Why the American Power Act is worth fighting for colleague David Roberts at Grist has a provocative post, “Leaning forward: Why the American Power Act is worth fighting for.” It is sort of the climate change equivalent of Lori Gottlieb’s even more provocative best-seller, “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.” The perfect climate bill that could get 60 votes in the Senate simply doesn’t exist.

I think Roberts’ message is an important one for progressives to hear, so I am reprinting it in its entirety:

The Kerry-Lieberman climate bill is out now, and with it comes a fateful decision for the political left in the U.S.

If the left’s institutions and messaging infrastructure succumb to internal squabbling or simple indifference; if the public is not actively won over and fired up; if President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) stick their fingers in the wind to see which way it’s blowing … the bill will fail. The default outcome now is failure. Very few people in Washington, D.C., today believe the bill has a chance of passing.

The odds are long, but the bill could be saved if the left — and I mean the whole left, not just environmentalists — pulled together and fought like hell. What’s needed is concrete political pressure. That means tracking who’s for it and against it; relentlessly pressing for commitments; actively organizing in a few key Republican and centrist Democratic states; pressing establishment pundits and media figures to cover it; calling out those who stand in the way of progress; and never, ever letting Obama and Reid have a moment’s peace until they fulfill their promises.

The left hasn’t shown itself particularly capable of that kind of single-minded campaign. And there’s no guarantee it would succeed even if attempted. Without it, the bill’s failure is all but inevitable.

So is it worth doing? Is the bill worth fighting for with the kind of passion that was brought to health care or even the presidential election?

I believe the answer to that question is an absolute, unqualified, overwhelming yes. However flawed and inadequate, Kerry’s bill would represent a sea change in American life. It would lend desperately needed momentum to the global fight against climate change. Failure would be a tragedy and passage a huge, vital victory.

I know many of my fellow travelers on the left disagree. Some have convinced themselves that not only is the bill flawed, it’s worse than passing nothing at all; many others view it with distaste or resignation. Both left and right have attacked the bill relentlessly since its inception in the House, and for the vast muddled middle the lesson has been simple: if both sides hate it, it must not be worth supporting. A climate bill has come to Congress and it has almost no passionate supporters.

Nevertheless, the fact remains: It’s overwhelmingly important to pass the damn thing. I’ll argue as much in my next few posts, but to begin with I want to emphasize two reasons we ought to have an overwhelming bias toward immediate action, even compromised, inadequate action. One is physical, one political.

The physical argument in favor of immediate action

Geographically, CO2 reductions are fungible — from the climate perspective, a reduction here is as good as a reduction there; the source is irrelevant. However, the same is not true temporally. Present and future CO2 reductions do not have equal value. A ton of reduction today is worth more than a ton of reduction 10 years from now.

The reason is simple: For every molecule of CO2 added to the atmosphere today, future emission rates must be slashed more to return to safe levels in time. (This is the point of the famous bathtub analogy.) Every bit of delay makes the ultimate task more abrupt, difficult, and expensive. Neither the public nor policymakers seem to understand this ineluctable fact of atmospheric physics, but it is absolutely central to climate policy. Here’s a visual representation:

emission reduction scenarios

“A slow start leads to a crash finish.”Science: Doniger, Herzog, Lashof

The longer action is postponed as we wait for a sufficiently ambitious climate bill, the more ambitious it needs to be — the target recedes. Getting started quickly, even with less force than most climate campaigners would like, makes the hill less steep and every future battle easier.

The political argument in favor of immediate action

By almost all projections, Republicans are going to clean up in 2010. Democrats’ current large majorities are anomalous and unlikely to return any time soon. (They couldn’t even hold on to 60 in the Senate for a full session.) Meanwhile, the remaining Republican moderates are being vigorously purged from the party by the teabaggers. It’s hard to see Republicans getting sensible on climate any time soon, when every internal dynamic is pushing the other way. If this bill doesn’t pass this year (and the filibuster remains in place), it could be another four to eight years before it comes up again, likely in weaker form. That’s 10 to 20 percent of the time left between now and 2050, at which point emissions in the U.S. ought to be getting close to zero. Meanwhile the bathtub keeps filling up.

If the American Power Act dies, state cap-and-trade programs will still proceed. The administration will do what it can through executive branch action at the Department of Energy and elsewhere. The EPA will wade into greenhouse-gas regulations (and a fog of lawsuits). But without a declining carbon cap in place, the market won’t get the 20-to-40-year predictability sought by large energy investors. There won’t be the massive shift in private capital needed to kickstart a green economy. It won’t be enough.

Meanwhile, the international climate process, which has effectively been idling for 12 years as it waits for the U.S. to get its act together, could well fall apart. Maybe it can limp along if the U.S. is allowed to count non-carbon-market reductions toward its Copenhagen commitments — Obama could probably hit America’s tepid 17 percent by 2020 target through executive action alone. But it will send an unmistakable signal to other countries. If you thought Copenhagen was difficult, with the U.S. insisting it might pass legislation, wait until Cancun after it’s clear the U.S. won’t. We can say goodbye to leverage, or good faith, or the ability to look Tuvalu’s representative in the eye.

Leaning forward

Donald Rumsfeld was wrong about the problem but right about the posture: When it comes to greenhouse-gas reductions, we should be “leaning forward.” Our bias should be toward action, even if it means making unpleasant policy or political concessions in the short term. As I said earlier:

Right now, policy is being made out of fear: fear by the private sector that decarbonization will be a crushing burden; fear by consumers that their energy prices will skyrocket; fear by politicians that the project will prove electorally unpopular. Campaigners can organize marches, think tanks can put out reports, scientists can issue dire warnings, but ultimately, that fear simply can’t be overcome in advance. The only way to overcome it is through experience.

Does the American Power Act get us started? Yes: it’s got mandatory targets. In my mind, that alone gives it an overwhelming presumption of support. It would have to contain a lot of extremely bad stuff to overcome that presumption, and while there’s certainly some lamentable provisions, I don’t think any of them are bad enough to meet that threshold. More on that soon.

— Dave Roberts

JR: I tend to think Obama plays a bigger role here than Roberts appears to.  That said, to the extent that team Obama —  including David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel — think Obama won’t actually  score points with his base (and might actually lose points!) by using up political capital to pass this bill, then indeed he will be less likely to make the necessary political and rhetorical pivot from the BP oil disaster.

Also, I seriously doubt Obama could hit a 17% cut through executive action alone, even if he were inclined to try —  and as important, he would have great difficulty convincing the world his pledge to do so would make a viable international pledge if Congress refuses to act.  Indeed,  if he doesn’t push very hard for a climate bill, it’ll be hard to believe he would take the politically harder step of trying to meet the target without Congressional support.

As I’ve  said many times, the APA meets key criteria for the kind of bill one  could reasonably expect Congress to enact right now, which I enumerated in What to look for in the bipartisan climate and clean energy jobs bill.” That would require that the bill help ensure that by the 2020s that we 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

I think it does meet them — and it would also finally start shut down existing coal plants as I’ll blog on later this week.

There really is no Plan B.  Certainly leaving this to the EPA and a few states won’t achieve most of those, especially the crucial international deal.

If you wait for Mr. Perfect Climate Bill, you’ll be waiting a long, long time.  And remember, you can be certain this bill can — and will — be changed to get stronger over time, just as the Montreal Protocol and Clean Air Acts have been.

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25 Responses to Why the American Power Act is worth fighting for

  1. homunq says:

    I agree with the message, but not the messaging. Two men urging us to “settle for Mr. Good-enough” is likely to be hard to swallow for many.

    [JR: Just trying to keep things light, like you. The point is the author of the book isn’t actually urging people to “settle,” but to recognize that the perfect simply doesn’t exist. In fact, passage of anything like the American Power Act would be a staggering achievement. ]

  2. homunq says:

    oops :) sorry about the unintentional irony in “hard to swallow”; it was a last-minute substitution for the archaic “stick in our craw”.

  3. fj2 says:

    In agreement almost entirely with the JR postscript except that it will likely be political suicide if The President does not push hard for a climate bill and aggressively address the accelerating environmental crisis.

    There most certainly will be more Katrinas and corporate-style malfeasance causing things like the gulf disaster and financial crisis.

    If The President is seen making the extreme effort to stem the tide of coming disasters it will greatly mitigate the image that he is part of the problem and provide a much more positive image that he has the vision to do what is right. And, he does seem to be doing this.

    This is what leadership is about.

  4. Leif says:

    An important point I feel is that once we get started down the track of green sustainable energy the population will begin to see the numerous advantages in jobs gained, energy/money saved, good will gained,and perhaps most importantly confidence assimilated that we can and will have a chance at a future.

    With each successive wave of public awareness as the Arctic becomes ice free in the summers, violent storms pummel the heart land, pages from the book of life ripped and tossed aside as species become extinct, the oceans inexorably become more acidic and creep higher, we will be able to double down rather than fight the same battles over and over. Success breeds success.

  5. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    David –

    There’s something here that just doesn’t add up. Namely the degree of opposition and the timidity of democrat support for the bill.

    Consider, the target for 2020, as you’re no doubt well aware, is of 3.67% off the legal 1990 baseline – of which around 2% has already occurred by happenstance – leaving just 1.67% outstanding.

    Not only is 1.67% by 2020 well within the predictable change due to CAFE tightening, to non-national actions and to commercial projects, it is surely also well within a margin of error: how accurate is the annual record of national plowed-soil emissions, let alone forest wildfire and Alaskan permafrost outputs ?

    Also, it is a target for ten years hence, while the great majority of business and politics has time horizons less than half of that. Besides which there have been shrill critiques of the get-outs provided to major emitter industries until 2030, as well as the bill’s inclusion of avoidance-by-foreign-offsets to help moderate the carbon price.

    If this were just a partisan-politics obstruction then the democrats, led by a highly eloquent president, would have everything to gain by the widespread and determined playing of:
    the national security card,
    and the peak-fossil-energy-supply card,
    and the climate-dependent industries card,
    and the childrens’ heritage card,
    and the clean air/national health issues card,
    and the wildlife conservation/creation-respect card,
    and the global food-security/African-famine card,
    as well as the only card now being widely played, albeit timidly and belatedly, namely that of techno-leadership/employment.

    What is more, the GOP can’t sensibly be assumed to be deaf to the warnings, particularly to those out of the pentagon and retired military. Some, such as Gingrich, are merely obsessive partisan deniers of course, but the cogent threat that warming undoubtedly poses to US power and prosperity overall is not one that serious republicans would readily ignore.

    The very unanimity and volume of opposition, with a single senator as the exception, alongside the desultory efforts of the democrat establishment, strengthens the argument that something doesn’t add up here.

    So I wonder how much of the bizarre conduct we’re observing is merely circus, and actually has no significant basis in domestic politics ?

    If what we see is largely circus, meeting the priority of inaction for a covert foreign policy of carbon brinkmanship with China et al, then that foreign policy needs exposure and direct challenge as a reckless ill-judged gambling with the global climate for dubious national advantage, despite clear evidence that multiple interactive feedbacks are already accelerating.



  6. Yes, J.R., you are exactly correct. The time is now; waiting is too risky. Too risky because after November there may not be enough votes. Too risky because to mitigate GW, time is of the essence. Too risky because Obama appears to be losing his political capital and his partisan support is weakening with time.

    A strong leadership position and actions now on a bill to stop GW will help reestablish Obama and the Democratic Party as a concerned, intelligent force for the good of our country and the planet. I will redouble my efforts if he “asks” scientists, environmentalists, and the greater public to help pass legislation. I knocked on doors to help him get elected; I’ll knock on doors to get people to telephone their Senators.

    Tomorrow, my local TV station is taping me as I give the first of 3 lectures on Global Warming, No doubt there is more I can do. I’ll not be able to do as much as you and most of your blogger friends do, but I’ll try.
    Let’s all try and maybe we can help Obama win this vital fight against planetary disaster.

  7. Andy says:

    For those looking to knock on doors or speak to the benefits of the APA, I would recommend David Roberts’ post here and the referenced study from the Peterson Institute. Great summary of the pluses produced from the APA as it stands.


  8. mike roddy says:

    Good article, Dave, but…

    Why can’t we do this with a simple majority in the Senate, as Reid and Pelosi were able to accomplish with the Healthcare Bill? Do they consider climate less important?

  9. fj2 says:

    It is way too easy to underestimate The President, his administration, and the bi-partisan support he seems to be gaining with substantive focus on the importance of human capital.

    Witness “The Teacher’s Unions’ Last Stand,” Steven Brill, The New York Times, May 17, 2010


    “Four House Republican Join Dems in Hailing LaHood’s Support for Bike-Ped,” Elana Shor,, May 21, 2010

  10. Wit's End says:

    uh oh…Sarah Palin disses the monstrous “Cap and Tax” at UDenver, yesterday…oh and the American “exceptionalism” riff is priceless!

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    Remember that Reid has a Democratic caucus of only 59 members. It takes 60 to defeat a filibuster if the GOP decides to say no.

    (Not many people realize, Reid had a 60 vote caucus only 96 days during Obama’s term to date.)

    Fingers to the wind are a necessity. There are not enough pro-climate-bill Senators to just ram it through. The effort might best be applied at convincing some Senators that their careers are on the line. Snowe, Collins, and Brown come to mind….

  12. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Dave –

    The assumption that the passage of the APA would allow the agreement of a global climate treaty seems tenuous at best.

    Consider, the EU is in process of raising its unconditional cut from 20% by 2020 off 1990 up to 30%, while China has pledged a 40% cut in its GDP’s carbon intensity by 2020 off Bush’s unilateral 2005 baseline, i.e. a massive change to its BAU trajectory.

    Meanwhile the APA proposes a 3.67% cut by 2020 off 1990, which, with ~2.0% already done, amounts to a further 1.67% cut by 2020, i.e. about 0.167% per year.

    Given that many nations have growing non-fossil energy industries that will do best if US firms lack a global treaty’s carbon price,
    and that every major nation also has a fossil fuel lobby of their own,
    and that all nations are aware of US responsibility for the dominant share of present airborne carbon,
    why should governments representing over 95% of the world’s population consider that the APA’s derisory target is anywhere near sufficient to negotiate the treaty ?



  13. David Gould says:

    Symbols are very important, and for that reason alone this bill should be passed. What has happened in Australia with the failure of our ETS to get off the ground due to a sudden change of leadership in the opposition has basically meant climate chnage has been pushed off the agenda map. This has been bad news for climate activists here.

    Now, many on the left argued that the bill was bad. The Greens voted against it and helped ensure its defeat – indeed, if they had voted for it, it would have passed. But the fact is that every year’s delay adds to the difficulties of solving the problem.

    The next Senate may not be any more helpful to the government – they will not get a majority, at any rate. And this is the only government willing to do something about climate change. If the Liberals get back in at some point, they will not take action.

    So, it would have been much better to have an ets legislated for. Even as a symbol – as something to rally around and focus the message upon – it would have been valuable.

    I plead with all my American friends to fight hard for this bill. Do not let this go the way of the Australian bill.

  14. Doug Gibson says:

    One question: why 60? Maybe I’ve missed it, but it’d be nice to see environmental groups jump on the filibuster reform bandwagon.

    Surely passing decent climate change legislation warrants the risk that Republicans might have the opportunity to operate without a 60-vote threshold at some point in the future.

    After all, they can generally pull enough Democrats on board for bad legislation already. The filibuster as it is now simply prevents badly-needed progressive legislation from passing.

  15. Dan B says:

    Lewis Cleverdon said:
    “…widespread and determined playing of:
    the national security card,
    and the peak-fossil-energy-supply card,
    and the climate-dependent industries card,
    and the childrens’ heritage card,
    and the clean air/national health issues card,
    and the wildlife conservation/creation-respect card,
    and the global food-security/African-famine card,
    as well as the only card now being widely played, albeit timidly and belatedly, namely that of techno-leadership/employment.”

    You’ve summarized the multitude of avenues to market this bill to a public buffeted by the howls spewing from the dying throes of the fossil fuel behemoth.

    I would love to see the Gulf oil disaster stuck like tarbaby to the threat of looming climate disaster, but I’d rather see the brand stuck to three key areas: 1. National Security, 2. Children’s Heritage (excellent talking point!), and 3. 21st Century (Clean Green) Energy Economy.

    The first two invoke protection and place opponents in the position of having to explain how business as usual – catastrophic oil spill and rising gasoline prices – is “protecting” anything.

    The latter two, Children and 21st Century Economy, point to a vision of the future. Any time the opposition or plain-old resistors-of-change object to either of these it’s an easy smack down: ‘Fossil fuels and the Telegraph, so 19th Century.’ ‘Our children’s homes and businesses will be powered by modern sustainable clean energy.’ To oppose these two simple examples forces opponents to resort to more extreme tactics that, in the end, only serve to excite their base.

  16. Let me try to understand your logic David Gould.
    You want us to support a bill that has no impact on global warming whatsoever. In the name of something is better than nothing? No, I say, it is better to face reality and not mislead ourselves that we are actually doing something

    Here is the reality: The main emitters by far will be China and India. China is actually doing nothing of substance to cut its GHG. All their emphasis on green technology is minuscule and basically to make money, not to reduce their GHG. They and India are working hard to build several hundred millions cars in each country. Their buildings are not insulated. Their main energy is and will be coal. Read the latest Sierra Club Magazine for examples. The amount of GHG from China over the next two decades would be five to ten times the total of the rest of the developed world. Whatever we cut in the US and Europe is insignificant.

    So, how do we impress China to cut its GHG by a very significant amount? We have the carrot and the stick options. We put carbon tax on their imports to us at the level equivalent to our own carbon tax. And we may have some “moral” influence if we actually do cut ours by such a large amount that we can show some suffering. They are not willing to reduce their drive for modernization and expect 200 millions additional rural Chinese to move to high-energy urban areas. Also, our leverage is becoming smaller all the time since they are driving now to reduce their dependence on exports and be more internal market oriented. With time they will achieve that since they will have the economic mass within their own borders.

    By the time we and they realize that GW is already here and the evidence are overwhelming, it would be too late to do anything to stop the global heating.
    I have high respect for the Chinese and am glad they had the Communist revolution and the one chilled policy. That would not be possible without the type of government they now have. Otherwise they would have been 400 millions more Chinese now demanding more and more energy. But we must accept that the Chinese are very clever and also devious people. The way we view morality [but do not really practice] is not practiced in china. They would not give an inch. They will look at every step they can take to get the maximum for themselves. As we are inclined to do also.
    So? We must somehow find ways to truly cooperate to cut the ever increasing danger of not only GW but reducing the likelihood of catastrophic climate events.

    How will this bill, which is environmentally a sham, could change the attitude of China and the rest of the world? They are not as stupid as most of the American public. Their media will point out clearly that we are cheating and we are cutting our GHG by only 4% vs. theirs 30%.
    Can you give me a sound, realistic way that this bill should not be defeated?

    It seems to me that the worst thing we can do, which this bill does, is lie to ourselves and attempt to lie to a world that would see very well through our lies.

  17. Roger says:

    Gosh, what strikes me is that “with friends like these, we don’t need enemies.” Every time an environmentalist pushes a “no” vote on the APA, they are putting a mark in the same column as Beck, Inhofe, etc.

    Here’s the nub of the problem, IMHO: 1)fossil fuel company sponsored propoganda has the American electorate confused; 2) the electorate is therefore not supporting strong legislation; 3) the APA is therefore the strongest legislation we can get for now.

    Here, IMVHO is the nub of the solution: 1)Because time is of the essence, all environmentalists work together to get the APA passed, since it’s ready now, it helps, and it does get the ball rolling; 2)We also push President Obama to counter fossil fuel propoganda with a primetime speech, and with Cold War-style “civil defense” climate change information messages in order to properly inform the confused electorate; 3) as understanding of the actual climate change stakes grows, there will be a public outcry for more stringent legislation, as citzens also say, “Why didn’t somebody tell us that this was serious?!”

    So, all together now, let’s cooperate on this all-important survival strategy. (I’ve checked, and cooperation has been proved to help most causes in human history. The fossil fuel companies hope that we won’t rediscover this lost art; they’re having too much fun laughing at us!)

    One more observation, if humans had waited until things were as good as could be imagined before we tried them (starting with, excuse me, sex)–well, you can imagine where we’d be by now…!

    Warm regards,


  18. Roger says:

    Sorry for the above typos; must get more sleep. And with a coal plant protest on the schedule for later today, I may need it!

    Too many projects; too little time!

    Come on Obama, lead the nation,
    give us climate edu-ca-tion!

    You’ve got some clout,
    let’s hear it out!

    Warm regards,


  19. David Gould says:

    Matania Ginosaur,

    Doing nothing will hardly impress the rest of the world, either …

    If small steps are all that can be taken, that is indeed better than nothing. Reducing GHG emissions by 1 per cent is better than not reducing them at all.

    And you are not lying to world if you state what your targets are and how you are going to acheive them. That they are small targets can be clearly seen. But a small target is, as I said, better than none at all.

    What is your alternative proposal? Aim for something that cannot be acheived so you can feel good about your integrity?

  20. Mike #22 says:

    Has the CBO analysis on APA come out? It is not on this page:

    There is this statement from the CBO Director: “Given the potential value of the allowances and their liquidity, CBO decided that the value of allowances given away by the government should be reflected in the federal budget. Cost estimates should show, both as revenues and outlays, the value of any allowances created and distributed at no cost to the recipient.”

    CBO considers the creation of an allowance as revenue and part of the budget. Are SO2 allowances part of the budget?

  21. homunq says:

    A hearty “hear, hear” to Doug Gibson at #14. Filibuster reform is a top environmental priority. It could – bizarrely – be the nail for want of which the planet is lost.

  22. I understand the rejection of my ideas above. It is a tough call. Politics is always a compromise, but we are facing something so much bigger, truly awesome, than politics and normal life. That is the problem, we do not yet grasp that GW is beyond the scope of our human experience and it calls for a new way of thinking and doing.So many still think we can take care of this problem with more green technology, with a little conservation and efficiency there, and some electrical cars, and all be well. Time to wake up.
    We do not have a choice, we can not go part way through the old ways-business as usual- and part way fighting GW effectively.
    By the time we grasp the how much human suffering is going on, and would exponentially increase,it would be too late.

    I pray that we will face multitudes of massive environmental events, like the Gulf spill, that will shake us out of our apathy, but would not represent global catastrophe, to change humanity understanding in time.And especially the attitude of good environmentalists that hope for some simple, non pain solutions. We must think completely out of the box.Time to wake up.

  23. john atcheson says:

    David Robert’s logic — within the context of political reality — is impeccable and irrefutable.

    Unfortunately, the physical world cares not a fig for politics, and what is politically possible results in a global tragedy.

    The historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a classic called “The March of Folly: from Troy to Vietnam,” in which she outlined four examples of the curious historical recurrence of governments pursuing policies evidently contrary to their own interests. We are now engaged in a fifth march of folly — operating within a framework in which each action seems logical but in which we know the final outcome is a tragic folly.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t pass this Bill; merely that we shouldn’t expect it to make any real difference in the outcome.

  24. David Gould says:

    Matania Ginosaur,

    I understand your position. However, I am a realist. I just do not think that human political and economic systems have the ability to turn on a dime on a global scale, discussions of WW2 notwithstanding.

    The only solutions are going to be incremental ones *until* there is sufficient momentum to make revolutionary change. If we sit around waiting for the disasters that will create the right environment for revolutionary change, then they will surely come. But by then it will be too late to restructure, as putting things in place like carbon taxes/ETS take time. You cannot just ramp up the bureaucratic, industrial and technical tools necessary from nothing at all.

    I am not advocating no pain solutions; I am advocating the only solutions that are currently politically possible. Advocating for impossible solutions is, well, silly if that is *all* that is done. Do the possible first. Then the impossible may well become possible.

  25. I agree with everyone who’s saying that filibuster reform should be a top priority for enviros, and for all progressives. I’m leading a panel on the subject at Netroots Nation this year, July 22-25 in Las Vegas. Should be interesting.