Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.

Senators drafting comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation are negotiating with polluters, and talking about combining a cap on carbon with public incentives for nuclear plants, “clean coal,” and offshore drilling. Should supporters of strong, progressive action to solve the climate crisis give up on Congress and work within the existing legal framework of the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and other environmental legislation?

We would then rely entirely on the Environmental Protection Agency’s existing authority to set rules for greenhouse gas pollution. However, the EPA is subject to the same outside political pressures as lawmakers, who control the EPA’s purse-strings. Single members of Congress or single committee chairmen can interfere quite effectively with agency activities if they put their mind to it.

In addition, polluters have all kinds of legal tools they can — and already are starting to — use to tie up, slow down and otherwise impede the implementation of EPA rules. Without a Congressional mandate behind it, the EPA will not have the political power it needs to implement rules with the kind of strength activists want and the science demands. The success of EPA rules absent Congressional action would depend on the politics of whatever administration is in power.

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By abandoning legislative reform, climate advocates could instead spend their resources on litigating against sources of global warming pollution. But it also takes a lot of money and time to litigate against a coal plant, and even more to win at it. Even if we could knock out all the new coal plants through litigation, that isn’t going to be a workable strategy for dealing with the ones that are already chugging away, not to mention the refineries, chemical plants, and the rest of the industrial sector, or the transportation sector.

If climate legislation reaches President Obama’s desk with a robust framework, and gets core elements in place, we will come back to it and keep making it better over time. We couldn’t get Congress to get the Clean Air Act right the first time. So the original 1967 law was amended — in 1970, then again in 1977, then again in 1990. This is why strong — and rapid — scientific review provisions are an important element.

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It is a travesty that political reality makes it is incredibly difficult to get even a watered-down climate bill even into the ballpark of passage. To change that situation, we need to mobilize grassroots activism to change the political calculus for key states like Arkansas, Missouri, the Dakotas, Indiana, West Virginia, and so on.

At the same time, the federal legislative push shouldn’t be the basket where all the eggs are placed either; policymaking at the local, state, and regional levels have always led the federal level, and the traditional Clean Air Act framework is well-designed and understood. New climate legislation should integrate with existing policy through amendment, not blanket preemption.

Anyone who wants to see a stronger bill can help make it happen by putting meaningful pressure on the senators who are sitting on the fence or near it to support strong climate legislation, and being descriptive in naming what you’d like to see legislation do.

That’s the only way to reduce the number of unappetizing deals that are going to get made. Telling people that the vehicle that’s moving right now is hopeless and worthless makes the sponsors’ jobs that much harder — which means they’ll just cut more deals in order to get the bill done.

What’s critical for activists — including professional environmentalists — to remember is that the goal of climate activism isn’t comprehensive climate legislation, or strong EPA enforcement of the Clean Air Act. Our shared, common goal is a green economy that rewards work, not pollution, and saves the natural gifts of the world without which we all perish.