Balls with ambivalent faces.Feeling ambivalent?Will the Waxman-Markey bill spark a full-scale energy revolution?

No. Not on its own, not in the next 10-15 years. The short-term targets for reducing greenhouse gases are too low, the renewable electricity standard is too weak, too many offsets are allowed, and there’s too little investment in clean energy. To boot, there’s every indication the bill will get worse before it passes … in the unlikely event it passes.

The green world is grappling with these unpleasant facts right now, fluctuating between rage (kill it!), dread (we’re screwed), and resignation (it’s better than nothing). Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, on odd-numbered days, I think I’ve reached a fragile zen detente with the whole process. Mainly, I’ve been trying to focus on a different question: will there be an energy revolution? After all, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is not the only shot for Obama to make good on his campaign promises on energy. Nor is the legislation our last chance to tackle the climate crisis. No bill can carry that kind of weight, not at this moment, with this Congress. America is at the tail end of an era of cheap energy and heedless economic growth. Waxman-Markey is just the struggle to get an extremely hidebound, backward-looking set of political institutions to acknowledge that the old order is collapsing. Building a new order is something else entirely.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The question is, what’s going to happen after the bill is passed? An energy revolution will require a combination of social, technological, business, legal, regulatory, and legislative changes. Federal legislation can’t do all the lifting. Conversely, other changes can compensate somewhat for a weak (at least at the outset) federal framework. What will ultimately make the difference is not the specific mechanics of the bill but the, ahem, Sweep of History. (And who better to capture the Sweep of History than Some Blogger?)

I am reasonably optimistic, despite the flaws in Waxman-Markey, that history is on our side, and that the arguments happening today in Congress will soon be seen as peculiar and archaic. Here, briefly, is why:

Obama (Lo, is he not The Beginning of All Lists?)

There is no reason to think that this bill is going to be Obama’s only legacy on energy. Already there’s been the stimulus bill, which will probably do more for clean energy in the next five years than Waxman-Markey, the new mileage standards, and the big climate impacts report. And there is plenty more to come.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell has a fantastic piece on Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (For reasons only RS understands, it is not yet online. However, Charlie Petit at Knight has a bootleg PDF copy and some thoughts on the piece. Also read Brad Plumer. And while you’re at it, read Brad’s long and extremely excellent piece on the question of whether we need technological breakthroughs to beat climate change, which is centered on Chu.)

The RS piece contains this striking passage:

“The fact is, we’re not going to level out at 450 ppm,” [Chu] says. “We’re going to go over 450 ppm. So what will we do? I’m not in favor of deploying geoengineering. But thinking about it is OK.”

For a moment, the room goes quiet. In effect, the United States secretary of energy has just told an elite group of scientists and politicians that, no matter what happens with climate legislation this summer in Congress, no matter what China does or does not do, no matter what targets are set at climate negotiations in Copenhagen later this year, our future as a species is likely a grim one. Chu has uttered the politically unthinkable: that his own administration’s efforts to halt global warming might not be enough to avert a catastrophe.

In other words, Chu gets it. He knows that this isn’t just political football. It isn’t just another “issue.” It’s imminent misery, not just for future generations but for people alive today.

And he’s not the only one. White House science adviser John Holdren gets it. So do climate czar Carol Browner, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, CEQ chief Nancy Sutley, and both Hillary Clinton and Todd Stern at State. So, if we’re to believe those close to him, does Barack Obama (though many of his supporters are beginning to have their doubts, what with his ongoing low profile on the subject).

If Obama wins a second term, we will have eight years of an administration filled with people who believe that the fate of millions, possibly human civilization itself, rests on their ability to tackle this problem. They’re not going to view the passage of a compromised cap-and-trade bill as the end of their responsibility. They’ll use their eight years to make sure the long-term emission-reduction framework put in place by Waxman-Markey is part of our national DNA. They’ll keep pushing China. They’ll use executive branch tools (including, but not only, the EPA). They’ll drive research and deployment.

In eight years, the quest for a clean energy revolution will not be a subject for partisan dispute but a simple fact, a shared national mission, and part of every business’s long-term planning.

Some other reasons for hope:

Oil prices threaten the economic recovery, as Ryan Avent keeps warning. Coal is getting more expensive, and several coal utilities are applying for rate increases. Gas prices are going to fluctuate (generally on the way up).

In short, fossil fuels are not going to become less of an economic pain in the ass. Their corrosive effects on the economy and public health seem likely to become steadily more apparent. Once consumers are familiar with alternative sources that offer stable, effectively free (after the initial capital investment) power, they’re going to start demanding them.

Cleantech is cool. This is from Joshua Green’s excellent piece on clean energy in The Atlantic:

Shortly after the inauguration, a friend up for several jobs in the new administration confessed that he yearned to wind up at the Department of Energy. “It’s like NASA in the ’60s,” he told me. “All the best and brightest want to be there.” Obama’s choice of Steven Chu, the Nobel laureate physicist, as secretary of energy only heightened the allure. In the early Obama era, romantic notions about making one’s mark on history tend to take the form of helping recast America’s economy, and by extension the world’s, in a way that will head off global catastrophe.

And this:

“Think of the smartest guy you’ve ever met and then imagine 50,000 more just like him innovating all at once,” Mike Danaher, a partner and cleantech specialist at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, told me. “Just as they did with telecom in the ’90s, they’re attacking every component of every kind of alternative energy to improve it.”

Cleantech’s allure can partly be captured via numbers — the amount of VC investment, the amount of stimulus money — but it goes beyond that. It’s about nerd chic. Figuring out energy is what all the hot-shit brainiacs coming out of Ivy League schools want to do these days. There’s just an amazing amount of brainpower being devoted to these problems, more every day. I predict the pace of innovation is going to outstrip even the most optimistic projections. The clean-energy mammals will overwhelm the dirty-energy dinosaurs sooner than we think.

The need for a real economy. One thing you frequently hear about the bubble-busts of the last 20 years is that there was too much capital chasing too few real investments. We need a new source of economic growth to absorb that capital. And there’s a felt need today for Americans to start making stuff again — inventing, manufacturing, and exporting things of real value.

What can we make? What’s the new source of growth? Here’s how economist James K. Galbraith put it:

Finally, there is the big problem: … How to build the productive economy for the next generation? …

Today the largest problems we face are energy security and climate change—massive issues because energy underpins everything we do, and because climate change threatens the survival of civilization. And here, obviously, we need a comprehensive national effort. Such a thing, if done right, combining planning and markets, could add 5 or even 10 percent of GDP to net investment. That’s not the scale of wartime mobilization. But it probably could return the country to full employment and keep it there, for years.

Moreover, the work does resemble wartime mobilization in important financial respects. Weatherization, conservation, mass transit, renewable power, and the smart grid are public investments. As with the armaments in World War II, work on them would generate incomes not matched by the new production of consumer goods. If handled carefully—say, with a new program of deferred claims to future purchasing power like war bonds—the incomes earned by dealing with oil security and climate change have the potential to become a foundation of restored financial wealth for the middle class.

This basic view, albeit toned down, is mirrored in Joe Biden’s Middle Class Task Force, which is pushing hard on clean energy as a source of restored middle class prosperity.

All of which is to say: the structural position of the U.S. economy more or less requires a push toward clean energy. You can’t build an economy on moving fake money around forever. If you want large and expanding markets, there aren’t that many places to go.

States and cities won’t stop. Waxman-Markey may set national standards at relatively weak levels, but plenty of states have tougher renewable electricity standards. A few are experimenting with feed-in tariffs (see here and here) and producing extraordinary results. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a mayor who wants to revitalize his or her city by establishing a reputation as green (see Grist’s list of 15 green mayors).

The federal debate is warped by the outsized influence of carbon-intensive states and industries (magnified both by corporate contributions and by the frakked-up structure of U.S. constitutional government). But at the subnational level, there is a swarm of political leaders without the same constraints. Eventually, their success — not only environmental success but subsequent economic and political success — will alter the political calculus even in the most recalcitrant states. Whether or not the trend is accelerated by Waxman-Markey, wealth is already transferring from middle states to the coasts, because the East and West coasts are where the action and innovation are.

We are on the cusp of an extended progressive era. This is the one I’m least confident about, so I’m putting it last. But in my optimistic moments, I agree with the politics editor at The Nation, Chris Hayes:

Look at how far we’ve come in the last four years. We have a black president who ran on the most ambitiously progressive domestic agenda in a generation. Look at the political perspectives of the youngest voters, the most progressive cohort since the dawn of polling on almost every issue. White, male, Christians are the demographic roadblock. And the country is getting less white and less Christian. The macro forces are moving in our direction. What makes you lose hope is the hand-to-hand combat happening on Capitol Hill. Progressives have a unique lack of self-confidence where we feel like we are just going to get this one little chance, but I think the force of history is on our side. I believe that with every last fiber of my being.

I can’t say I believe that with my every fiber. Maybe 60 to 70 percent of my fibers. But sometimes, when I squint just right, I see a future blooming with cultural and technological ferment, a tidal change on the way that will be helped by a strong federal climate bill but will not be stopped by a weak one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.