Despair of the defendersDespair of the Defenders of JerusalemPhoto: Wikimedia CommonsThe U.S. Senate has rejected taking action on a significant climate or energy bill this year. Heads are hanging in despair, moans of anguish are rising, and arguments are breaking out about who is to blame.

Earth not waiting: While Washington has failed to act, the Earth is showing accelerating strains from our continued dumping of warming pollutants to the atmosphere.

The latest alarming news: the phytoplankton that produce 50 percent of all the Earth’s oxygen and form the base of the ocean’s entire food chain are now dying off. World temperature records continue to be set monthly in this hottest of all years and hottest of decades on record. Panicked scientists are frantically warning “the urgent need to act cannot be overstated.”

When we see the iceberg it will be too late: We are as passengers on the Titanic desperately trying to convince the captain to change course. The iceberg isn’t yet in sight, so few believe us. When it finally looms into view and everyone rushes on deck with deer-in-the-headlight eyes, it will already be too late.

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Hope in a Prison of DespairHope in a Prison of DespairPhoto: Wikimedia CommonsIs there any hope? Action must be taken now. If Congress will not act, is there any hope in this Prison of Despair. Hope is here —  a light can still shine … Here’s how:

Push the “re-set” button: Climate activists have been pushing the economic “cap-and-trade” tool for a very long time — so long it seemed the One True Goal was to pass cap-and-trade.

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Yet, this idea was merely an economic means to an end. The true end goal is not economic, it is technical.

Most emissions of warming gases come from our equipment and buildings. We need low carbon equipment and systems to heat and cool our buildings, produce and use electricity, to transport us, and to make our goods.

This is a tall order — we have to switch out, retrofit, or stop using almost everything. Yet, that’s the real task.

Why the economic method failed: The economic method was simply a way to encourage people to install this new stuff and stop using the bad stuff.

In the cap-and-trade proposals, actual physical caps on emissions were only envisioned for large pollution sources such as the utility industry. For the rest of us, a major part of the idea was to make fossil fuels too expensive for us to keep doing things the old way. 

OK, deliberately making something everyone now buys more expensive wasn’t exactly popular. Giving the money back might have worked. However, once Washington raises money, the money tends to get stuck in the middle — landing in the pockets of very powerful special interests. In the end, it seemed like everyone wanted to get the money (and of course nobody wanted to pay it in). If a bill was strong enough, it couldn’t pass. Yet, watered-down versions wouldn’t be strong enough to actually move people to make all those changes to equipment and buildings. A fine idea in economic theory died a very ugly death.

Now that Congress has rejected the economic tool, we need to remember what this is really all about: equipment and buildings.

The direct method: Setting a carbon price is not the only way to get better equipment and buildings. Instead, we could do something like directly requiring better equipment and buildings! Some examples:

Vehicle Efficiency Standards: President Obama earlier this year announced greatly improved fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, including for the first time heavy trucks all the way up to 18-wheelers. “It’s possible in the next 20 years for vehicles to use half the fuel and produce half the pollution that they do today,” the president said.

Appliance and Lighting Efficiency Standards: While Congress debated climate and energy bills ad nauseum, the appliance industry and efficiency advocates have quietly advanced new efficiency standards for a wide variety of common appliances and lighting. On Tuesday, August 3, a major agreement was announced to advance improved Federal efficiency standards to achieve deep cuts in energy use. Many of the new rules can be adopted without Congressional action.

Renewable Portfolio Standards: Dozens of states have set requirements that electric utilities must generate a set percent of electricity from renewable energy. Colorado will achieve 30 percent power from renewables by 2020, while California achieves 33 percent. The fossil fuel industry is running scared, and is funding an initiative to revoke the California renewable standard. Citizens from around the country can defend California’s law, and work to strengthen their own state laws.

Efficiency Reduction Standards: The Arizona Corporation Commission is now leading the nation in energy efficiency, last month adopting a requirement that its electric utilities achieve a 22 percent reduction in electricity use by 2020. The bipartisan plan was adopted unanimously. It requires major Arizona utilities to help their customers retrofit their buildings, plant shade trees, install more efficient air conditioners and appliances, and cut peak load use.

EPA Regulation of Greenhouse Gases: A 2007 Supreme Court case mandated that EPA consider if global warming gases should be regulated as air pollutants. EPA is now finalizing proceedings under this Endangerment Finding. Pollution control regulations expected to emerge will likely prohibit the construction of any new coal fired power plants in the U.S. unless they capture carbon dioxide.

EPA Regulation of Sulfur Dioxide and NOx: EPA regulation of greenhouse gases may not touch older coal-fired power plants. However, EPA’s long-awaited toughening of traditional air pollutant standards such as sulfur dioxide, me
rcury, and nitrogen oxide are expected to push many utilities to retire older coal plants. This is already occurring in Colorado –see “Colorado Shows How It’s Done.”

New Building Energy Efficiency Codes: The single most effective measure in the House Energy and Climate Bill was the proposal to require all new buildings to be dramatically more energy efficient. Simply put — stop building things wrong. While Congress scuttled this idea (it wasn’t even in the Kerry-Lieberman Bill), states and cities can now pick up the mantle and pass these building codes.

Choose the right battlegrounds:

The U.S. Senate has proven to be the most entrenched center of power for special interests who wish to block action to solve our energy and climate crises. 

Having stormed this Fortress of Fat Cats and been rebuffed is not the same as losing the war. There are other battlegrounds where climate action can now be victorious:

States and Localities: As noted above, the most effective measures have been adopted at the state and local level. Perhaps because they cannot print money, these governments have adopted very practical and effective laws. Local and state governments will now be the major battleground for climate action moving forward, particularly new energy building codes and strengthened Renewable Portfolio and Efficiency Standards. 

The Courts: The EPA is now mandated to regulate greenhouse gases precisely because environmental groups pressed the issue successfully through the Supreme Court. The courts will surely be needed again to keep the pressure on and to clarify the areas which EPA must move to regulate.

Corporations: Corporations who adopt Climate Action Plans are not just socially responsible — they also save a lot of money. Putting green on the cover of the Annual Report as well as green on the bottom line is a winning strategy. 

All is not lost: In many ways, the failure of a bad climate and energy bill — the weakened and bedecked-with-favors Senate bill — may ultimately prove to be the best thing to have happened this year.

If the Senate had managed to pass a bill this year, it was clear it would have been watered down so far as to be ineffective.

In the end, the Senate bill would even have violated the “First — Do No Harm” principle, by taking the nation in the wrong direction by massively funding nuclear power.

Yet, the passage of even a bad climate bill would have been hailed as a major achievement. It would not have been clear that little or nothing had actually been done.

In the image above, Hope in a Prison of Despair is carrying a light. If there is to be Hope, there must first be the light of understanding to find our way. We see this light very clearly now, and it can lead us onward to effective actions.

This article was first published Aug. 4, 2010 at