On Monday, Senators Graham (R-SC), Kerry (D-MA), and Lieberman (I-CT) will launch the bipartisan climate and clean energy jobs bill. I’m quite certain there will be something in it to dissatisfy everyone.
On the other hand, has Congress ever passed a significant bill that didn’t dissatisfy everyone, particularly on the environment? We haven’t had a major piece of clean air legislation for almost exactly two decades now. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (EPA history here), which ultimately passed by large margins, put in place a cap-and-trade system for acid rain pollution, but didn’t end the grandfathering of old coal plants. And so they burn on.
No bill that could pass Congress right now or in the immediate future would be sufficient to put us on the path to stabilizing the world at 2°C. We simply aren’t sufficiently desperate to do what is needed, which is nonstop deployment of a staggering amount of low-carbon energy, including efficiency, for the rest of the century.
And so my criteria for judging the bill focuses on whether it will create the conditions that will allow more desperate policy makers in the not-too-distant future to have a realistic chance of getting on the necessary path. My new book Straight Up includes one essay on the House’s astonishing yet dissatisfying achievement in passing the Waxman-Markey bill. It explains that when we are that desperate, 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
Waxman-Markey, had it become the law of the land, would have achieved all of those vital goals. And that’s why I strongly supported it, even though its 2020 target and use of offsets meant that it was, from a purely scientific perspective, unsatisfactory.
The Senate bill will no doubt be weaker than the House bill, but my criteria remain the same. There is one other criterion that many people, including me, feel is important: Does the bill finally start shutting down the grandfathered coal plants — the dirtiest of the dirty? The answer to that question for the House bill was “Hell yes.” But what about the Senate bill? The answer to that question will be the focus of Part 2.