For the last several weeks, environmental groups have been struggling with how to respond to the Waxman-Markey climate bill now working its way through the House of Representatives. H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) is a huge and complex piece of legislation, running almost 1,000 pages in length.

Waxman and Markey have managed to put together a coalition that appears to be large enough to pass the bill out of the House, but the Senate is expected to provide a tougher test.  Even in the House, the compromises made to secure support are hard to swallow for most environmental organizations.  Many have already chosen to oppose the bill, others have made it clear they will oppose unless the bill is strengthened, while still others have adopted a middle ground, neither supporting nor opposing.  Business-friendly green groups like NRDC and EDF have become cheerleaders.

The real problem with ACES is that it tries to address climate change while working within the priorities of the economic and political power structure.  Those priorities are upside down, backwards and inside out, with little respect for anything beyond profit.  So, unsurprisingly, ACES finds it tough to walk the tightrope between the need to halt climate change and the need to create opportunities to generate profit.

Our national (and, for that matter, international) discussion about climate change is framed in terms of what economics will allow, and then, within that set of restricted options, we try to choose the least crippled alternatives.  We forget that our economic and political systems are entirely artificial and completely subject to our will.  We can change them whenever we choose.  The only real limits we face are those imposed by the earth.  And those are precisely the limits we have exceeded.

So what sense does it make to limit our action on climate change to those actions that fall within the restrictions of economic business as usual?  None, of course.  But that is precisely what the US Congress is set to deliver.

If you want a quick peek at just how closely legislation like ACES tracks the needs of the economically powerful, check out this article in Grist about the influence of Big Agriculture on ACES.  How comfortable does it make you that firms like Monsanto are heavily involved with lobbying for agricultural offsets to carbon emissions?  Genetically modified offsets, anyone?

The difficulty environmental groups are having with ACES is a result of the profound conflict between what is necessary in order to create a peaceful, just and sustainable world and what the economic and political power structure knows is necessary to maintain its hold on the controls.  Really solving the climate crisis will require us to seize those controls and begin operating them in a way that benefits the vast majority of the world’s people and protects ecosystems rather than allowing the wealthiest 1% to continue operating the earth as a private resort.

Cutting to the chase, the real problem is capitalism, the fairly ridiculous notion that the desire of money to reproduce itself outweighs the needs of people and ecosystems.  Capitalism has become the operating system of the entire planet and we are desperately in need of an upgrade.  Our current dilemma is that an OS upgrade for the entire planet is not a weekend job, or a job for single bill, or a single session of Congress, or a single decade.

Climate change won’t wait for us to figure out that capitalism is the culprit.  We face the unpleasant task of knowing that our efforts to address climate change within the existing paradigm will be insufficient while at the same time realizing that the earth is on fire now.  What we have to do immediately is the same thing fire fighters do.  Try to limit the damage.  Contain the blaze.

Our real challenge today is tackling an issue like ACES in a way that moves the country and the world in the right direction.  We may not want to start spending all of our time mired in the depths of complex legislation like ACES, but we do need to identify, and take action on, those parts that move us in the wrong direction.  We may not be able to get what we really want, but at least we have to contain the blaze.  Here’s one change that ought to be a no-brainer.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sat on the sidelines for eight long years as George Bush allowed climate change to proceed unchecked.  When Barack Obama was elected, everything changed.

On April 24, 2009, the Obama EPA announced its intention to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  That announcement started the clock ticking on a mandatory 60-day comment period before greenhouse gas regulation can begin.

On June 24, 2009, the Obama EPA has the potential to become a powerful tool in the fight against catastrophic climate change.  That is, unless big coal gets its way.

Hundreds of lobbyists have been slithering through the halls of Congress for the last several weeks, working their magic on ACES.  If the lobbyists get their way, the bill will have holes large enough to drive dozens of new dirty, CO2 belching, coal-fired power plants through.

Unbelievably, ACES actually tells the EPA that it cannot do its job by regulating greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.  What sense does it make to weaken the EPA in a bill designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions?  Yet that is exactly what ACES does.

Who knows, maybe it has something to do with all those coal lobbyists.

Both houses of Congress and the President need to start hearing from people about the actual harms that ACES will do to the climate.  We won’t be able to get everything we want from a climate bill, but at least we ought to be able to keep it from making things worse.  Keeping the EPA strong enough to regulate CO2 from coal-fired power plants is a good place to start.

Take Action Now

  • Tell your Representative, Senators, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and the bill’s sponsors, Henry Waxman and Edward Markey, that you did NOT elect them to weaken the EPA. We’ve made it easy to send your message.
  • Global Exchange is part of a coalition asking for big improvements to climate legislation. Review the coalition letter we sent to the House Ways & Means Committee.

There are other significant problems with ACES.  The renewable electricity standard (RES) counts a lot of things as renewable – like nuclear and waste incineration – that are just downright nasty, plus the standard is too weak.  The greenhouse gas limits are not aggressive enough and don’t kick in quickly enough.  But most important, the “carbon cap” is potentially gutted by cheap offsets.

If we really wanted to tackle the climate crisis and weren’t so concerned about finding ways to profit from it, we could fix this offsets problem easily by placing reasonable limits on the number of offsets.  As long as we’re in fire fighting mode, we might as well be intelligent about it.

The conflict between the need to address climate change and the need to generate profits is already clear in ACES, but it will become increasingly difficult to ignore over the next decade as impacts become more severe and our attempts to take action without disturbing the distribution of power look more pitiful.  The next big conflict will come at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December.  The Kyoto Protocol established a set of emission reduction targets that run through 2012 and the goal for Copenhagen is an international agreement on what comes next.

There is only one climate, so it should be obvious that global cooperation is required to actually deal with climate change effectively.  It will be impossible to avoid catastrophic climate change if any of the big greenhouse gas emitting countries aren’t on board.  That makes international action in Copenhagen quite literally a life or death proposition for millions, if not billions.  But it is beginning to look like the US negotiating position is more committed to maintaining the distribution of power than preventing climate change.

Delegates from around the world met in Bonn during the first two weeks of June to work on preparations for Copenhagen.  At the closing plenary of those meetings, Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network made the following comments:

We are very upset and alarmed by the disregard that several Annex I countries are demonstrating towards the survival and well-being of our planet and humanity, and by their denial of a fair and equitable distribution of the Earth’s remaining atmospheric space.

Mr. Chairman, science informs us what the Earth’s limits are. This is non-negotiable. Developed countries, with 20% of the population, are responsible for 70% of historical emissions since 1850. This is more than 3 times their fair share of the atmospheric space.

At this session we heard the negative news from one Annex I country that it was only ready to cut emissions by 8% in 2020 from 1990 levels. Another country has pending legislation that is estimated to cut its emissions by only 4% by 2020 from 1990 levels, and with offsetting, the domestic cut is even less. Other Annex I countries may not yet have announced such low targets but this seems to be a race to the bottom or to the lowest common denominator, and is a gloomy scenario.

The Annex I countries referred to by Lim Li Lin are the industrialized countries of the Global North, including the United States.  The country making the pitiful 4% reduction of emissions by 2020?  That’s us.  In case you were curious what the rest of the world thinks of ACES, now you know.  The statement continues…

By proposing such low Annex I targets, developed countries are in fact asking people in the developing world to allow them to continue their over consumption of the Earth’s atmospheric space; and they are denying people in developing countries the space for their survival and development.

The Annex I countries are not taking on their historical responsibility but are instead increasing their climate debt. On top of that, we still have no sign of commitment from the developed countries on finance and technology.

A principled approach based on historical responsibility is the only way to quantify subsequent Annex I Party commitments in a fair and non-arbitrary manner.

Mr. Chairman, the people in the developing world want to contribute to solving the climate crisis, for the benefit of the planet and all humanity. But this contribution must be fair and just.

What is “politically acceptable” in the rich, industrialised North is just not enough. It will mean climate chaos and destruction first and worst in the South, and also in the North. This is unacceptable.

I really don’t think I can, or need to, improve on that wording.

Copenhagen is only six months away and it is critical.  Again we’ll face the unpleasant task of knowing that our efforts to address climate change within the existing paradigm will be insufficient while at the same time realizing that the earth is on fire now.  Again, we’ll have to limit the damage and contain the blaze.

We’ve got a choice to make and we’re going to have to make that choice soon.  We can continue supporting the folks that brought us the climate crisis and the economic crisis, the folks who want to make sure that ACES and the US negotiating position in Copenhagen don’t disturb their ability to generate profit, or we can start to insist on real solutions.

It’s time to upgrade and reboot.

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