cloud with silver liningThere is a silver lining to the turmoil over the Senate climate bill.Photo: Pranav Singh via FlickrOver the weekend we got the news that three grim-faced men weren’t going to be able to help on global warming. The only Republican supporter of the not-yet-unveiled-but-widely-described Senate climate bill, Lindsey Graham, had a new demand. Not only did he insist that the bill subsidize the building of nuclear power plants and open up our coasts to oil drilling — conditions since met by the White House — he wanted the Democrats to hold off immigration reform so it wouldn’t hurt some Republicans running for Senate. It’s rumored that he also wanted Caps tickets for the final game on Wednesday evening and a guarantee from the White House that they would beat the Canadiens.

Weird. But I felt happy. Which is weirder still. I’ve worked for almost 20 years to stop global warming, and I feel joy when the Senate global warming bill begins to unravel. How did we get here?

The bill that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — aka KGL — keep threatening to introduce is reputed to be more of a polluters’ bill than an environmental bill. Massive new subsidies for the coal, oil, and gas industries, a new trading scheme for Wall Street (this time in derivatives of carbon pollution instead of mortgages), promised CO2 emissions reductions primarily from ungovernable “offsets” in the developing world, and preemption over state efforts to stop global warming or even the EPA’s recently Supreme Court–granted right to do the same.

There are smart people who say that we need a bill on global warming, any bill, and the rest of the world will start moving too. But it seems to me that if we pass a fake bill, it won’t be a little first step but rather the last step. And the Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians are unlikely to be so ignorant as to watch the Senate pass a fake bill and turn around and make real emissions reductions in their own economies.

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But figuring this out isn’t my job. I didn’t join the environmental movement to try and become a master dealmaker. Let’s leave that to the politicians and their staffs. I’m more interested in the people building a powerful swell of public support that politicians eventually have to follow. Democracy done right means politicians listen to the people, not the coal companies or the oil companies or Goldman Sachs.

I come from the American tradition that liberated itself from a corrupt king and that now has to liberate itself from corrupt corporate oligarchs. To do that, we’ll have to organize in every corner of this fair land and peel the grip of the polluters off the levers of power. But there is one thing we must do first. The original role of the environmental community is to tell the truth. Our role is not to design ever more complex legislative schemes that enrich the oligarchs and confuse the public. The truth is that global warming is bearing down on us and we are not a step closer to solving it than we were 40 years ago.

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And yet there is something that I find hopeful, an alternative bill, though the media pretends it isn’t there.

The media has been focused on the three men who have been talking about a bill for months while ignoring two women, Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who have actually introduced a bill, the CLEAR Act (Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act). With simple, elegant architecture, it auctions the right to pollute to the importers, drillers, and miners of carbon-based fuels that come into the economy. These costs get passed along to you and me, working like a tax and increasing the price of carbon-based energy so we use less. That’s a good thing. And then it takes most of that revenue and gives a cash payment, every year, to everyone with a Social Security number.

Top Republican pollster Glen Bolger from Public Opinion Strategies recently polled 1,000 likely voters in five politically moderate to conservative states about their views on climate legislation. According to Bolger, “The CLEAR Act from Cantwell and Collins has the best chance of getting more votes over party lines because people like the concept of less government involvement [and a] tax-cuts-style refund back to the people.” Maybe this bill is a better way to get Republican support than to start giving companies the right to drill off our beaches.