This post is by Bill Becker, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced earlier this month that she hopes to have a cap-and-trade bill blessed by her committee by the end of the year. Her announcement left room for criticism.

Action advocates wished Boxer had been more specific about goals for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. The Wall Street Journal posted a piece suggesting the Senator’s new principles were vague and stale.

Moreover, if we want Uncle Sam to wow the world with new-found religion on climate action and to do so in time for the U.S. to take its seat at Copenhagen in a morally upright position, then a committee vote by year’s end will be too little too late. A better goal would be affirmative votes by the House and Senate well before Copenhagen, along with aggressive, progressive energy legislation and continuing bold action by the Obama Administration this spring and summer.

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Still, if we want principled action, then principles are a good place to start. Boxer’s are as follows:

  1. Reduce emissions to levels guided by science to avoid dangerous global warming.
  2. Set short- and long-term emissions targets that are certain and enforceable, with periodic review of the climate science and adjustments to targets and policies as necessary to meet emissions reduction targets.
  3. Ensure that state and local entities continue pioneering efforts to address global warming.
  4. Establish a transparent and accountable market-based system that efficiently reduces carbon emissions.
  5. Use revenues from the carbon market to:
    • Keep consumers whole as our nation transitions to clean energy;
    • Invest in clean energy technologies and energy efficiency measures;
    • Assist states, localities and tribes in addressing and adapting to global warming impacts;
    • Assist workers, businesses and communities, including manufacturing states, in the transition to a clean energy economy;
    • Support efforts to conserve wildlife and natural systems threatened by global warming; and
    • Work with the international community, including faith leaders, to provide support to developing nations in responding and adapting to global warming. In addition to other benefits, these actions will help avoid the threats to international stability and national security posed by global warming.
  6. Ensure a level global playing field, by providing incentives for emission reductions and effective deterrents so that countries contribute their fair share to the international effort to combat global warming.

These will be a hard sell. A climate bill truly guided by science, for example, would cause U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to peak and begin a rapid decline by 2015. That would require a radical turnaround by our economy.

All the vested interests that will be affected by carbon pricing, including big emitters and fossil energy producers, will define a "transparent and accountable" trading system as one that includes more protections for them than for the atmosphere. The tendency will be to fill the bill with off-ramps, price caps and giveaways that make the trading system neither transparent nor accountable.

The prospect of billions of dollars in new government revenues from carbon pricing will set off a feeding frenzy among constituents who want some of the money. The desire to send much or all of the revenues back to the American people to make carbon pricing more politically palatable will compete with the other worthy investments Boxer identified.

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But I’m quite sure that when she took the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer didn’t mistake it for a rose garden. If she improves the principles and sticks to them, they can be the standard against which this year’s climate legislation should be judged.

What kind of improvements? Last November, the Presidential Climate Action Project proposed these criteria for good carbon pricing (PDF, p.7):

  1. Cover all six greenhouse gases;
  2. Reduce emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and 20-30 percent by 2020;
  3. Auction 100 percent of the emission allowances;
  4. Be transparent, simple and relatively inexpensive to administer;
  5. Cover the entire economy;
  6. Be flexible, with some mechanism to regularly review its performance and to adjust carbon caps and prices as necessary to meet emission-reduction goals, without requiring further Congressional action;
  7. Be compatible with whatever international carbon-control mechanism the international community develops to succeed the Kyoto Protocol;
  8. Measure carbon reductions in absolute tons rather than in carbon intensity (emissions per dollar of Gross Domestic Product);
  9. Reward early adopters.

Another set of good criteria is the Wingspread Principles on the U.S. Response to Global Warming, which I wrote in 2006 based on the counsel of 40 national experts who met at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin. With very little publicity, the principles have been signed by scores of experts, business people, elected officials and lay citizens. They read as follows:

Urgency: Global warming is real and it is happening now. Every year that we delay action to reduce emissions makes the problem more painful and more expensive – and makes the unavoidable consequences more severe. Leaders in government, business, labor, religion and the other elements of civil society must rally the American people to action.

Effective Action: The U.S. must set enforceable limits on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to significantly reduce them within the next 10 years … Experience proves that voluntary measures alone cannot solve the problem. Aggressive government action, including mandates based on sound science, is imperative and must be implemented now.

Consistency and Continuity of Purpose: Climate stabilization requires sustained action over several decades to achieve deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy. With its frequent changes of leadership and priorities, however, the American political system does not lend itself to long-term commitments. Leaders in both government and civil society must shape policies and institutions that ensure sustained climate protection.

Opportunity: Mitigating and adapting to global warming offer the opportunity to create a new energy economy that is cleaner, cheaper, healthier and more secure. We must awaken America’s entrepreneurial spirit to capture this opportunity.

Predictability: Measures that signal investors, corporate decision makers and consumers of the certainty of future reductions are essential to change the economy.

Flexibility: Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions demand and will drive innovation. Our economy will innovate most efficiently if it is given the flexibility to achieve ambitio
us goals through a variety of means, including market-based incentives and/or trading.

Everyone Plays: Measures to stabilize the climate must change the behaviors of business, industry, agriculture, government, workers and consumers. All sectors and the public must be engaged in changing both infrastructure and social norms.

Multiple Benefits: Actions to stabilize, mitigate or adapt to global warming should be considered alongside other environmental, economic and social imperatives that can act synergistically to produce multiple benefits – for example, "smart growth" practices that conserve forests and farmland while reducing the use of transportation fuels. Many actions to stabilize climate offer local, regional and national, as well as global, benefits.

Accurate Market Signals: The true and full societal costs of greenhouse gas emissions, now often externalized, should be reflected in the price of goods and services to help consumers make more informed choices and to drive business innovation. Policymakers should eliminate perverse incentives that distort market signals and exacerbate global warming.

Prudent Preparation: Mounting climatic changes already are adversely affecting public health and safety as well as America’s forests, water resources, and fish and wildlife habitat. As the nation works to prevent the most extreme impacts of global warming, we also must adapt to the changes already underway and prepare for more.

International Solutions: U.S. government and civil society must act now to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of the actions of other nations. Because greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change are global, however, the ultimate solutions also must be global. The U.S. must reengage constructively in the international process.

Fairness: We must strive for solutions that are fair among people, nations and generations.

Congress can find more useful bricks for the foundation of climate legislation in the "State of the Climate" message the Presidential Climate Action Project submitted to President Bush before his final State of the Union address in January 2008. It also has been signed by many of the nation’s distinguished leaders in climate science and policy, including Dr. John Holdren, now President Obama’s advisor on science and technology. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here is an excerpt relevant to principles:

  1. We must recognize that global climate change is an issue that transcends politics and partisanship. No responsible leader of any political persuasion wants our nation to face a future of increasing heat waves, drought, fires, disease, natural disasters, coastal inundation, and species extinction. No responsible leader wishes to bequeath to our children a nation in peril, with far less security, fewer resources and a lower standard of living than we enjoy today.
  2. We must accept that while climate science is complex, our options are simple. We have three. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep the impacts of climate change from growing far worse. We can adapt to the changes already underway. Or we can suffer. Some suffering is inevitable and we must help those least able to cope. But the more quickly we reduce emissions today and prepare for the consequences of emissions from the past, the less suffering there will be. Those are the realities that we must acknowledge and act upon now.
  3. We must recognize that national climate policy and national energy policy are inextricably linked. The United States must make a deliberate and rapid transition away from carbon-based fuels whose emissions cannot be captured and stored, whether the fuels come from foreign or domestic sources. We must turn with unprecedented speed to a future of energy independence, resource efficiency, renewable energy technologies and low-carbon fuels. Public policy must support only those technologies and resources that simultaneously stabilize the climate and enhance national energy security.
  4. We must acknowledge that global climate change is more than an environmental issue. It affects national security by threatening instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world. It is an urgent economic issue in which the price of action is much less than the cost of inaction. It is a public health issue in which the spread of diseases in a warmer world can have devastating implications for our well-being and the costs of health care. It is a humanitarian issue, with the prospect of hundreds of millions of people being displaced by drought, hunger, and coastal flooding. It is a population and quality of life issue, challenging us to find ways for the world’s people to achieve and sustain a decent standard of living. It is a moral issue, testing our character and our sense of responsibility to those least able to cope with climate change, as well as to future generations.
  5. We must recognize not only the existence and threat of climate change, but the enormous opportunities that we can capture by addressing it. The transformation to a clean economy can open paths of possibility to all Americans, including those the old economy left behind. As the world’s leading innovator, we should become the world’s leading source of the technologies and products that will help all people in all nations — including our own — achieve dignity, security and high quality of life, while dramatically reducing effects on climate.
  6. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we must protect the Earth’s natural ecological systems, particularly forests, which are the lungs of the planet and play a critical role in sequestering greenhouse gases. We have a global obligation to protect the world’s tropical forests and to restore those that have been degraded.
  7. We must not wait for other nations to go first. Developed and developing nations both must hold greenhouse gas emissions in check. But the United States will have little influence on other nations until we lead by example with a credible, comprehensive domestic program. Our first step in constructive engagement with the international community must be concrete action at home.
  8. We must break the grip of special interests that are working to perpetuate the technologies, resources and practices that served us well in the past, but that now threaten our future. Special interests cannot be allowed to prevail over the public good. We must vastly increase support for research, development and deployment of clean energy technologies, and encourage the coal, oil and gas industries to invest in these technologies for their future, as well as the nation’s.
  9. We must restore federal funding for Earth sciences and expand our research into the regional, local, social and economic impacts of climate change. The national Climate Change Science Program must produce the knowledge and deliver the information the American people need to mitigate, anticipate and adapt to the adverse impacts of global war ming. We must engage the talents of our best scientists and engineers and restore respect for science in the federal
  10. We must redefine "clean" and think long-term. Each product and energy resource must be evaluated for climate impact over its entire life cycle. A fuel that emits little carbon when it generates energy, but that produces significant greenhouse gas emissions when it is mined, refined and transported, is not truly clean. A biofuel that reduces oil imports but destroys our soils is not
  11. Finally, we
    must recognize that global climate change is the leadership issue of our time. Given the long lag time involved in reducing atmospheric concentrations of carbon, we cannot procrastinate any longer. This is indeed the defining moment for each of us as voters and consumers, for our generation, for our leaders, and for our world. We must not fail.

These are the standards our leaders must embrace and hold on to if we are to close the gap between politics and science with a truly principled response to the climate and energy crises.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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