How Obama can get a better climate bill in 2010
Update: The Center for American Progress has the post “Timeline: A Fight for State Fuel Efficiency Standards, President Obama Moves on Issue After Years of Roadblocks.”
My new Salon piece is out: “Real science comes to Washington: Myopic conservatives and the media still don’t get global warming. But if anybody can preserve a livable climate, Obama’s amazing energy team can.”
Besides exploring how the media clearly doesn’t get the dire nature of the climate problem (duh) and how Obama’s amazing team of radical pragmatists clearly do, I discuss what Obama needs to do in 2009 to justify not passing a major climate bill this year.
I am trying to make lemon out of lemonade here. I can’t find a single reporter, staffer, or wonk who thinks we’re going to have a climate bill this year. As the NYT reported earlier this month, “advisers and allies have signaled that they may put off … restricting carbon emissions.” Noting that many in Congress “question the pace at which lawmakers will be able to move on a climate legislation,” Climate Wire ($ub. req’d) even quoted the uber-progressive Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Barbara Boxer, as “acknowledging this” and saying, “If that doesn’t all come together within a year, I would expect EPA would act.”
Boxer’s comment gets at one of the two key issues, namely, what does team Obama need to do in 2009 to make up for the fact that there won’t be a climate bill? The other issue is, what does team Obama need to do in 2009 to get a better bill next year than they could get this year? I have already blogged on one part of the answer to the second question — they need to get China onboard with a hard emissions cap (see “Part I, Does a serious bill need action from China?“).
Here is my answer to both questions from the Salon piece:
Can radical pragmatists preserve a livable climate? It can if we stop digging the hole we’re in. That means stopping the construction of coal plants that don’t capture and store most of their carbon dioxide. Fortunately, the Supreme Court decided against the Bush administration in 2007, declared carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, and ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating it. So Obama almost certainly has all of the authority he needs now to block new dirty coal plants.
Obama needs to pass in 2009 the mother of all energy bills. Once and for all, we must begin the process of changing utility regulations that encourage overuse of electricity, and instead strongly encourage energy efficiency. We need a nationwide standard that requires all utilities to draw a significant percentage of power from renewable energy sources. We need an effort, comparable to Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, to build a smart, 21st-century grid that can enable concentrated solar thermal power from the Southwest and wind from the Midwest, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles everywhere. (See “A smart, green grid is needed to enable a near-term renewable revolution” and “An introduction to the core climate solutions“)
Obama must begin high-level bilateral negotiations with China (or trilateral negotiations that include the European Union) to get a national commitment from the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter to cap their emissions no later than 2020. Such a deal would presumably be contingent on U.S. action, but would enable a much stronger domestic climate bill. We simply can’t solve the climate problem without Chinese action. And absent Chinese action in the next decade, the developed countries could never sustain the price for carbon dioxide needed to achieve meaningful reductions.
Obama must begin serious negotiations with both houses of Congress to write a climate bill that will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels by 2020, and then to low levels by mid-century. The goal would be to bring this legislation to a vote in early 2010, ideally in conjunction with a China deal. (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 8: The U.S. needs a tougher 2020 GHG emissions target“).
The goal of deferring the climate bill to 2010 is not merely to allow time to get China on board, but to undo the last eight years of disinformation and muzzling of scientists by the Bush administration.
(A 2007 report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded: “The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.“)
The American public — and media and cognoscenti — are not prepared for the scale of effort needed to preserve a livable climate. The Obama team needs to spend a considerable amount of time giving public speeches, holding informal meetings with key opinion makers, researching and publicizing major reports on the high cost of inaction and the relatively low cost of solutions. That simply can’t be done over the next few months, when the administration’s focus must be — and the media’s focus will be — on the grave economic crisis.
(I will elaborate on what I think Obama needs to do on the critical messaging effort in a later post. But it may be his hardest and yet most important task.)
Moreover, 2009 needs to be focused on what can be achieved in a bipartisan fashion. If, as seems likely, conservatives remain stubbornly blind to the scientific reality, then passing the climate bill will likely descend into a traditional partisan fight. A pragmatist like Obama should relish the fight. After all, if the GOP wants to put itself on the side of humanity’s self-destruction, then that political battle is best held in an election year, after a lengthy public education campaign.
Obama has already taken one key step that suggests he is prepared to do much more this year and next on serious climate action.