House committee approves landmark (bipartisan!) clean energy and climate bill — political realists rejoice, climate science realists demand more

NOTE:  Unexpectedly, Rep. Bono Mack (R-CA) voted “yes” — and the bill passed 33-25!  She later said, “While I still have significant concerns about this bill, particularly with regard to its cost and its failure to recognize innovative technologies like advanced nuclear energy, I believe this is the right direction for our district, for our nation and for our future.”

UPDATE:  Al Gore’s statement is at the end.  The New York Times labels Waxman-Markey “the most ambitious energy and global warming legislation ever debated in Congress.”

Every journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step — including stopping human-caused global warming at “safe levels,” as close as possible to 2°C.  Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill.

The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town.  If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead.  Warming of 5°C or more by century’s end would be all but inevitable, with 850 to 1000+ ppm.  If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe — not high, but not zero.

Today was the first genuine step that the U.S. House of Representatives has ever taken on climate.  And since the Committee is stuffed with members representing traditional (i.e. polluting) energy industries, it shouldn’t be harder for the full House to pass this bill than it was for the committee.  That said, the House GOP leadership is certainly much savvier than Joe Barton (see here) — and agricultural and other interest groups have yet to flex their muscle.  Much work remains keep the bill as strong as possible even in the House.

For climate politics realists, it will be a staggering achievement if, in 12 months or so, an energy and climate bill that looks something like Waxman-Markey is signed into law by President Obama.  After all, the United States hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, short-term health threats to Americans.

The forces that are lined up against serious climate action today are incredible:

The Congressional GOP are almost unanimous in their opposition to any serious climate bill or any clean energy bill (see “Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies) — and they are committed to demagoguing the cost issue even to the point of embarrassing the outside-of-the-beltway GOP (Republicans (sic) for Environmental Protection “call out those Republicans who continue to spread the false claim that capping greenhouse gas pollution will “” supposedly “” cost American families $3,100 every year.”)

The polluting industries spend vast sums of money on lobbyists, on deceptive ads, and on right wing think tanks who spread disinformation.  The status quo media under-reports and misreports the climate science and climate economics (see Must-read (again) study: How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress.”).  The climate science activists can’t even agree on a message or whether they should even talk about climate science (see Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” “” ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”).  From a political perspective, Democrats are being asked to face an onslaught of deceptive campaign ads claiming they have raised energy taxes in order to pass a bill whose climate benefits will not be apparent for a very long time — although the clean energy and jobs benefits will begin almost immediately (Nobelist Krugman: Climate action “now might actually help the economy recover from its current slump” by giving “businesses a reason to invest in new equipment and facilities”).  And many of their constituents, primarily the conservatives and the conservative-leaning independents, don’t even think human caused global warming is a problem that needs aggressive government action, assuming they think it is a problem at all (see here).

From the perspective of political realism, it will be a great challenge just to stop this bill from being weakened as it winds itself through the House and especially the Senate.

From the perspective of climate science realists, the bill has two gaping flaws.  And I don’t mean the allocations for big polluters.  I know many of my readers disagree, but I just don’t think that the allocation undermines the goals of the bill at all, and in fact are a perfectly reasonable way of satisfying political needs while preventing windfalls for polluters and preserving prices.

The first flaw is the 2 billion offsets that polluters can potentially use instead of their own emissions reductions.  I have previously explained why I am far less worried about domestic offsets (see here).  In a regulated market with a cap, many of the domestic offsets will represent real reductions of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the total supply of cheap domestic offsets will be limited.  I will blog tomorrow on why I do not believe the international offsets threaten the overall integrity of the bill.  The bottom line is that the vast amounts of moderate-cost near-term domestic emissions reductions strategies — energy efficiency, conservation, replacing coal power with natural gas-fired power, wind power, biomass cofiring, concentrated solar thermal power, recycled energy, geothermal, and hydro power (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“) —  will be cheaper (in quantity) than most of the offsets will be in 2020.

Second, the 2020 target is too weak (see here).  Given the lost 8 years of the Bush administration, it was inevitable that a bill which doesn’t even impose a cap until 2012 could not have the same 2020 target (compared to 1990 levels) than the Europeans are considering.

That means we’re going to build too much polluting crap in the next decade.  That means we’ll have to go back and unbuild it at some point.  More expensive, sure, than doing it right the first time, but no more difficult than deploying a dozen or so accelerated stabilization wedges globally in three to four decades needed to beat 450 ppm.

For me, a two-term President Obama (together with the next three Congresses) cannot solve the global warming problem, but can create the conditions that allow the next couple of presidents to do what is needed.  Or he can be thwarted, making it all but impossible for future presidents.

The only hope for stabilizing at 350 to 450 ppm is a WWII-scale and WWII-style effort as I have said many times.  And that implies a level of desperation we don’t have now (see “ What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?“).  When we have that desperation, probably in the 2020s, we’ll want to already have:

  • substantially dropped below the business-as-usual emissions path
  • started every major business planning for much deeper reductions
  • goosed the cleantech venture and financing community
  • put in place the entire framework for U.S. climate regulations
  • accelerated many tens of gigawatts of different types of low-carbon energy into the marketplace
  • put billions into developing advanced low-carbon technology
  • started building out the smart, green grid of the 21st century
  • trained and created millions of clean energy jobs
  • negotiated a working international climate regime
  • brought China into the process

This bill is crucial to achieving all of those vital goals.

Kudos to Henry Waxman and Ed Markey — and a great many other progressive politicians and advocates — for making this historic moment happen.

UPDATE:  Nobelist Al Gore today issued the following statement on the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

I commend Chairmen Waxman and Markey for their leadership in this historic action by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The bill represents a crucial step forward in addressing the global climate crisis, the need for millions of new green jobs to end the recession, and the national security threats that have long been linked to our growing dependence on foreign oil and other fossil fuels.

I encourage Congress to further strengthen this excellent legislation during floor consideration and move to pass this bill in both the House and the Senate this year.

26 Responses to House committee approves landmark (bipartisan!) clean energy and climate bill — political realists rejoice, climate science realists demand more

  1. Modesty says:

    It is a historic moment. Let’s dig in to create more of these as we strengthen the bill.


  2. Gail says:

    Thank you so much Joe for devoting yourself towards saving all of our children a hideous fate.

    You are definitely the go to site for the latest most relevant information.

  3. oxnardprof says:

    I agree with the tenor of these comments. It is most important that we realize this is just a b eginning, and that much more needs to be done. A change in attitude is needed; continued education and political action is needed. We need to be as reactive as some climate deniers who seem so ready to spout off arguments against the need to deal with climate change.

    So W-M, I hope, will pass in something vaguely resembling the current mark=up, and we must realize the fight to control climate change is long-term, and we cannot relax our efforts.

  4. MarkB says:

    I saw the conclusion on C-Span. Rep. Bono Mack was a welcome Yes vote. She’s actually rated quite low on environmental issues. Still, there were I think 4 Democrats who also voted No. The ones I looked at are very conservative Democrats in coal states. I see relatively smoothe sailing in the House considering the large majority Democrats have and the fact that the committee is more conservative than the House in general as noted above. Perhaps I’m cynical, but getting it through the Senate in reasonable form seems like a difficult task. 4 Democrats voted No in the committee. Doing the Senate math:

    The Senate will need 60 votes else the perpetual fillibuster. Democrats, with Lieberman and Sanders (and now Specter and assuming Franken gets seated before the end of the century), number 60. I think Republicans Snowe and Collins are more likely than not to be Yes votes. Beyond them, Republicans will probably unanimously vote No, including flip-flopper McCain. So at best, it seems 62 votes is the maximum we can expect. This means almost no Democratic opposition out of 60 Senators (including L & S). How will they pull that off if they lost the votes of 4 House Democrats (out of 36?) in the committee, even after major negotiation? If the same proportion (10%) vote No in the Senate, the legislation is dead.

  5. Joe says:

    The Senate will be very tough, no question. Probably going to lose at least Landrieu and Nelson.

    This is where Obama will need to use some political capital and messaging mojo.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    Thanks for this Joe, great page. Jesus Joe, no chance if this doesn’t get through (no surprise there I guess) and 10-20% chance of averting catastrophe if this makes it through. 10-20% are the good odds?

    Its a bit stunning to look at them stated out like that, but they seem reasonable considering the hole we’ve dug ourselves into.

    Achieving that 10-20%, as President Obama has said, “Yes we can”. Onward to the full House, Senate and China.

  7. paulm says:

    Its certainly creating momentum.

    Time to declare a holiday when this gets passed (that will save some CO2!)

  8. James Newberry says:

    Good luck everyone and thank you Joe. It is still an uphill battle this year and each year. The planet will not respond to legislation, only to natural laws.

  9. hapa says:

    the speed reader was a nice light-hearted touch. very positive.

  10. Leland Palmer says:

    Great news, I think.

    The very first thing we need to do, though, is try to get a Senate bill that does not give away the EPA’s authority to regulate stationary sources of CO2.

    The next thing we need to do is make sure that the reconciliation between the two bills doe not interfere with the EPA’s authority to regulate stationary sources of CO2.

    We have to realize that Wall Street has turned psychotic, and is in severe denial, at best.

    At worst, we have some sort of really strange population reduction logic going on at the highest levels of our financial elite.

    Boy, are they messing with the wrong planet, if that is what is going on.

    Without a basic change in the power structure, 10-20% chance of averting a catastrophe seems about right to me.

    Full speed ahead, but we need the statutory authority that the EPA has to regulate carbon dioxide back, and that is the first thing we need to get back.

    We need the legal right to force the coal industry to change, if they do things that are not in their financial self-interest, from some other strange motives or just out of denial.

  11. Robert Pool says:

    WOW. Where can I get more details about Waxman-Markey?

    I want to know what it actually does in more detail.

    [JR: Well, just check out the last couple of days of posts on this blog to start with. Also, WRI explains what it will do here.]

  12. max says:

    In the Senate, couldn’t Senators who don’t want to support it (Like Nelson and Landrieu) be persuaded to vote for cloture and then vote against it? So they could make their point but allow the bill up for a vote.

  13. Matt Dernoga says:

    Hey Joe, I wasn’t sure where to ask you about this analysis by The Breakthrough Institute, so I’m putting it in a comment. The below post rationalizes that W-M will be terribly ineffective because of the nature of international offsets. I have much greater faith in your analysis and the WRI analysis, but I fear too many will read the below link and be discouraged from supporting the bill. A response or post by yourself addressing the Breakthrough Analysis would be useful.

    [JR: The Breakthrough Institute is led by Shellenberger and Nordaus, who oppose any effort whatsoever to significantly raise the price of dirty energy. They very much want to see this climate bill fail, in order to vindicate their attacks on any progressive who wants to make polluters pay. I typically ignore their blog posts, but this is an important issue and I will get around to dealing with it soon.]

  14. Cool blog, like what I read. Will be back to read more. Adding to RSS feeder. Tucker

  15. This is great info for us all. Glad you posted this. I am subscribing to this blog. Manny

  16. ecostew says:

    Great job Joe & I look forward to your assessment of the Breakthrough Institute analysis.

  17. A Siegel says:


    You are aware of my much greater concerns about give-aways than you, about issues of social equity, the massive amount of resources dedicated to “clean coal”, the relative balance of subsidies to fossil fuel industry (direct/indirect, about $1.06 trillion) vs the resources for energy efficiency / renewable energy (about $140 billion), etc …

    However, seriously, you consider there to be only two areas of serious concern?

    You are not concerned about the weak(ened) RES, for example?

    [JR: Adam, I have two of the leading experts explaining why most of the “give-aways” aren’t a big deal — indeed, why they help solve one of your other concerns, “social equity.” The bill handles regional and social equity pretty well. I don’t care about the big spending on clean coal. That is just money. Who cares? It is certainly well worth finding out if clean coal is practical and affordable — so this just boil down to a discussion of money. That is a trivial issue compared to the 2020 target and the 2 billion offsets.

    You are right that there is a third area of concern I should have mentioned — the gutting of the energy efficiency standard. That makes this bill a B-. The weakening of the renewable standard was inevitable — heck, it’s still stronger than what the Senate is considering. Frankly I no longer think Congress can pass a renewable standard that will surpass what most states are going to do, but this bill does at least lead to a minimum amount of renewables a lot of states that otherwise wouldn’t bother with standards.

    Again, you view the allocations to regulated utilities as a subsidy to the fossil fuel industry, whereas leading progressive experts on the subject have explained why it is not.]

  18. Brownie says:

    Sounds like the people on this blog know more about the bill than its author!

    Check out this video clip:


  19. john says:


    I think you naild the headline — good start, won a battle, but we’re a long way from winning the war, even if Waxman Marky passes. A long way.

    Still, cause for celebration.

  20. Steve Bloom says:

    Bono Mack’s district is in line to get a bunch of solar, and this bill will add to it.

  21. SecularAnimist says:

    “Waxman-Markey is the only game in town. If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years …”

    I think the danger is that Waxman-Markey passes, and although it is entirely inadequate, it becomes not the first step, but the last step the USA takes to reduce emissions.

    The powers-that-be proclaim the problem “solved” by this “historic” bill, and then “serious U.S. action” is not off the table for “years”, but off the table forever.

  22. paulm says:

    Its a guarantee that W-M will not be the last step. Obama is in charge.

  23. Rick Covert says:


    Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! program covered a debate between NRDC and Public Citizen over the W-M bill. Needless to say there was no consensus as you can imagine. There was a point made that I wanted your input on. After getting out of the Energy and Commerce Subcomittee it has to go through six more before it can be voted on by the full house and reconciled with the Senater version of the bill. So does the bill stand the chance of getting better in the remaining six subcomittees because big oil and coal have spent their capital in Energy and Commerce or does it get worse or stay the same when it gets to the full house for a vote?

    [JR: It probably gets a little worse around the edges in the House, but the bigger problem is the Senate, as you can tell from their wussy renewable energy standard.]

  24. Dick Petchauer says:

    There is no need to limit CO2 to 450 PPM. Why does Al Gore’s opinion tump 100’s of Scientists? The IPCC claims are built on flawed physics and non existent positicve feedback.

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Dick Petchauer — False and false again.

  26. JoelArmstrong says:

    “If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe — not high, but not zero.”

    That was like a punch in the gut that made me want to cry, but I appreciate Joe’s honesty. We need another hurricane Katrina or something….something to create a paradigm shift that will shock the mainstream enough to get its head out of the cement. Hardly anybody I know in real life even wants to talk about this stuff, it’s an issue that seems even more uncomfortable to talk about than religion for many people.