Science-Based, Not Scare, Tactics on Climate

Future Hope column, June 6, 2009

By Ted Glick

“Waxman-Markey is the only game in town. If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350-to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead. Warming of 5 degrees Centigrade or more by century’s end would be all but inevitable, with 850 to 1000+ ppm. If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe—not high, but not zero.” Joe Romm, Climate Progress blogger

Is Waxman-Markey—the 932-page American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACESA) passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21st and likely going to the House floor at the end of this month–truly “the only game in town?” Is it something we should all rally behind as an essential part of the answer to the climate crisis? Does it actually mandate action that has a chance of solving that urgent crisis?

Most scientists and others who have seriously studied what is happening with our destabilized climate would agree that, as far as solutions, there are several key elements:

-dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions as soon as possible. Leading world scientists and government climate negotiators have called for roughly a third or more decrease in ghg emissions by industrialized countries within the next decade compared to the internationally-used baseline year of 1990;

-enactment of government policies that put a steadily-increasing price on fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases to reflect their true social and environmental costs and to drive the shift to clean, renewable energy sources, conservation and energy efficiency; and,

-a moratorium on the building of any new coal plants and a transition away from the use of coal, the dirtiest and most polluting of the fossil fuels, as quickly as possible. Even enviromentalists, most of them anyway, who support carbon capture and sequestration (css) support a moratorium on any new coal plants that don’t capture most of their carbon.

How does the Waxman-Markey bill, ACESA, measure up in these three areas?


A best-case analysis would conclude that, if passed, this bill might end up reducing emissions by 20% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels (although a maximum of 9-10% would be actual in-the-U.S. emissions, the rest coming via support for programs in tropical countries to prevent deforestation). That’s if everything went well, particularly if the huge amount of “offsets” didn’t seriously undercut U.S.-based emissions reductions, a very real possibility.

This bill, primarily through the giveaway of fully half of the emissions permits to the fossil fuel industry and through the problematic offsets, will at best have a limited impact when it comes to the raising of prices on fossil fuels. This is particularly the case with the coal industry, which was the big winner in the internal negotiations among Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that led to this piece of legislation.

Not only will this bill NOT discourage the building of new coal plants, it positively encourages it. It does this by allowing new coal plants to be built until 2020 without having to sequester any carbon until 2025. Leaving aside the big safety and other issues with currently-not-economically-viable carbon capture and sequestration (and even supporters of it don’t see it coming on line for a decade), does anyone really doubt that the coal industry won’t pull out all the stops in the early 20’s to use their power to try to extend this 2025 deadline if css is not “ready for prime time?”

There are other serious problems with ACESA.

It strips the Environmental Protection Agency of much of the power to do its job of regulating dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. This is very serious.

It sets up an “everyone is welcome” cap-and-trade system that allows Wall Street firms and speculators to get into the to-be-established carbon/greenhouse gas market of buying and selling the potentially valuable emissions permits. Among leading members of both the House and Senate concern is being openly expressed about the possibility of this market system being gamed (see more below).

It proposes very weak targets for increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency. The Energy Information Administration, a government agency, has estimated that as a result of existing state renewable energy laws and other factors, there could be more renewable energy generated without this federal renewable energy provision than with it.

And there is very little in the bill that is directly about green jobs or worker assistance. There is an increase in funding for the Green Jobs Act from $125 million to $150 million (!!). ½ of a percent of the funds raised from the program over the first 10 years will go to help workers displaced as a result of the transition away from fossil fuels. Perhaps there is so little money allocated because the bill’s authors understand that there’ll be very little transitioning over the next decade or so.

Indeed, Congressman Mike Doyle, a coal-state Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who, with Rich Boucher, had a lot to do with the gutting of this bill, said several weeks ago, “Remember, this is an 80 percent reduction by 2050. This is 2009. We’ve got 41 years in this deal, and we shouldn’t be so worried about the first 10 years.”

Ignorance, dangerous ignorance, has a firm foothold on Capitol Hill. And not just within the Republican Party.

Joe Romm says that Waxman-Markey is “the only game in town.” He’s wrong, but it would be accurate to say that, among far too many inside-the-beltway environmental and climate groups, Waxman-Markey is the only game in town they’re playing.

There are two other major proposals for a different framework than “cap-and-trade” to drive the transition away from fossil fuels. One is a “cap-and-dividend” proposal put forward by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and part of the House Democratic leadership. The other is a “carbon tax-and-tax-rebate” proposal put forward by Congressman John Larsen, head of the House Democratic Caucus and also part of the House Democratic leadership.

Isn’t it amazing how these proposals by the third- and fourth-highest Democrats in the House of Representatives are virtually invisible when it comes to Joe Romm and many environmental and climate groups?

And it’s not just in the House where there is serious consideration being given to options to cap-and-trade. On May 7th the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Max Baucus, held a hearing attended by most of its Democratic and Republican members. The focus of the hearing was on “Auctioning Under Cap and Trade: Design, Participation, and Distribution of Revenues.” I attended this hearing, and I was amazed by the heavy focus on the potential for speculators to manipulate a cap and trade system. Throughout the hearing Senators kept bringing up the question of a carbon tax, and not in a negative way. They were clearly open to the possibility that a carbon tax-based framework might be a better way to go than cap-and-trade. And when the four members of the panel who were testifying were directly asked, all of them agreed that a carbon tax-based system was a more straightforward, easier to administer and more effective system.

So maybe the problem isn’t that if we don’t pass Waxman-Markey we might as well just resign ourselves to the likely end of life on earth as we’ve known it. Maybe the problem lies deeper, with the way in which “Washington” has affected and just keeps affecting too many environmental and climate groups who really do have the best interests of the earth and all its life forms at heart but who, in the name of “practical politics,” just keep backsliding and backsliding as “Washington” works its corrupt ways.

Is Waxman-Markey a completely bad bill? No. There are good things about it. A federal law that aims to reduce emissions is certainly better than what we had under Bush/Cheney. It would provide a good deal of support for various energy efficiency programs. It should cut back on forest deforestation. It will help drive the U.S. automobile industry toward the production of plug-in hybrids and electric cars. It has some support for international adaptation and clean energy technology transfer. It is good that it provides for National Academy of Science review of the effectiveness of the plan, although it should be more frequent than once every four years given the accelerating pace of worldwide climate change.

Indeed, if there were just one change that could make this legislation have some genuine viability, it would be to require a NAS/scientific review every two years starting in 2011 or 2012. That review would assess the state of the climate science combined with recommendations with teeth in them as to what federal action and legislative changes to this bill should be made accordingly.

But taken as a whole, in its present form, this legislation comes nowhere close to being what science demands, unless your primary concern is the political science of Capitol Hill.

Efforts are underway by a coalition of environmental, climate and other groups to mount an effort to build support for several strengthening amendments to this bill on the House floor. Groups involved are 1Sky, Environment America, Sierra Club, MoveOn, Green for All, ACORN, Oxfam, USAction, Health Care Without Harm, Democracia Ahora and Rock the Vote. This effort is certainly called for and should be supported. We’ll have to see how it and the work of other House committees over the next couple of weeks impacts ACESA.

In the meantime, wouldn’t NOW be a very good time for those of us who get it on the seriousness of the climate crisis to openly discuss the options to ACESA and open-to-Wall-Street cap and trade bills? After all, if Joe Romm is right and ACESA’s passage means only a 10-20% chance of averting catastrophe, isn’t the responsible thing to do to look for options, and different tactics, that provide better odds?

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 To see his more-specific analysis of ACESA go to