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

Friday, May 01, 2009

Climate And Energy Bill Hanging By A Thread

I think that, at the end of the day, the Obama agenda on education and even on health care will make its way through the Senate. It may not look exactly like what he campaigned on, particularly on health care. But something's going to happen. Obama should be able to mass substantial bipartisan support on education reform, considering that he sides with reformers over teacher's unions, and the previous bipartisan deal on education is showing signs of success. And the budget reconciliation instructions on health care really offer a big stick to force a solution, even to conservative Democrats.

On climate and energy legislation, I'm really not so sure. People have a visceral relationship to health care and education - it's their bodies and their kids. Arguments about the climate and alternative energy, while just as important, exist in the abstract, and are ripe for conservative misinformation, particularly around costs (see the "national energy tax" fearmongering). Progressives can push back on this nonsense, and thanks to Paul Krugman for giving this a shot, particularly using conservative market principles:

To be sure, there are many who insist that the costs would be much higher. Strange to say, however, such assertions nearly always come from people who claim to believe that free-market economies are wonderfully flexible and innovative, that they can easily transcend any constraints imposed by the world’s limited resources of crude oil, arable land or fresh water.

So why don’t they think the economy can cope with limits on greenhouse gas emissions?

However, even though the Republicans are rank hypocrites on this issue, they can make an abstract debate more concrete with the constant efforts to label this a tax. Right now, Americans support regulating greenhouse gas emissions, even if it raises energy prices (and I can give this to you in more than one poll). However, just the mere action of conservative fearmongering is, I suspect, enough to waver those Blue Dog conservative Democrats who don't want to pass this bill anyway, as well as give an excuse for coal-state Democrats who resist change. Therefore, you're seeing this week Reps. Waxman and Markey hunting for votes on Capitol Hill.

House Democratic leaders appeared to still be short of the votes needed to pass climate-change legislation out of a key subcommittee, but a spokeswoman for one of the lawmakers leading the talks said negotiations were continuing.

Several moderate Democrats on the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment said Thursday that fundamental issues such as how to soften the impact of the legislation on constituents and industries in their regions are still unresolved and that the panel might not be ready to vote on the measure by next week as Democratic leaders have called for.

The qualms expressed over legislation sponsored by House Energy and Commerce Waxman (D., Calif.), and Edward Markey (D., Mass.) along with possible Republican obstruction, point to the difficulty Democrats are having in finding consensus on climate and energy issues.

“I don’t think the votes are there in the subcommittee,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D., N.C.) said in an interview. Mr. Butterfield said he was particularly concerned about the bill’s impact on low-income Americans, adding “What do I tell a single mom making eight dollars an hour?”

You can see the nonsense bubbling to the surface already. With a properly constructed cap and trade system that rebates significant money to lower-income Americans, they would actually be better off than with no system and continued pollution into their communities. But that doesn't matter. Butterfield and his fellow conservaDems are delaying, offering poison pill amendments, and emboldening Republicans to obstruct. These proposed amendments fly in the face of the science, loosening the carbon cap and generally seeking to keep polluters in business.

Some of the areas of the bill where Democrats are engaged in give and take are obvious.

A group led by Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), wants to weaken the 2020 emission limits from the draft's 20 percent cut target, bringing it down to the 6 percent level spelled out last fall in legislation he produced with former Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) [...]

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said Boucher's group has endorsed the electric utility industry's call to set aside 40 percent of the proposed cap-and-trade program's allowances for free distribution to regulated local distribution companies within the electricity sector. The free credits would be phased out around 2025, which he said roughly lines up with projections of widespread deployment for carbon capture and storage at coal plants.

Doyle said the group also has recommended setting 15 percent of the credits aside for free allocation to U.S. industries considered most vulnerable to international competition, including steel, pulp, paper, cement and glass. Another 5 percent should also be walled off for petroleum refineries, he said.

Turning to the renewable electricity standard, Doyle said the moderate and conservative Democrats want Waxman to trim down his proposal from a 25 percent standard by 2025 to a less aggressive 15 percent requirement. Some states cannot meet the higher limits, he said, and they also want the definition of renewables expanded to include nuclear power.

And then you have refinery-state Dems wanting to protect their jobs. And coal-state Dems wanting to exempt coal. And nuclear-industry flaks wanting money for nuclear. There are just too many competing interests here. Now you know why Obama officials call ConservaDems the bad guys.

Unfortunately, the abstract nature of the debate obscures the urgency of legislation as soon as humanly possible. America cannot really make progress along with the world on mitigating the worst effects of climate change without a major effort like Waxman-Markey. We've already lost too much ground to stop a boiling planet, and if we let this slide, things will only get worse.

Can we really prevent global warming? Or should we be thinking more about adaptation? Building coastal fortifications may be cheaper than halting the release of CO2.

Right now, the climate scientists feel that if all humans shut off carbon emissions today, it will still glide up by about 1 degree centigrade. In the business-as-usual scenarios, Nicholas Stern says there's a 50 percent chance we may go to 5 degrees centigrade. We know what the Earth was like 5 or 6 degrees centigrade colder. That was called the Ice Ages. Imagine a world 5 degrees warmer. The desert lines would be dramatically changed. The West is projected to be in drought conditions. And certain tipping points might be triggered. We can adapt to 1 or 2 degrees. More than that, there is no adaptation strategy.

What do you mean by tipping points?

There's lots of carbon in vegetation that has grown and died in the northern tundras of Russia, Canada. Normally what happens when a tree falls and dies is the microbes come and gobble it up and they recycle in terms of carbon dioxide, methane. But in the frozen tundra, those microbes are asleep. So the big fear is that once the tundra thaws, those microbes wake up, they digest all that carbon. It goes up in the atmosphere. At that point, no matter what humans do, it's out of our control. This is the realization in the last decade that has caused many of us to get very, very concerned. Adaptation at 1 or 2 degrees will be painful, it will cause a lot of hurt and pain, but adaptation at 5 or 6 degrees—I'm terribly frightened that that's catastrophic.

Aren't we in pretty bad trouble no matter what we do? We're not going to be able to stop burning fossil fuels for quite a while.

We're in the great ship Titanic, the Earth is, and it's going to take a half century to really turn the ship. But that doesn't mean we can't start doing it today, and we must. It's possible that the United States can greatly reduce its use of energy in our buildings, which consume 40 percent of our energy, and our personal vehicles.

The scientists are warning that 2/3 of total coal reserves must be left unused if we want to stop the catastrophe that Dr. Chu is talking about here. We cannot afford to give anyone a break or hold off on a cap. This is bigger than any one district.

Two things in the corner of supporters of Waxman-Markey. One, the EPA has the authority to massively regulate emissions, including possibly implementing cap and trade if they so choose. So ConservaDems and coal-state pols can either come up with a solution or have it taken from their hands. The other trick we may have is the return of reconciliation.

This is a little bit deep in the weeds, but you may recall that back in early April when the Senate was debating the budget, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE) introduced an amendment meant to prevent the Senate from passing climate change legislation through the reconciliation process, and it passed by a wide margin.

Well, in conference, that amendment was stripped out completely. Mike Johanns is very unhappy. But that doesn't mean that a cap-and-trade program will absolutely be established during the reconciliation process. And it doesn't mean that Democrats will be hanging the threat over Republicans' heads the way they are with health reform. In fact, the conference report basically says this won't happen. But technically there won't be anything (other than Senate politics) stopping Democrats from doing so.

So many Democrats voted against reconciliation in the Senate that trying to pull that trigger would probably not work. But at least there's another option. Those of us who want meaningful climate and energy legislation need something to hang on. Because it's real tough out there.

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