On Friday, with a titanic battle-of-the-testimonies between Al Gore and Newt Gingrich, Congress closed out the first week of its historic push toward the passage of global-warming legislation. Yes, there have been climate bills and climate votes before; and there was the Kyoto Treaty, spiked by the Senate in 1997. But this time, Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress are closing in on a law that finally sets a price on carbon-dioxide emissions and begins to ratchet them down. Meanwhile, the GOP faces a make-or-break moment in its rueful history with climate change, and at least so far, continues to act as the party of the 19th century.
Republicans like Boehner are dramatically stuck in the past—by which I mean, the pre-1859 past.
A bit about the stakes this time: The matter is urgent, and not just because of the vulnerability of the climate system. If Congress doesn't act, there's the growing likelihood that Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, compelled by the Supreme Court, might move to fill the gap, regulating carbon dioxide even in the absence of a new law. Meanwhile, at year’s end U.S. negotiators will travel to a United Nations meeting in Copenhagen to hammer out the successor to the Kyoto Protocol. Without domestic progress on climate change that they can point to, our envoys will be hamstrung, and probably unable to bring on board key developing nations like India and China, which want to see the U.S. take the plunge on regulating greenhouse gases before they follow course.
Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey's (D-MA) draft American Clean Energy and Security Act is Congress’s focal point. A recent analysis by the EPA finds that, contrary to absurd claims that the bill will usher in economic calamity, such "cap and trade" legislation could actually leave average energy consumers better off in the long run—provided that the revenue created through the auctioning of emissions permits under the act gets returned to citizens in the form of rebate checks or a tax cut (an increasingly popular proposal).
The bill will presumably pass the Democratic House of Representatives with ease—a vote is expected by Memorial Day. But then comes the Senate, where the Democrats don’t have a filibuster-proof majority and Republicans could make all sorts of trouble.
For Republicans, who still can't even agree that global warming is real and human-caused, this is a telltale moment. The House GOP minority leader, John Boehner, appeared Sunday on ABC News's This Week with George Stephanopoulos and confusedly suggested that carbon dioxide is a "carcinogen," while also appearing to confound two separate greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide and methane. Boehner also mocked the idea that carbon-dioxide emissions are even something to worry about—calling it "almost comical"—and offered no clear plan for how his party would propose to deal with them.
Republicans like Boehner are dramatically stuck in the past—by which I mean, the pre-1859 past. After all, 1859 is the year that the Irish scientist John Tyndall correctly explained how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "traps" heat radiation, an inescapable matter of physics that, even today, Boehner and his ilk seems unwilling to simply and plainly acknowledge.
In political terms, we can expect much GOP misinformation about climate science—witness the infamously wrong arguments made on this front by conservative pundit George Will a few weeks back. On climate economics, too, such as exaggerating the Waxman-Markey bill's upfront costs, while downplaying or ignoring its long-term benefits. But if the GOP continues to take an extreme position, it will cede decision-making authority to a small group of moderate Republicans (like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) and industrial-state Democrats in the Senate. They, alone, will likely determine whether or not 2009 climate legislation can survive an inevitable filibuster. And they'll surely extract their concessions.
For instance, the Waxman-Markey climate bill currently leaves unresolved the wonky but all-important question of how the permits to emit carbon dioxide will be allocated under a new cap-and-trade regime. A 100 percent auction of these permits would generate the most revenue for renewable-energy investment, and for the return of dividends or tax breaks to the public. A free giveaway of permits to polluters, in contrast, would make industry very happy, and prompt less complaining about the economic costs of complying with the new law. Somewhere between a 100 percent and 0 percent auction is surely where negotiations will end up—so expect permit allocation to become a key bargaining chip as this law advances through Congress.
It’s not surprising that there’s still resistance to such legislation, despite the irrefutable science and even the long-term economic benefits. However, we should have acted on global warming in the early 1990s, and at this point, delay is no longer an option. Republicans should take heed—global warming legislation is coming, and it won’t be an economic calamity; in fact, it’s an inevitable step toward a better American energy future. They can join this critical project, or be remembered as those who wouldn’t.