Contesting on Occupied Terrain

Future Hope column, June 16, 2009

By Ted Glick

“I am open and I am willing
For to be hopeless would seem so strange
It dishonors those who go before us
So lift me up to the light of change.”

“I Am Willing,” by Holly Near

There is much evidence to indicate that there will be a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives next week on the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, ACESA. If it doesn’t happen next week, it will be because Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Ed Markey and others in the Democratic leadership have failed to round up enough votes to pass this problematic piece of climate legislation.

As of right now the odds are not great that the bill will be significantly improved, although there are a number of groups that are engaged in a campaign to strengthen it. Up until the time that the vote is taken on the House floor, it is important that people contact their House members urging them to support these strengthening efforts.

It is painful to think back to the hope that many of us in the climate movement had half a year or so ago when Obama won the Presidency, the Democrats took strong control of both houses of Congress, and Henry Waxman defeated John Dingell in an internal House Democratic election for the chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. Barack Obama was calling for a 100% auction of global warming pollution permits, and there was reason to believe we should be able to get a good climate bill passed at least out of the House.

But here we are a week before a possible House floor vote and we have a comprehensive piece of climate legislation supported by Waxman, Ed Markey, Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama which:

-strips away power from the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions from stationary sources, e.g. coal plants;

-strengthens the coal industry, making it easier for them to build new coal plants;

-could well mean, because of a tremendous percentage of offsets, zero or only a few percentage points of actual greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the USA over the next dozen or more years;

-establishes a mandate for increased renewables-created electricity which could well be less than what would be created if there were no federal mandate at all; and,

-auctions only 15% of the pollution emissions permits. Half of them are given free to the fossil fuel industry.

The fossil fuel industry is very alive, very well up on Capitol Hill. It’s like occupied territory.

How have climate, environmental and progressive groups responded to this situation? Pretty much in three ways.

Many of the more inside-the-beltway, mainstream environmental groups have taken a position of “strengthen and pass,” including the National Audubon Society, NRDC, National Wildlife Federation, Union of Concerned Scientists and Wilderness Society. As the House Democratic leadership has intensified its efforts to round up “yes” votes on ACESA, the “strengthen” part of this seems to have reduced in priority.

Some groups that tend to be newer, like 1Sky, MoveOn and Green for All, as well as groups like the Sierra Club and Environment America, have taken a stronger “strengthen” (without the “and pass”) position, although they’ve also had to deal with the pressure ratcheted up for passage whether it’s strengthened or not.

Another mix of groups, among them Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, Rainforest Action Network, Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Unitarian Universalist Association, have taken the position that the bill has significant problems and is in need of comprehensive strengthening. Some of these groups have come out saying they cannot support the bill in its current form.

I don’t know of any major group that has so far taken a position of outright opposition, calling for members of Congress to vote against it. But there are definitely a number, a growing number, who have been so dismayed by what has happened with this bill up to now that they are publicly indicating support for, or becoming even more supportive of, either the cap-and-dividend or carbon tax approach to federal climate legislation, or some hybrid of them.

To me, this is the silver lining of the very dark climate legislation cloud hanging over Capitol Hill right now.

Whatever happens on the House floor, there is a need for a kind of regroupment process to take place. Those organizations–national, regional, state and local–who have observed and appreciated how powerful the coal and other fossil fuel interests are within both the Republican and Democratic parties; those organizations which are not prepared to accept the almost certain further weakening of what comes out of the House when it gets to the Senate–we need to find the ways to speak with one strong voice about what is truly needed when it comes to climate legislation. There are large numbers of us all around the country.

We cannot allow our concern, our disappointment, our anger over what has taken place in recent months in the House lessen our commitment to work hard over these next six months leading up to Copenhagen and beyond for truly strong, truly bold, truly science-based legislation to address the deepening climate crisis. Future generations are counting on us to do the right thing.

In Holly Near’s words,

“May the children see more clearly
May the elders be more wise
May the winds of change caress us
Even though it burns our eyes.”

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, although his Future Hope columns are not necessarily the positions or perspectives of CCAN. Past Future Hope columns and other information can be found at