As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Looking Beyond Waxman-Markey, Because Looking At It Is Too Ugly

By now you probably know that the Waxman-Markey climate bill will hit the floor of the House tomorrow. This has become almost a stealth issue in America, which is astounding. The President stressed his support of the bill at his press conference Tuesday and nobody asked a question about it. Today he's whipping support publicly and calling lawmakers privately, accusing Republicans of spreading misinformation and casting the bill as a "jobs bill," always a good maneuver in an age of double-digit unemployment. Yet it's not a front-and-center issue in most people's minds. An ABC poll showed support of the bill if it raised electric rates by $10 a month, and opposition if it raised them $25 a month.

And yet this is a world-historical vote, which seeks to address one of the foundational issues of our time - the fact that a runaway climate has the potential to make large sections of the world uninhabitable, cause mass death, and require disruptive adaptation costing in the trillions of dollars. So $15 a month swings support one way or the other? And nobody, not even the President, can get it on the front page?

Keep in mind that the bill, as currently constructed, is not even sufficient to the task. The energy efficiency aspects of the bill are sound - so sound that this EPA analysis, stating that Waxman-Markey would result in less renewable energy than in a status quo ante environment, is mainly because the efficiency targets are so strong that they would significantly reduce the amount of electricity required. But the other part of that reflects the inadequacies of the bill:

The bill also won’t sufficiently drive up the price of dirty fossil fuels to encourage a big switch to renewables, the analysis says. (Here’s how that sounds in untranslated EPA-speak: “Allowances prices are not high enough to drive a significant amount of additional low or zero-carbon energy . . . in the shorter term.”)

Enviro groups, which have misplayed this debate dramatically, don't want to upset the precarious balance that has allowed the bill to progress this far by strengthening it with amendments. And so we're stuck with a bill that has an insufficient carbon emissions cap, gives away scads of allowances to polluters and farm interests, maintains the ethanol scam, does too little on the renewable energy standard, doesn't invest enough in clean sources of energy and fails to advance the ball to a significant degree. Ed Markey says that this is the political reality of getting a bill like this to pass. And at Grist, Dave Roberts tries to look on the bright side:

Anyway, on odd-numbered days, I think I’ve reached a fragile zen detente with the whole process. Mainly, I’ve been trying to focus on a different question: will there be an energy revolution? After all, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is not the only shot for Obama to make good on his campaign promises on energy. Nor is the legislation our last chance to tackle the climate crisis. No bill can carry that kind of weight, not at this moment, with this Congress. America is at the tail end of an era of cheap energy and heedless economic growth. Waxman-Markey is just the struggle to get an extremely hidebound, backward-looking set of political institutions to acknowledge that the old order is collapsing. Building a new order is something else entirely.

The question is, what’s going to happen after the bill is passed? An energy revolution will require a combination of social, technological, business, legal, regulatory, and legislative changes. Federal legislation can’t do all the lifting. Conversely, other changes can compensate somewhat for a weak (at least at the outset) federal framework. What will ultimately make the difference is not the specific mechanics of the bill but the, ahem, Sweep of History. (And who better to capture the Sweep of History than Some Blogger?)

I am reasonably optimistic, despite the flaws in Waxman-Markey, that history is on our side, and that the arguments happening today in Congress will soon be seen as peculiar and archaic.

Read the whole thing.

That's a good way of denying the present, by painting a rosy, hopeful outlook for the future. And his analysis isn't far wrong. But it does nothing for the political realty today. And that reality shows that climate change is just not yet a "touch and feel" issue for enough Americans to make a dent in the political debate. And that we have a better chance finding disruptive technologies that blow the clean energy space wide open than waiting for some Congressman who has a coal mine in his district to come around to realize the scope of the problem. I hope Roberts is right about the future, because I'm not sure the politics will advance too much from the present.

...I agree that this is a good way of looking at it:

As we see a lot of big, landmark style bills coming to the floor in the coming months and stress out over whether they are "good" or "bad," failure or success, and instead look at legislating over the longer term as a process of constantly pushing toward better policy. Obviously, congress' institutional structure -- it's very hard to pass anything substantial or with any kind of speed -- creates an incentive geared towards achieving huge breakthroughs, since you may only get this chance -- and this majority -- once...But there's no law saying that Barack Obama and the rest of the Democrats can't take another bite at the health care apple -- or energy, or financial regulations, or whatever -- after the mid-terms or, hell, as soon as the first bill passes.

One quibble, which I will explore in my next post.

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