climate Bill, Part 1

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If Mother Nature were handing out grades, she'd have a difficult time assigning one to the 1,200-page climate dissertation known as Waxman-Markey, approved by the House and now being considered by the Senate.

For one thing, she'd have to grade on a curve. What looks like an "A" in Washington may qualify for no more than a "C" or "D" outside the beltway -- and may be no better than "F" in the rest of the world.

Now that Senate leadership has postponed markup of a climate bill until late September, it should take time to carefully consider how it defines "success". With the future of the planet hanging in the balance, with the world watching for what the United States will do, and with Congressional action likely to have a major influence on whether we'll see a global climate agreement at Copenhagen, this is probably the most important exam the current members of Congress will ever take.

The Waxman-Markey bill offers an example of how Washington grades itself by different standards. One of the bill's supporters - an environmental leader for whom I have great respect - has praised it as a splendid example of the legislative process at its best, delicately balancing the interests of the many diverse constituencies it would affect.

That's not the test the rest of the world will apply. Few of us outside the beltway care much about the efficiency of the legislative process, as rare as that might be. To qualify as a real success, climate policy must pass at least four far more important tests: the Science Test, the Copenhagen Test, the Boxer Test and the Leadership Test.

The Science Test: The most important of these tests is whether Congress sets a standard that gives the world a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. That means holding atmospheric warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels - a goal that, given the rate of greenhouse gas emissions today, is ambitious but still gives us only a 50-50 chance of avoiding catastrophic climate disruption.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that industrial economies would have to reduce emissions 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to keep warming to 2 degrees. Waxman-Markey caps emissions at only 3.6 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, pitifully short of what the scientists have said is necessary.

How much and how quickly we reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not topics for negotiation, any more than you or I would be wise to try negotiating with a rapidly metastasizing cancer. Aggressive cancer demands aggressive treatment on an aggressive timetable. So does global warming.

The Copenhagen Test: As we know, climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. With little more than four months left before the international community convenes in Copenhagen, however, there has been little apparent progress. At the G8 meeting in Italy earlier this month, the 17 biggest economies failed again to agree on specific targets and timetables for emissions reductions.

The Obama Administration is working on several fronts to demonstrate U.S. leadership, including its ongoing attempt to reach a bilateral agreement with China, EPA's decision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and its endorsement of carbon emission standards for vehicles. But nothing President Obama can do between now and December will have the political power of strong climate legislation from Congress. Climate stabilization and the clean energy economic necessary to achieve it must become the law of the land.

From the standpoint of the rest of the world, particularly developing nations, the United States is the country most responsible for the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. We and the other industrialized economies have exhausted the environment's capacity to tolerate the fossil fuels that developing countries hoped to use to lift their people from poverty. We are the world's most innovative nation and one of its richest. The standard by which much of the rest of the world will grade us is whether we meet our moral obligation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and find adequate sources of clean energy.

The Waxman-Markey bill fails this test. China wants developed economies to cut their emissions in the 30-40 percent range by 2020, a level it feels is justified since the industrial nations' unbridled greenhouse gas emissions over the past 200 years have brought us to this crisis. The European Union has committed to a 20 percent reduction. The Waxman-Markey cap doesn't come close.

While Waxman-Markey sets the stage for additional emission reductions through carbon offsets and other measures outside the cap, those cuts are not mandatory. It's the mandatory reductions under the cap that are likely to count most when the rest of the world grade the United States.

The people I talk to who are involved in or monitoring international negotiations are convinced that America's climate goals will set the bar for other countries. Weak action here will lead to weak action at Copenhagen. With no action by Congress, which would be a second insult to the world community following the United States' failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, a global deal is unlikely.

The Boxer Test: Earlier this year, Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced several principles she said are necessary in acceptable climate legislation. Among them are "certain and enforceable" short-term and long-term emission targets and a "transparent and accountable market-based system" for cutting emissions.

Waxman-Markey falls short here, too. "Transparent" is an adjective no one can honestly apply to the House bill with its complex trading system, allowance allocations, exemptions and other machinery. The emission reductions contemplated outside the cap are not "certain".

The Leadership Test: There were many reasons that 212 House members voted against Waxman-Markey. Some members are climate deniers. Some wanted a stronger bill. Some simply don't want to give President Obama a victory. But others, including some of the 44 Democrats who voted "no", did so because they were worried about reelection.

That's no surprise, of course. The Center for Public Integrity counted 2,340 lobbyists from 770 companies trying to influence the climate bill last year. But the fact that some freshmen Democrats hid in the bushes on this vote left idealists like me wondering what's happened to the idea of leadership.

In its analysis of the House vote, Grist quotes blogger Stan Collender's post-mortem:

"The margin was narrow but isn't the big story. The ultimate political value for the White House is that it was able to get the bill adopted at all but still allow 44 Democrats to vote against it. Not asking Democrats to walk a political plank will pay huge dividends later this year and in the 2010 elections because those members who needed to vote against it were able to do so. And, of course, the White House didn't have to use up huge favors in the process."

In an interview with the New York Times, President Obama showed empathy for first-term Democrats from conservative districts who were swept into office on the Obama Wave but who haven't established their incumbencies:

"I think those 44 Democrats (who voted against the bill) are sensitive to the immediate political climate of uncertainty around this issue. They've got to run every two years, and I completely understand that."

There's nothing like a note from the President to excuse Democrats from a leadership test, but the reality is this: There is a time to represent constituents and there is a time to lead them. This is a time to lead.

The standard that will determine whether a climate bill passes the leadership test is whether it truly serves the public interest as well as, and if necessary rather than, the collection of special interests. Waxman-Markey shows too much deference to the coal lobby, the farm lobby and the big polluters who would like to see EPA's regulatory authority rolled back.

On climate change - the mother of all environmental, economic, energy, public health, national security and international relations issues - responsible members of both parties need a gut check. They need to man-up. They need to inoculate their constituents against flat-earthers and demagogues by educating the voters about why climate action is so urgent an issue, why it's time for the United States to seize the opportunity of a clean energy economy, and why every American, present and future, stands to benefit from the change.

The rest of us need to man-up, too. All of the organizations in favor of bold climate action - environmental groups, former military leaders, religious leaders, hunters and fishermen, to name a few - must commit to supporting Congress's climate leaders not only before their vote, but through the next election.

None of this is meant to argue the House should not have approved Waxman-Markey. It was the first carbon pricing proposal to pass either house in Congress. That significantly increases the chance a bill will reach the President before Copenhagen. It lays the foundation for firmer action. But that firmer action cannot be years away. It must be taken now, by the Senate.

Whether the bill meets the standard of climate science, is strong enough to trigger an international deal, prescribes goals that will be enforced and met, and shows that courage still resides in Congress - those are the standards by which we should judge success.

A few other things are being tested here as well: whether Congress still works and whether the United States still has the right stuff to lead the world through global crisis. The adequacy of our democratic system of government is being tested. So are capitalism and its ability to protect the commons. (See Pope Benedict's new encyclical calling for "a new world financial order guided by ethics and the search for the common good.")

Congress is writing not only climate legislation. It is writing the latest and most important chapter in the history of the relationship between human civilizations and the natural environment. It is being asked to reaffirm the obligation of each generation to those that follow, to demonstrate the willingness of the world's richest nations to protect opportunity for the poorest, and to prove that the species that claims to be the most intelligent has the common sense to care for the life-support systems on which decent lives depend.

In Part 2 of this post, I'll suggest some specific ways the Senate should strengthen the carbon-pricing architecture in Waxman-Markey. In Part 3, I'll recount and respond to some of the arguments we should never hear again.

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