Climate Solutions Policy Director K.C. Golden has some thoughts on where to go with national climate legislation after last week’s down vote on the Climate Security Act.

As thunderstorms and tornadoes ripped through the nation’s capital last week, the U.S. Senate tied itself in a procedural knot, preventing a vote on the substance of the Climate Security Act — the first meaningful climate legislation to reach the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it “the most important issue facing the world today.” But the minority stalled — insisting on a full reading of the nearly 500-page bill — while the storm raged outside. Once again, the “world’s greatest deliberative body” did nothing about the world’s biggest problem.

Twenty years after our preeminent climate scientist Jim Hansen warned Congress of the need for immediate action, this dilly-dallying is enough to make you scream.

But a closer look at the political tectonics at play gives cause for hope. Climate deniers and dawdlers are running out of places to hide. The election will be unkind to candidates who fail to offer real solutions to the fossil fuel dependence that is strangling the economy as aggressively as it is wrecking the climate. If the polls are right, pandering of the “gas-tax holiday” variety will be punished in November. And months ago, we narrowed the field of presidential contenders to those who support real climate action.

So in 2009 — after a historic election and with public demand for real climate action mounting — there’s every reason to believe that we can finally bring an end to the shame of this stubborn fact: The nation that leads the world in global warming pollution is the world’s biggest obstacle to climate solutions.

Even more encouraging, a much stronger bill is already emerging. Rep. Markey of Massachusetts is introducing the “iCAP” (Investing in Climate Action Policy) Act. Compared to the CSA, its emission reduction provisions are stronger, it protects consumers better, and it gives more assurance against development of coal plants that lack technology to safely dispose of climate pollution.

But the deck in Washington, D.C. is stacked against meaningful climate action — and that’ll be the case for a short while longer. While the obstacle-in-chief clears out this fall, a cleaner path forward for national climate policy is under construction. From the ashes of the Climate Security Act is rising a new determination to deliver a national climate policy that is stronger, simpler, and fairer. What does that mean?

Stronger. The following two statements are hard to appreciate simultaneously, but they are both true:

  1. The CSA aimed to reduce climate pollution dramatically — about 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 50-60 percent by 2050. With a growing population and economy, these cuts are huge.
  2. It’s not enough. We need to reduce emissions at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.

In political terms, this sounds unreasonable, if not impossible. But this is where political “reality” needs to yield to physical reality. These numbers are not interest group positions or negotiating platforms. They represent the minimum effort necessary to avert catastrophic climate disruption, in the exhaustively researched opinion of our best scientists. They are the bottom line — the objective reality, as Mr. Gore says, of our circumstances on the planet.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t going to be easy. Huge, urgent, necessary transformations never are. But to sustain our determination, we need to aim for real solutions. Roosevelt could not have galvanized public will for entering WWII by saying we’ll defend against Japan but not Germany. If we’re going to do something big and bold and hard, we have to play to win.

And it’s not just the numbers that need to be stronger; it’s the mechanism. CSA was riddled with “offsets” and “off-ramps” and emission “borrowing” — complicated formulas that virtually guarantee failure to achieve what the bill advertised, let alone what science and justice demand. Can you imagine taking on fascism with all these hedges and constraints and equivocations? “We have nothing to fear but fear itself … but we’ll back off if it gets inconvenient.”

As a general rule, a bill as long as the CSA is a bill that’s shot full of holes. This brings us to the second key feature of a winning climate policy. It must be …

Simpler. The point of the CSA was to achieve specific emission reductions. But almost 500 pages later, that point was buried in an avalanche of qualifications and special interest pleadings. Some detail is necessary, of course, to ensure that the policy works as intended. But most of those words were there either to make provision for evading the intent of the policy, or to grease the skids by accommodating various interest groups.

To be fair, some of the bells and whistles made sense. But collectively, they undermined the purpose of the bill. Substantively, these complications sapped the essential economic power of the policy: the clear, unequivocal commitment to emission reduction that will drive accelerated private investment in real solutions. And politically, they crippled the bill. CSA was so compromised that even its supporters were ambivalent, and opponents could point to all the frills as evidence that it was just a costly special-interest bonanza. That message works, even when it’s only half-true.

The conventional way to pass a big, high stakes national policy is to load it up with a little something for everybody … everybody who has a lobbyist, that is. That may be the way to move sausage through the Congressional factory. But it isn’t the way to get a policy that does the job, or a policy that enjoys the broad, durable support of the American people. It’s easy to imagine how Congress could develop a climate policy in which all the lobbyists win, but people and the rest of creation lose. That just won’t do.

The simpler our national climate policy is, the easier it will be to achieve the third essential quality: It must be …

Fairer. Climate change itself is deeply unjust. The people who contribute the least to the problem are the people who suffer most from the impacts. These same people are least able to afford a climate policy that drives up fossil fuel prices without offering real alternatives. We should be sober about the politics: If all we do is restrict the supply and increase the price of fossil fuels and let people fend for themselves, we’ll never develop a working consensus for a national climate policy. And we certainly won’t sustain that consensus as long as we must.

A fair national climate policy will have three essential features:

  1. Pollution allowances will be auctioned, not given away. Companies that pollute less will pay less, and the people — who own the sky — will be compensated for its use.
  2. Auction proceeds will come back to the people, in some combination of direct payments and investments that speed and ease the transition to a clean energy future. I’ll come back to that combination in a minute.
  3. We must invest — deeply and systematically — in a rapid clean energy revolution. A strong, simple emission reduction commitment will move enormous volumes of private investment toward solutions. But significant public investment is also necessary, particularly in areas like green jobs, transportation choices, transition and adaptation assistance for people and natural systems most at risk, and some research and development.

So, where should the public investment come from? Since auction revenue represents a big potential source of new public revenue that isn’t already captured, it’s a magnet. But Peter Barnes — the architect of “cap-and-dividend” — argues persuasively that the fair and politically strategic approach is to give the auction proceeds back to people as equal dividends. Rep. Markey’s new “iCAP” bill would give more than half of the auction revenues back in the form of tax credits and debit card transfers — focusing protection on consumers who can least afford fossil fuel price increases.

This is a good debate to have. But as we think about how to fund essential public investments, it’s worth remembering how much we already subsidize things that make the problem worse — coal, oil, and gas development, highway expansion, and the military and environmental costs we pay for our fossil fuel dependence. If we add new investment in solutions to our enormous, existing investments in making things worse, we’ll just be treading water in a river that’s plunging toward a falls. And we’ll be feeding the cynical message that may defeat climate policy altogether — that it’s just a big special-interest feeding frenzy that will squeeze consumers and hammer the poor without fixing the problem. A good, winning climate policy must beat that rap.

Playing the special interest game to a draw — directing public investment toward solutions while sustaining public investments that make the problem worse — isn’t going to get it done. We have to transform our priorities, not just add better ones. No matter how we resolve the auction revenue issue, we have to stop digging the hole deeper with public subsidies that prolong fossil fuel dependence.

Wherever the investments come from, they’re essential. Americans are ready — hungry — to turn away from the dead-end street of fossil fuel dependence … but toward what? We know where to begin: conservation, more transportation choices, cleaner cars and fuels, renewable energy, better urban design, good jobs in a green economy. We know how to do it in ways that expand economic opportunity. We know how to waste less and live better. But we have to make it real. We have to put our public and private money where our mouths are.

We have to build the future we intend — a sustainable, broadly-shared prosperity — not after we limit climate pollution, but simultaneously. Or else we’ll do neither.