Most of the climate geeks I know, including me, are obsessed with tracking the progress of either the Waxman-Markey climate bill (ACES), or the international climate negotiations leading up to the big United Nations Climate Change Conference this December in Copenhagen, or both.

We read everything we can get our hands on, talk to each other about the latest developments, and speculate about the implications. We devour information about the latest science on human-caused climate change and try to figure out how to overcome the depression that the latest science often triggers.

The amount of material produced on climate issues is huge. That’s a good thing since it is indicative of the importance attached to the issue. But it also means it has become impossible for any of us to know everything we want and need to know.

The only way to deal with an overload of information like the climate issue produces is to skip some stuff. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do that is to pick the smartest folks talking and let them do some of the filtering for you. That’s clearly better than listening to dummies, but it has some real dangers.

When we identify the sources we trust to tell us the truth about what’s going on with climate, what we’re really doing is choosing the information and views we will ignore. And unsurprisingly, many of us are listening to the same smart people. As we talk to each other and to our supporters, the views expressed begin to appear more and more like there is overwhelming consensus when what is actually occuring is more like the reverberation of sound in an echo chamber.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Joe Romm is a Clinton administration Energy Department alumnus, the author of Hell and High Water, and one of the smart folks that I listen to about climate issues.  He writes the Climate Progress blog, the “go to” source for good climate analysis and solid climate politics commentary.  Because he’s both smart and reasonably progressive, a lot of folks I know pay attention to and repeat his arguments. You can’t expect more than solid mainstream liberalism from him, but he’ll reliably take you as far down the progressive path as liberalism is allowed to go.

Joe posted a Climate Progress article recently that was quite remarkable. I don’t think it included a single thing that I could agree with. So, on this occasion at least, I’d like to try to muffle the echoes just a bit and push an opposing point of view. He’s still a good guy and you should read his stuff, but he’s about as wrong as it is possible to be about the usefulness of the EPA in controlling CO2 and about the importance of passing climate legislation prior to the international climate negotiations coming up this December in Copenhagen.

In his Climate Progress piece, Joe tries very hard to convince us that ACES needs to be passed right now, that the failure to do so will have devastating implications for the international climate negotiations, and that the EPA can’t effectively be used to control CO2 emissions if the cap and trade portion of ACES is not passed. Let’s go through Joe’s points one by one.

First, whatever Obama might do with the EPA — and it would take many, many years to put in place a program that could substantially reduce existing emissions (see below) — could be undone by a subsequent administration, which is not true of climate legislation.

Waxman-Markey will also take years to kick in, so even if true, there’s no advantage to ACES on that score. And who cares if a subsequent administration could do something different? No one is suggesting the EPA is a long term solution. The EPA could absolutely stop the permitting of new coal plants right now, while we are designing a better approach than the cap and trade system in ACES. ACES, on the contrary, gives a green light to new coal through 2020.

Second, whatever Obama might do with the EPA, the rest of the world would know that the United States political system is incapable of agreeing to binding targets, so that would certainly be all-but fatal to the international negotiation process or a bilateral deal with China.

Why would the international community give a hoot whether Obama chooses to meet targets negotiated in Copenhagen with a shovel or a hoe? The EPA and cap and trade are just tools. Frankly, it’s more likely that the weak targets in Waxman-Markey will place an outer limit on what can be negotiated in Copenhagen and kill the deal because of their clear inadequacy.

Third, if Congress rejects this bill, then, domestically, legislative action on greenhouse gas emissions will be dead for a long time.

Does the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 ring a bell? How about America’s Climate Security Act of 2007? And, of course, this year we have Waxman-Markey. We’re getting a cap and trade bill every year. And we will continue to get climate legislation every year until we get it right. It’s more dangerous to pass a weak cap and trade bill than to kill it precisely because we are likely to consider the job done instead of coming back to it year after year.

Fourth, the EPA authority is most easily translated into regulating emissions from new sources.

Exactly. Which is why the EPA can do an effective job of stopping new coal right now and should be allowed to do its job. Waxman-Markey, instead, eliminates the EPA’s ability to regulate new coal. If you want to send an email to Congress about keeping the EPA’s ability to regulate CO2 intact, we’ve made it easy to take action.

As Center for American Progress chief John Podesta explained in a recent Berlin speech, “it would be difficult for the EPA to enact a CO2 cap and trade without congressional cooperation.”

Well, to start with this is pretty much irrelevant since nobody wants the EPA to try to build a cap and trade system. But the Podesta reference is interesting. John Podesta is the head of the Center for American Progress and he brought Joe Romm on board as a Senior Fellow. Joe’s job at the Center for American Progress is basically to think and write about climate in the Climate Progress blog. Here’s the full context for the John Podesta quote Joe used.

But the boldest shot across the bow comes from a recent EPA decision to classify carbon dioxide emissions as a threat to public health—the so-called endangerment finding. This ruling has enormous implications, since it makes CO2 emissions eligible to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, as substances like SO2 already are, under a smaller cap and trade program. Although it would be difficult for the EPA to enact a CO2 cap and trade without congressional cooperation, the finding means that legally, the Administration has the authority to regulate carbon emissions under existing law – which is not a message gone unheard by opponents of climate change policy.

Podesta clearly regards the EPA’s legal authority to regulate CO2 as very significant. It may not be the tool best suited to the regulation of CO2, but it has the great advantage of being able to stop new coal plants dead right now. And in our current situation coal is our most significant problem.

Joe sums up his argument that Waxman-Markey must be passed, warts and all.

So I repeat my assertion 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.

I think the best way to answer that assertion is with another quote from John Podesta’s speech.

The second point I want to make is that the United States is ready, willing, and able to negotiate an aggressive international climate treaty at Copenhagen, in 2009. I want to be clear—we are not tied, and the outcome of Copenhagen is not tied, to the timeline on any single piece of domestic U.S. legislation. The administration has a variety of tools at its disposal and, as I have demonstrated, is clearly keen to use them. Those that try to pin a successful outcome in Copenhagen to the U.S. legislative process are mistaken, and should focus on ways to move forward and find solutions rather than focus on ways to hang up the debate.

So I’m done picking on Joe Romm now. He really is one of the best sources around on climate issues, even though he went seriously off the rails on this one.

Here’s a thought for how to proceed with climate legislation prior to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December. Let’s pull cap and trade out of the legislation for this congressional session and work on the remaining parts of the bill. There is a ton of good stuff there that, with a little bit of work (like beefing up the renewable electricity standard, removing nuclear and waste incineration from the renewable category, and tightening up the definition of biomass), could be acceptable to progressives and pass with ease.

Nearly all of the distasteful bargains with the devil are in the section on cap and trade. Let’s not make them.

Instead, why don’t we go to Copenhagen with the knowledge that we have multiple tools at our disposal. Let’s not impose targets that are too weak in advance of the international negotiations. Instead, let’s allow the particulars of a strong and fair international deal negotiated in Copenhagen this December to guide our domestic legislation.

Now that’s a message I’d like to get into the echo chamber.

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