There is much in the House cap-and-trade energy bill that just passed that I absolutely hate. It is too weak in key areas and way too complicated in others. A simple, straightforward carbon tax would have made much more sense than this Rube Goldberg contraption. It is pathetic that we couldn’t do better. It is appalling that so much had to be given away to polluters. It stinks. It’s a mess. I detest it.
Now let’s get it passed in the Senate and make it law.
Why? Because, for all its flaws, this bill is the first comprehensive attempt by America to mitigate climate change by putting a price on carbon emissions. Rejecting this bill would have been read in the world as America voting against the reality and urgency of climate change and would have undermined clean energy initiatives everywhere.
More important, my gut tells me that if the U.S. government puts a price on carbon, even a weak one, it will usher in a new mind-set among consumers, investors, farmers, innovators and entrepreneurs that in time will make a big difference — much like the first warnings that cigarettes could cause cancer. The morning after that warning no one ever looked at smoking the same again.
Ditto if this bill passes. Henceforth, every investment decision made in America — about how homes are built, products manufactured or electricity generated — will look for the least-cost low-carbon option. And weaving carbon emissions into every business decision will drive innovation and deployment of clean technologies to a whole new level and make energy efficiency much more affordable. That ain’t beanbag.
Now that the bill is heading for the Senate, though, we must, ideally, try to improve it, but, at a minimum, guard against diluting it any further. To do that we need the help of the three parties most responsible for how weak the bill already is: the Republican Party, President Barack Obama and We the People.
This bill is not weak because its framers, Representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, wanted it this way. “They had to make the compromises they did,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, “because almost every House Republican voted against the bill and did nothing to try to improve it. So to get it passed, they needed every coal-state Democrat, and that meant they had to water it down to bring them on board.”
What are Republicans thinking? It is not as if they put forward a different strategy, like a carbon tax. Does the G.O.P. want to be the party of sex scandals and polluters or does it want to be a partner in helping America dominate the next great global industry: E.T. — energy technology? How could Republicans become so anti-environment, just when the country is going green?
Historically speaking, “Republicans can claim as much credit for America’s environmental leadership as Democrats,” noted Glenn Prickett, senior vice president at Conservation International. “The two greatest environmental presidents in American history were Teddy Roosevelt, who created our national park system, and Richard Nixon, whose administration gave us the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.” George Bush Sr. signed the 1993 Rio Treaty, to preserve biodiversity.
Yes, this bill’s goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 is nowhere near what science tells us we need to mitigate climate change. But it also contains significant provisions to prevent new buildings from becoming energy hogs, to make our appliances the most energy efficient in the world and to help preserve forests in places like the Amazon.
We need Republicans who believe in fiscal conservatism and conservation joining this legislation in the Senate. We want a bill that transforms the whole country not one that just threads a political needle. I hope they start listening to green Republicans like Dick Lugar, George Shultz and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I also hope we will hear more from President Obama. Something feels very calculating in how he has approached this bill, as if he doesn’t quite want to get his hands dirty, as if he is ready to twist arms in private, but not so much that if the bill goes down he will get tarnished. That is no way to fight this war. He is going to have to mobilize the whole country to pressure the Senate — by educating Americans, with speech after speech, about the opportunities and necessities of a serious climate/energy bill. If he is not ready to risk failure by going all out, failure will be the most likely result.
And then there is We the People. Attention all young Americans: your climate future is being decided right now in the cloakrooms of the Capitol, where the coal lobby holds huge sway. You want to make a difference? Then get out of Facebook and into somebody’s face. Get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon. That will get the Senate’s attention. Play hardball or don’t play at all.