It is a very unfortunate fact that what the U.S. Senate does about the climate crisis, and when, is decisive when it comes to the possibility of an eventual solution to that absolutely critical issue. If the Senate does nothing, or very little, this year or for the next few years, the odds of staying this side of climate tipping points and avoiding climate catastrophe are definitely worsened, and they’re not so good right now.

The conventional wisdom among the inside-the-beltway, established environmental groups is that the hope for action lies with the legislation-writing process currently taking place under the leadership of Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. But two of the most significant political developments last week as far as Senate climate legislation took place elsewhere.

One was the public announcement via an email from Bill McKibben sent to 350.org’s far-flung network that “we’re joining a group of our best allies in backing the proposed Cap-and-Dividend approach that would stop letting big polluters pour carbon into the sky for free.”

The other was the public letter from AARP, the 39-million member organization of seniors, to Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, authors of the CLEAR Act cap-and-dividend legislation. In their letter they commend Cantwell and Collins for their “continuing leadership” and for offering “a thoughtful, bipartisan approach to reducing harmful carbon dioxide emissions while also mitigating potential energy cost increases to consumers.”  http://grist.files.wordpress.com/2010/03/aarp_letter_to_cantwell_and_collins_3_9_10_0.pdf

Strengths and Weaknesses

There’s a lot that is good about the CLEAR Act (Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal), especially in comparison with the Waxman-Markey ACESA bill passed by the House of Representatives last June. It would make fossil fuel polluters pay for their poisoning of our atmosphere, with no free pollution permits. In the first year, 2012, that the legislation would take effect, they would need to pay, cumulatively, as much as $126 billion dollars via a 100% auction of pollution permits. Putting a price on carbon in this way, all by itself, is an important step forward.

 A steadily-declining cap on carbon pollution would be enacted so that, over time, prices for carbon-based fuels would go up and co2 emissions would go down as a steady national shift takes place to energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. There are provisions for a tightening of this cap relatively easily by way of a simple majority (no filibuster allowed) of both houses of Congress in support of a Presidential proposal. There are no problematic “carbon offsets.” Wall Street and speculators are prevented from buying or selling permits. 75% of the money raised from the auction each year will be returned in equal monthly payments to every legal US resident. A family of four will receive approximately $1,000 a year to help with the higher energy prices the oil, coal and natural gas companies will pass along. Analyses have shown that about ¾ of all U.S. Americans will actually gain additional money to spend via this program. The remaining 25% of the auction revenue will be put into a “Clean Energy Reinvestment Trust (or CERT) Fund” for various programs to reduce U.S. and international greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, for clean energy, energy efficiency, transition assistance and similar purposes.

A key feature of the CLEAR Act is its understandable, transparent architecture. It is 39 pages long, compared to 1,428 for the House-passed ACESA bill.

There’s a lot to like about this proposal.

However, there are several significant weaknesses, most particularly the weak short-term 2020 target for GHG emissions reductions, 20% below 2005 levels, 6-7% below 1990 levels, and the likelihood that 2/3 of more of these reductions would come via the CERT Fund investments rather than the steadily declining cap. Science, and many of the world’s governments, call for emissions cuts by industrialized countries four or more times as deep if we’re to have a decent chance of avoiding climate catastrophe.

Other constructive criticisms of the bill include its lack of financing to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of a destabilizing climate, its legislated bottom and top auction prices (beginning at $7-21/ton, steadily increasing each year), both of which are seen as too low, and the lack of certainty about how the 25% of auction revenues put into the CERT Fund monies will be allocated. The legislation lists the specific purposes for which those monies would be used, but the decisions about how much goes to which of those purposes will be determined each year by the President and Congress through the Congressional appropriations process.

The 2020 target is without question too weak. Unfortunately, the available evidence indicates that there is little chance that it can be much stronger right now and get the 60 votes it needs to pass. That may also be true as far as the $7-21/ton price range for the permits. That is why many of us who support the CLEAR Act feel strongly about the importance of the provision for a relatively easy process of strengthening those targets in the future. This can happen when major climate/weather events hit the continental U.S. and/or the political reality in the U.S. becomes more favorable as the climate movement continues to grow and build.

For both of these weaknesses, as well as for the others, it would be a positive thing if groups which appreciate the many positive features of the CLEAR Act organized themselves to build support generally and among more progressive Senators prepared to advocate for amendments to strengthen it.

The Alternative to CLEAR

However, as of right now, the Kerry/Lieberman/Graham legislation-writing process, and the anticipation that they will soon emerge with something concrete, is where much of the energy on the climate issue is being focused. This is not a good thing, since it is already clear that their work product will be worse than the CLEAR Act, far and away, and worse than Waxman-Markey given the announced intention to explicitly provide support for nukes, non-existent “clean coal” and offshore drilling for oil and gas, and possibly onshore drilling.

In addition, there will definitely be offsets, based upon a “principles” document released several months ago, which says, “While we are still discussing the details of the offset program with our colleagues, we have reached agreement that we will include significant amounts of real, monitored and verified domestic and international offsets.”

And odds seem good that there will be free pollution permits for corporate polluters.

Faced with these two legislative options, it is surprising that many of the mainstream enviro groups and the more progressive and independent groups in the climate movement are not coming out for an amended and strengthened version of the CLEAR Act.

The Climate Activists

For the mainstream groups that have been supporting cap-and-trade legislation for years, it’s as if they’re having a hard time envisioning any other way of addressing this issue. Their hesitation also seems to be related to their close ties to the Democratic Party leadership and, up to now, that leadership’s inability to switch gears, despite the fact that Barack Obama consistently put forward, all throughout his 2008 Presidential campaign, a cap and dividend type of approach to climate and energy issues. Perhaps, when the Kerry/Lieberman/Graham legislation comes forward, more of the enviro mainstream organizations will come to realize and be prepared to act upon the reality that the CLEAR
Act architecture, despite its weaknesses, is clearly superior, a much better framework going forward.

For what could be called the climate movement Left, the reluctance of too many to support CLEAR comes from a different place, primarily the unwillingness to be supportive of a bill that doesn’t measure up when it comes to the climate science. I can really relate to this. For years I’ve worked day-to-day, engaged in long hunger strikes, organized lots of actions and gotten arrested five times since 2006 because of my belief that this is an urgent issue that needs strong action now.

However, as climate justice activist Gary Houser has put it, “The reality of tipping points means we do not have an open-ended amount of time within which to get off square one. The time we have to operate in is quite finite and rapidly diminishing. CLEAR gives us a chance to start that process. . . at least it would give us something to hope for.  At least the mechanism would be in place that can enable the right thing to happen.”

Our destabilized climate, and people in the countries most under the gun because of it, will not be helped by knowing that there are people in the belly of the beast who are speaking up in support of strong, science-based government action but who are having little success getting political traction for such action on Capitol Hill.

Passage of the CLEAR Act would be a victory for the climate movement worldwide. It would not be the end game; much more is needed in the USA (and worldwide), especially a much more visible popular movement taking action in the streets demonstrating for what the climate science, and climate justice, calls for. We need to stop mountaintop removal, prevent new plants from being built and build the power-past-coal movement. We need more people engaging in strategic and creative nonviolent direct action. We need a movement made up of people who, every day, use their energy and intelligence to advance the clean energy revolution.

The art of social change is the difficult process of understanding the most that can be accomplished right now while continuing to build toward what justice and survival calls for, no matter what the odds.

More information on the CLEAR Act can be found at http://www.supportclearact.org.