On your mark … Get set … Go?

Photo: iStockphoto

And so the bargaining has begun.

After almost two decades of inaction, at long last America seems ready to start considering some kind of action to address global warming. With states setting conflicting standards, with the scientists announcing weekly updates on the speed and size of the approaching cataclysm, with shareholder activism starting to push business, and with green stirrings even from the evangelical wing of American Christianity, the time when the fossil-fuel lobby could get away with total obstruction may be passing.

Not too quickly, mind you — yesterday’s announcement from the White House that their new climate plan consists of a few billion dollars in odds and ends, mostly to help build a few reactors, was about as tiny a sop as one could imagine. Pressed for a moon-shot-style program to lift us toward renewable energy, the president offered a cherry bomb in a tin can.

His announcement was apparently designed to undercut Bill Clinton’s call for international action on global warming this week. And it came a few days after Al Gore’s truly landmark speech — the missing reel from the end of An Inconvenient Truth — in which he became the first major American politician to call explicitly for stringent carbon taxes. His plan to replace the payroll tax with a levy on fossil fuel might even make political sense.

But for the moment, it serves as a kind of starter pistol for the congressional battle. If the Democrats manage to pick up one or both houses of Congress in November’s election, there will be a real chance to actually pass a law. That’s an opportunity. And that’s also an enormous danger, because if we lock into the wrong plan now, it may be years before we revisit the issue again. And years are what we don’t have.

The temptation will be to simply pass something — most likely some version of the McCain-Lieberman bill introduced years ago. But that bill was pretty feeble when it arrived (appreciated, but feeble), and the passage of time has made it clear that you might just as well pass a law mandating anti-global warming bumper stickers. Compared with what we’ve learned in the last three years about the speed of melting ice caps and glaciers, about the surge in monster storms, about the release of methane from the permafrost — compared with all that, McCain-Lieberman isn’t even lipstick on a pig. It’s like nail polish on Godzilla. Clear nail polish.

By contrast, the legislation introduced by Henry Waxman in the House and Jim Jeffords in the Senate at least has targets with the right number of digits. It talks about 80 percent carbon reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, and about 20 percent renewables by 2020. It’s not enough to meet the real-world minimum set out by NASA’s Jim Hansen (that we reverse carbon increases worldwide in a decade), but its numbers might shock the system enough to give us a fighting chance.

Corporate interests, of course, will favor something like McCain-Lieberman (they’ll favor something south of it, actually, but bargain in its direction). The great danger is that the weak members of the environmental movement will meet them there, ready to declare bipartisan victory (and a great fundraising opportunity). With Hansen’s challenge ringing in their ears, the great hope is that the leaders of the big enviro groups — the Green Group –will steel themselves for a real fight, demanding something like Waxman-Jeffords. Or, as some are starting to call it, “The Real Climate Act.”

They will waver, imagining that such cuts are politically impossible. But in fact we don’t know — there’s never been a real movement about climate change in this country because there’s never been anything to rally around. When we tested the Waxman-Jeffords bill in Vermont a few weeks ago with our march, we assembled the biggest rally against global warming yet in this country — and convinced even our conservative Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and House to sign on.

The student climate movement — representing the people who will get to live on our heated planet for another six or seven decades — is already pressing the Washington honchos to find some spine, to make this the defining stand for environmentalism in our time. It may be politically difficult, but it won’t be as hard as convincing the glaciers not to melt or the sea not to rise.