UPDATE:  My Salon piece, “One brief shining moment for clean energy” is up.  We do need to savor moments like these, since, as I note in that article, given modern conservative ideology, which is 100% anti-conservation, “the country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and [large] Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun.

Every journey of a 1000 miles begins with a single step – including stopping human-caused global warming at “safe levels,” as close as possible to 2°C.

This bill would complete America’s transition to a clean energy economy, which was begun in the stimulus (see “EIA projects wind at 5% of U.S. electricity in 2012, all renewables at 14%, thanks to Obama stimulus!“).  Within four decades, the vast majority of American’s carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption will be replaced by the technologies discussed here:  “An introduction to the core climate solutions.”

This bill makes possible an international deal in Copenhagen this December – as well as a bilateral deal with China, hopefully sooner.  Had the bill failed, the chance of humanity avoiding catastrophic climate change would be all but eliminated.  As Nobelist Gore wrote earlier today, there was no “backup plan” to Waxman-Markey.   In this post, I will revise and extend the post I wrote after the bill passed the Energy and Commerce Committee (see “House committee approves landmark (bipartisan!) clean energy and climate bill – political realists rejoice, climate science realists demand more“).

For climate-politics realists, the vote today is a staggering achievement.  Today was the first time the U.S. House of Representatives has ever voted on climate legislation.  This country hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990.  And that bill had a cap-and-trade system where 97% of the permits were given to polluters.  And it focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans.  And that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn’t dead set against any government led effort to reduce pollution.

Yet Waxman-Markey did get 8 Republican votes, which is 8 more than the stimulus bill got!  This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate.  The closeness of the House vote – with 44 Dems voting No – makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

And for those who say this doesn’t do enough – I agree 100%.  But then the original Clean Air Act didn’t do enough.  And the 1987 Montréal protocol would not have stopped concentrations of ozone depleting substances from rising and thus would not have saved the ozone layer.  But it began a process and established a framework that, like the CAA, could be strengthened over time as the science warranted.  The painful reality of climate change is going to become increasingly obvious in the coming years, and strengthening is inevitable.

In the earlier post, I discussed the myriad forces lined up against serious climate action.  I won’t repeat that here, but instead want to excerpt something that David Corn wrote for Mother Jones, which states the climate-politics realist position very well – a position you might not associate with Corn and MJ:

So should progressives back this not-a-full-loaf bill? Matt Yglesias offers this hard-headed guidance: follow the Waxman. Citing a recent Charles Homans profile of Waxman (and you can see a Waxman profile I did a few years ago), he writes:

There’s simply nobody else in Congress whose record of progressive legislative accomplishments can hold a candle to Waxman’s. When you draw intersecting curves of “what needs to be done” and “what can realistically be done,” Waxman has time and again put himself at the intersection, and I think it involves a fair amount of hubris to think that you know better than him what the best feasible legislative outcome is.

I would add Representative Ed Markey to this equation. For decades, Markey has been a passionate champion of environmental and clean energy causes. A few months ago, he complained to me about Washington’s inability to address the threat of climate change. Like Waxman, he gives a damn about this and truly wants to pass the toughest bill possible.

Enviros can decide for themselves how much compromise to accept. Ultimately, our political system may not at this time-even with President Barack Obama at the helm-be able to handle the full truth about climate change and act accordingly. But it’s hard to second-guess Markey and Waxman. If they are cutting deals, they are doing what they reluctantly need to do, not what they want.

It will be a staggering achievement if, in 6 to 9 months, an energy and climate bill that looks something like Waxman-Markey is signed into law by President Obama.

From the perspective of political realism, though, it will be a great challenge just to stop this bill from being weakened as it winds itself through the House and especially the Senate.  Indeed, it should be strengthened.  That is the hard task ahead.

From the perspective of climate science realists, the bill has two flaws, one of which is very serious.  And I don’t mean the allocations for big polluters.  I know many of my readers disagree, but I just don’t think that the allocation undermines the goals of the bill at all, and in fact are a perfectly reasonable way of satisfying political needs while preventing windfalls for polluters and preserving prices (and update here).  See also Robert Stavins: “The appropriate characterization of the Waxman-Markey allocation is that more than 80% of the value of allowances go to consumers and public purposes, and less than 20% to private industry.”

The first flaw is the 2 billion offsets that polluters can potentially use instead of their own emissions reductions.  I have previously explained why I am far less worried about domestic offsets (see here).  In a regulated market with a cap, many of the domestic offsets will represent real reductions of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the total supply of cheap domestic offsets will be limited.  I have also explained why I do not believe the international offsets threaten the overall integrity of the bill (see “Do the 2 billion offsets allowed in Waxman-Markey gut the emissions targets?“).  The key point is that last year, the entire international offsets market utilized by the Europeans was 82 million tons with an average price of $25/ton (and about half of those tons were crappy, low-cost HFCs from China that won’t be available by 2012).  If the U.S. comes into the international offsets market even in a modest way, the price will certainly be higher than that, especially if we work to improve offset quality, as the bill demands.  Still, I’d love the Senate to improve the bill by sunsetting the offsets.

The bottom line is that the vast amounts of moderate-cost near-term domestic emissions reductions strategies – energy efficiency, conservation, replacing coal power with natural gas-fired power, wind power, biomass cofiring, concentrated solar thermal power, recycled energy, geothermal, and hydro power (see “An introduction to the core climate solutions“) – will be available at $15/ton or less (in quantity) in 2020 (see “Game changer, Part 2: Why unconventional natural gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet“).

And that brings us directly to the second and far graver flaw – the 2020 target is too weak (see here).  Given the lost 8 years of the Bush administration, it was inevitable that a bill which doesn’t even impose a cap until 2012 could not have the same 2020 target (compared to 1990 levels) than the Europeans are considering.

That means we’re going to build too much polluting crap in the next decade.  That means we’ll have to go back and unbuild it at some point.  More expensive, sure, than doing it right the first time, but no more difficult than deploying the dozen or so accelerated stabilization wedges globally in three to four decades needed to beat 450 ppm.

For me, a two-term President Obama (together with the next three Congresses) cannot solve the global warming problem, but can create the conditions that allow the next couple of presidents to do what is needed.  Or he can be thwarted, making it all but impossible for future presidents.

The only hope for stabilizing at 350 to 450 ppm is a WWII-scale and WWII-style effort as I have said many times.  And that implies a level of desperation we don’t have now (see “ What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?“).  When we have that desperation, probably in the 2020s, we’ll want to already have:

  • substantially dropped below the business-as-usual emissions path
  • started every major business planning for much deeper reductions
  • goosed the cleantech venture and financing community
  • put in place the entire framework for U.S. climate regulations
  • accelerated many tens of gigawatts of different types of low-carbon energy into the marketplace
  • put billions into developing advanced low-carbon technology
  • started building out the smart, green grid of the 21st century
  • trained and created millions of clean energy jobs
  • negotiated a working international climate regime
  • brought China into the process

This bill is crucial to achieving all of those vital goals.

Kudos to Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman and Ed Markey and President Obama – and a great many other progressive politicians and advocates – for making this historic moment happen.

Enjoy the weekend.  The really hard work – Senate passage – is next.

UPDATE: Statement from the Alliance for Climate Protection Chairman Al Gore on passage of the American Clean Energy Security (ACES) Act by the House of Representatives

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Leadership of the House, and Chairmen Waxman and Markey have, through their leadership, secured an important bipartisan victory for the American people.

The American Clean Energy Security (ACES) Act is one of the most important pieces of legislation Congress will ever pass. This comprehensive legislation will make meaningful reductions in global warming pollution, spur investment in clean energy technology, create jobs and reduce our reliance on foreign oil.

The next step is passage of this legislation by the Senate to help restore America’s leadership in the world and begin, at long last, to put in place a truly global solution to the climate crisis.

We are at an extraordinary moment, with an historic opportunity to confront one of the world’s most serious challenges. Our actions now will be remembered by this generation and all those to follow – in our own nation and others around the world.