First, is the Waxman-Markey climate and clean energy bill compatible with – indeed integral to – a national and international effort to keep global warming as close as possible to 2°C?

Second, what would be the outcome if the bill failed?

This is the basis of the 500-word post at Yale e360, in which they asked “11 prominent people in the environmental and energy fields for their views on this controversial legislation.”

Much of the writing about about the bill – particularly by people critical of it – don’t fully address these two crucial questions, especially the second, and so they are, as I see it, not particularly helpful to the debate.

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Many people, including some commenters here, are under the misimpression that absent passage of this bill, the EPA can and will use the endangerment finding to achieve comparable regulation of CO2 under the Clean Air Act.  That view has several flaws.

First, whatever Obama might do with the EPA – and it would take many, many years to put in place a program that could substantially reduce existing emissions (see below) – could be undone by a subsequent administration, which is not true of climate legislation.  Politically, it would be quite easy for a future President to simply stop the EPA process in its tracks or allow the myriad lawsuits against it that will inevitably occur to delay the process to death.  What political cost could their be if the forces of denial and delay had already triumphed and stopped the US political system from embracing comparable legislative action?  Undoing a law that was passed by Congress, however, and then used as the basis for international negotiations, would be hard even for a President Palin to do.

Second, whatever Obama might do with the EPA, the rest of the world would know that the United States political system is incapable of agreeing to binding targets, so that would certainly be all-but fatal to the international negotiation process or a bilateral deal with China.

Third, if Congress rejects this bill, then, domestically, legislative action on greenhouse gas emissions will be dead for a long time. How long did it take before we got a chance to take up serious health care legislation after it died?  How long since we reconsidered an energy tax after the BTU tax died?  How long since we have passed major legislation to strengthen the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act to deal with obvious dangers to public health?  Still waiting!

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Fourth, the EPA authority is most easily translated into regulating emissions from new sources. Obama has already announced the strongest regulations ever for tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions. That mostly leaves new coal, which was already starting to collapse, thanks in part to the renewables and efficiency in the stimulus package (see “I predict U.S. carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 2007!” and “EIA projects wind at 5% of U.S. electricity in 2012, all renewables at 14%, thanks to Obama stimulus!”  The new natural gas supplies will get most of the rest of those (see “Climate action game changer, Part 1: Is there a lot more natural gas than previously thought?” and here).

As Center for American Progress chief John Podesta explained in a recent Berlin speech, “it would be difficult for the EPA to enact a CO2 cap and trade without congressional cooperation.”  States that wanted to frustrate the process could probably do so for years, and there would also be lengthy private sector litigation.  So, while useful for taking some limited actions, the CAA is simply is no substitute for GHG legislation in which Congress legislates shrinking caps.

So I repeat my assertion that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town.  If it fails, I see no chance whatsoever of stabilizing anywhere near 350 to 450 ppm since serious U.S. action would certainly be off the table for years, the effort to jumpstart the clean energy economy in this country would stall, the international negotiating process would fall apart, and any chance of a deal with China would be dead.  Warming of 5°C or more by century’s end would be all but inevitable, with 850 to 1000+ ppm.  If Waxman-Markey becomes law, then I see a genuine 10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe – not high, but not zero.

I should add that the death of Waxman Markey is not fatal to stabilization efforts merely because of what it does to prospects for national and international action – but also because of what it says about our politics.  It would obviously still be theoretically possible to stabilize below 450 ppm, but in practice, failure of W-M would signal that the deniers and delayers (including groups like The Breakthrough Institute) had triumphed with their disinformation campaign to such a great extent that even too-weak targets were politically unattainable.

And this brings as back to the first question, is Waxman-Markey compatible with – indeed integral to – a national and international effort to keep global warming as close as possible to 2°C?

The answer to that question is absolutely “Yes.” While the bill is weaker than it should be, particularly its 2020 target, it mandates a 42% reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and an 83% reduction by 2050. Building on the massive investment in clean energy in the economic stimulus, the bill completes the transition to a clean energy economy. It devotes some $15 billion a year to clean technology development and deployment. It would be the single greatest push toward an energy-efficient economy in U.S. history.

The bill directs substantial funds toward a global effort to stop tropical deforestation.  Yes, on paper Waxman-Markey authorizes up to 2 billion in offsets to be used in place of domestic emissions reductions, nowhere near that amount of offsets exists today, nor is there any reason to believe they ever will. Moreover, many of the domestic offsets are, in fact, actual emissions reductions, but just not in the capped sectors (as discussed here).

Here is the key point:  If the nations of the world agree to adopt emissions targets, timetables, and strategies compatible with stabilization near 2°C, then the international offsets market will remain relatively small and expensive – especially compared to the large pool of low-cost, domestic, clean-energy emissions reduction strategies (see “Game changer, Part 2: Why unconventional natural gas makes the 2020 Waxman-Markey target so damn easy and cheap to meet“).

[The first half of the previous sentence is sufficiently important that it deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned!]