Is the Climate Bill Really a Step Forward or Merely Marching in Place?

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photo: Ishikawa Ken via flick

With the American Clean Energy and Security Act set to go before a vote in the House later today, and expected to pass, many in the environmental community have taken the position represented by the NRDC, that we need to pass the bill and that it's a (small) step forward. Only a few voices, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, are saying what I think many supporters are probably feeling, that the bill simply isn't strong enough. Here's the gist of both arguments:
Even a Small Step Forward is Still a Step in the Right Direction
Everyone seems to be releasing their pre-vote congratulatory, get out the vote, we have to act now statements, including President Obama. NRDC president Frances Beinecke's statement is representative.

Beinecke expresses the usual rhetoric we've heard: That we have a historic opportunity to pass strong climate change legislation and must do so now. Very much true. She then goes on to say the bill isn't strong enough in its current form and that we must work to make it stronger,

Transitioning our entire energy structure to cleaner, more sustainable sources is an enormous undertaking, one that cannot be completed with one policy, one fiat, or one declaration. But it can start here, with the ACES bill.

Not only will we endeavor to make the bill stronger as it works its way to the White House, but the bill reflects the unfolding nature of climate change. ACES includes something called science look-backs: if, after the bill has passed, new scientific data calls for stronger action, our lawmakers have room to strengthen regulations and clean energy opportunities.

The Bill Has Been Critically Weakened
The position staked out by FOE and Greenpeace makes no concession to politics, and is essentially the same as expressed by climate scientist-cum-activist James Hansen weeks ago:
As it comes to the floor, the Waxman-Markey bill sets emission reduction targets far lower than science demands, then undermines even those targets with massive offsets. The giveaways and preferences in the bill will actually spur a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power plants to the detriment of real energy solutions. To support such a bill is to abandon the real leadership that is called for at this pivotal moment in history.  We simply no longer have the time for legislation this weak.

This legislation sends a strong and unmistakable signal to the world that the United States is not yet ready to show the leadership necessary to reach a strong agreement at Copenhagen in December.  Already, we are seeing the impact of this signal as one country after another retreats from the aggressive targets needed to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Let's Compare Science Versus Politics
The IPCC says that in order to keep global average temperature rise below 2°C we need to make emission reductions from 1990 levels of 25-40% by 2020. The word coming out of the Copenhagen Climate Congress was that strong cuts early are more effective of achieving this goal than equivalent cuts coming at a later date.

The reductions put forth in ACES are 17% from 2005 levels by 2020; as EnviroKnow points out that amounts to a mere 4% reduction below 1990 levels.

By a huge margin, ACES fails in doing what science says is required.

Can We Really Strengthen ACES?
Thankfully no green group is saying that the provisions in ACES are enough. It's just a question of whether we should pass a weakened piece of legislation and work to strengthen it later. But really, considering the considerable influence lobbyists and representatives have already had in gutting the bill, is it realistic to say that we can strengthen it? From my perspective I find that an unlikely proposition.

I'm not sure if I'd go so far as George Monbiot in calling the US a failed state when it comes to climate change, but we're not that far from it.

Despite what science calls for, despite calls from the developing world that we must make deep cuts or many nations will be devastated by climate change and not be able to adapt, despite the fact that there are examples among rich nations of truly significant reductions (viz. Scotland's pledge of 42% reductions by 2020), the United States can't seem to look beyond short term political interest and expediency. That's hardly leadership on climate change, and certainly nothing to be cheered.

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