Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Waxman-Markey Bill up for House Vote

This bill, entitled the American Clean Energy and Security Act, though severely weakened in committee, is still our best hope for the U.S. to bring a serious national plan to the table in at the U.N. forum for negotiating the successor to Kyoto in Copenhagen this December. Enviros are lobbying their representatives to restore some of its original provisions for tough caps, fully auctioned carbon emission allowances, and justice for the poor who will be impacted by its provisions.

Though many of us would prefer a carbon tax to the more slippery cap and trade plan, this bill is the only game in town. Carbon taxes are not popular, as the Liberal Party of Canada learned in the last national election. If carbon could effectively be capped, without the loopholes that Kyoto allowed, then some inevitable charades in trading of emission credits might not be too damaging. But the system is going to have to be much tougher and smarter than Kyoto, which slowed, but did not reverse, the growth in the emission curves of its signatories.

Though an international framework is imperative for us to have a chance at salvaging a meaningful human presence on the planet, my fear is that, even if Copenhagen advances a new protocol, the tremendous attachment to the status quo of corporate globalism will put us closer to the runaway CO2 emission curves of BAU (business as usual) than those tracking sufficient carbon restraint to give us a chance to avoid catastrophic climate runaway. We need a new system, ASAP, one which structurally acknowledges that the global economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the global ecosphere. Many are working towards articulating a new system that integrates the human economy with its earth household, notably the economist Herman Daly. A newly released book, Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy, shows promise of laying out the principles as well as a method of governance, for this long-delayed advance on Adam Smith’s assumption of an endless, “externalized” resource base. I will review the book, published under the auspices of the Quaker Institute for the Future, with whom I have worked on energy issues, in a forthcoming blogpost.

Many players in the Obama administration understand the centrality and weight of the climate crisis, especially John Holdren, the president’s science advisor, NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco, Steven Chu at Energy, and the new US climate negotiator, Todd Stern. But you have to wonder if the President really understands, deep in his heart, that we are on the verge of complete climate catastrophe, as he continues to make it clear that health care is his overriding priority. If we don’t restore the health of the planet, human survival, much less health and comfort, are hugely at risk.

We have a long way to go, and we must get there fast. Waxman-Markey will be a start, and it has a reasonable chance of passing the House in the next couple of weeks. But there are thunderclouds in the Senate, and we only have so much time to weather this storm. Unfortunately, the usual political horsetrading and its inevitable compromises is ineffective with respect to the laws of nature. The climate science for which the IPCC was rewarded the Nobel was not subject to a vote, though some of the more drastic scenarios got weeded out in the peer review vetting.

It is important to understand basic systems theory, especially the working of feedback loops. Once “positive” feedback starts moving the gargantuan mechanism of global climate towards a new equilibrium, it is too late to do anything but wait a thousand years for the new norms. If only Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and industry leaders committed to the status quo of short term profits would remember that they, too, have grandchildren, who will beget grandchildren of their own.

Now is the time to do more than install compact fluorescents and take 5-minute showers. Get to know your elected officials and their staff as a buffer against the massive tide of industry lobbyists. Repent of your over-affluence, and find novel, clever ways to engage your neighbors and communities in downsizing their material use quotient. Most importantly, we all need to be able to answer to our grandchildren when they look back to this critical juncture in human history.

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