Hearings on the Senate’s climate and energy bill introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and John Kerry (D-MA) started this week in the Environment and Public Works Committee.
For a good lay of the land on the committee check out this post from The Wonk Room. The hearings have already provided some amusement: check out Dana Milbank's roasting of Senator James Inhofe's (R-OK) climate-science-denying tizzy during Tuesday’s hearings.
As senators begin to hash out their version of a climate bill, it’s instructive to recall what happened in the House. The Waxman-Markey bill, or American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act, was passed by the House in June. It is a weak bill full of loopholes and giveaways to polluting industries. The bill is more focused on propping up dirty coal than on spurring a clean energy transformation. What's unfortunate is that Congress has a real chance to pass a bill that would keep the climate stable, provide us with a secure energy future, and create millions of new jobs to revitalize our economy, yet Waxman-Markey fails to deliver.
For an animated retelling of what happened in the House, check out Friends of the Earth's new video, "Just the Energy Bill".
Fortunately, we still have time to raise the bar in the Senate and move closer to bold action. Progressives need to set bottom lines and demand a strong bill. That starts with describing what strong legislation would look like. In August, more than 300 progressive, environmental, human rights and faith groups wrote to Sen. Boxer to provide such an outline for Senate action.
Read on for this outline and how the Kerry-Boxer bill compares...
A cap on carbon with actual bite: Science demands swift and serious reductions in global warming emissions to avoid seriously destabilizing the climate. To have a realistic shot at staving off catastrophe, we need to reduce our emissions enough to get CO2 levels in the atmosphere back below 350 parts per million. The weak targets in Waxman-Markey won’t even get us close.
Protecting the Clean Air Act: The House bill would preempt the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from the biggest pollution sources in the country. The EPA is already moving forward to regulate large emitters of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. We need to let the EPA do the job it’s already designed and best-equipped to handle.
Removing handouts and loopholes: Waxman-Markey gives out billions of dollars of carbon credits to polluters for free, rather than making polluters pay for the pollution they produce. Loopholes like dubious carbon offsets will postpone emissions reductions and delay a clean energy transformation.
Support for Renewable Energy: Rather than hand out money to polluters, the climate bill should invest in renewable energy and efficiency to tilt the playing field towards the clean energy we need.
Living up to our international responsibility: We can’t stop global warming alone—and the rest of the world can’t do it without us. As the world’s largest historical emitter of global warming pollution, the U.S. should lead the way towards a strong and just international agreement to stop global warming. To do so, we need to not only deeply reduce our own emissions, but also to provide funds to help developing countries deploy clean technology and deal with the impacts of climate change.
So far, it looks a lot more like the polluter-friendly House bill than like the strong climate legislation we urgently need. Kerry-Boxer protects the Clean Air Act, a major improvement, but falls short on all the other criteria: It contains many of the same loopholes, its carbon cap still lacks bite, it provides insufficient investments in renewable energy, and it doesn’t meet our international responsibility.
So what can progressives do to raise the chances for strong action from the Senate?
We could start by pushing progressive senators to stand up for a stronger bill.
This year’s rallying around a public option in health care reform provides a good blueprint for progressive organizing. Over the summer and early fall, while the media predicted the death of the public option and dwelled on town hall outbursts and the whims of Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), progressives didn’t waver. On OpenLeft and elsewhere, bloggers, activists and organizations pushed House and Senate leaders to show political will and make it happen. Thanks to this effort the public option is still alive.
Unfortunately, even before the hearings started on the Senate climate and energy bill, Sens. Boxer and Kerry have indicated that they see their draft as an initial offering that will get weaker.
Sen. Boxer told The Washington Post that the emissions reductions targets in the draft bill would “be the high-water mark” and likely go down as the bill moves to the Senate floor.
Meanwhile, Sen. Kerry said: "If there's a significant bona fide effort, where people are really coming and saying, 'Yes, if you do this, I'll vote for it,' I'll consider anything that's reasonable that gets us the votes we need."
One of the bargaining chips Sen. Kerry has indicated he might trade away for votes is regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. As I wrote above, this is the biggest improvement his bill has going for it in contrast to the disastrous Waxman-Markey.
As we have seen in organizing for the public option, we can’t expect our allies in Congress to push for what’s needed without showing popular momentum behind our demands and exerting some friendly pressure.
On the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) could stand up and become champions.
These three senators, along with Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), pushed Sen. Boxer to make the improvements in 2020 emissions reductions targets that her bill has in comparison to the House effort (though these targets are still far less than what is needed).
Unfortunately, Sen. Whitehouse also told ClimateWire in July that, "Anything we can't do goes off the table." Not the type of strong rhetoric we want to hear.
This clip from Tuesday’s hearing of Sen. Whitehouse defending the Clean Air Act is the type of strong rhetoric we need:
Protecting the Clean Air Act is one rallying point around which progressive Senators seem to be coalescing. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is circulating a letter for colleagues to sign on to demanding that the Senate climate bill protect Clean Air Act standards for big polluting coal plants. So far Senators Whitehouse, Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have signed on.
Sen. Merkley also had some strong statements in his recent piece posted on HuffPo, in which he promises to stand up to polluting special interests:
As we continue on a path forward to fight climate change and invest in innovative technologies, we will constantly be challenged by the influential fossil fuel interests. Just like we're witnessing with efforts to reform health care, powerful lobbyists will do everything in their power, including making up the most scurrilous distortions, to water down and block effective climate change legislation.
We cannot let them control the message in the media and we cannot let them control our future. I will do everything in my power to speak out and explain to my colleagues that as much as the special interests try to portray this issue as complicated and confusing, we face a clear and simple choice.
Apart from a pledge to strengthen the Renewable Electricity Standard, however, Sen. Merkley does not call for significant improvements to the Senate bill. Absent from his piece is an acknowledgement that, in its current form, the bill would not actually “put us on a path to … avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming,” as he asserts.
Senators Kerry and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) proclaimed in their joint op-ed published October 11 in the The New York Times, “Yes We Can (Pass Climate Legislation).”But, as Jessie Jenkins and Roger Pielke asked on their blogs, pass it to what end? Sens. Kerry and Graham’s blueprint for consensus includes more support for the nuclear industry, more money wasted on carbon capture fantasies, and more offshore drilling. These are not directions to celebrate.
The real question is: will it be a good deal not just for vote counters, but for people counting on real action to stop global warming and create a clean energy economy?
Progressives need to step in and shape this conversation about what a “good deal” for our climate would really look like. We can’t accept the argument that we don’t have time to get it right. Indeed, we don’t have time to get it wrong.