Now that Congress is back, there’s been a mini-flurry of stories about the prospects of climate legislation this year. See Politico here and here, a really superb analysis of Lieberman-Warner’s chances by Darren Samuelsohn (sub rqd), and another E&E story today on trade groups panicking.

Politico‘s reporting is characteristically sloppy, but it does get at one interesting dynamic. Big green groups are somewhat at odds over climate legislation in the short term. On one end, Environmental Defense is pushing like gangbusters to get something done this year. They are all about bargaining and cajoling and wooing and keeping the issue alive.

On the other end are groups like the Sierra Club which — while not, contra Politico, outright lobbying against L-W — raising lots of questions and concerns, and openly floating the notion that it might be better to wait until 2009, when more favorable conditions will obtain. "We think 2009 is going to be a banner year for moving some of these big-ticket items through," says Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce.

I must say, I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I generally come down with Sierra Club. Let’s tally up the benefits of getting something through at all cost vs. the dangers.

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The dangers are clear: right now we’ve got a bill, Lieberman-Warner, that is, depending on which green you ask, either totally unacceptable or just barely acceptable. It got out of committee, which was, as far as I see, it’s last chance to be substantively improved. From here on out, this year at least, every dynamic looks likely to weaken it.

Further, why is Bush hinting that he might come around? Why are trade groups coming around to getting on board this year? Because they know which way the wind is blowing. They know this is likely to be the friendliest political environment on this subject that they’ll ever have.

"Warner is retiring this year, and then the question is, ‘Who comes into play?’" [American Gas Association CEO David] Parker said. Potentially, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — who both favor greater emission limits than those in the Lieberman-Warner bill — could lead the next attempt to pass climate change legislation under a Democratic president, he said.

"Who would you rather have writing a bill in the Senate? I might guess it may set a tone for business to fully work with the Senate this year," he said.

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Further, say the bill passes Congress. If it’s weak enough for Bush to sign it, it sucks, almost by definition. But say he vetoes it. All you’ve done is lay down a marker for the consensus climate position — a low marker, one that would be easy to exceed next year. Why show a weak hand when you get nothing out of it?

The countervailing considerations that produce the perceived need for speed are twofold. First, time is of the essence:

“Every year we wait to get started makes it almost geometrically harder to get the reductions [in carbon emissions] we need to save the planet,” said Steve Cochran of Environmental Defense.

That’s true, but you’ve got to calculate the atmospheric benefits of moving one year earlier vs. the benefits of a much stronger bill. I still think the latter is more compelling.

Secondly, there’s this notion that if we make it clear nothing will pass this year, it will give legislators an excuse to go back to ignoring it — halting the learning, research, bargaining process that is the necessary precursor to a bill.

There’s something to this, but I’m still skeptical. This is a fairly high-profile issue, in the top three for every Dem presidential candidate. All social and political movement in the last few years has been in one direction — greater concern, greater priority. We’re supposed to think it’s going to just drop off the radar if politicians wait until next year? That we won’t be able to get quick action with a Democratic president with a mandate for change and a wider Dem majority? I don’t get it.

I’ve spoken with a few ED representatives who have made the case for the need to keep this front and center, and I remain unconvinced on the merits. I suspect ED is keen to play the role of dealmaker and kingmaker. (Its [laudable] role in the SOx program has boosted its influence and fundraising for years.) It’s got a better chance of playing that role in this divided gov’t than it would in a more clearly progressive one.

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