Menu Choices for Climate Change Legislation

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: Huffington Post

I probably shouldn’t be reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth, while I work on an overview essay on climate and energy-related legislation pending in the U.S. Senate. McKibben, you know, is the founder of, the organization that tells us that the upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, if we’re to continue life as we know it, is 350 parts per million.

I thought we were supposed to reduce CO2 emissions to avoid reaching that level. Turns out we’re at just under 390 ppm, McKibben says, and it will take a couple of centuries to get back to 350. No doubt about it; we’re in the soup now.

(Actually, knowing what I do about the glacial pace at which print books are published, I’m guessing McKibben wrote his 390 figure a year ago and it’s higher than that now. But maybe not. 2009 was a bad year for industry; perhaps the rate of increase has slowed down. But 350, it’s not, and we’re still in trouble.)

That we’re over 350 explains something to me: I remarked to my husband a couple of days ago that it seems like deluges are the new “scattered showers.” All spring, every time the weather forecast called for scattered showers if it rained here at all young plants were pounded into the ground and rivulets appeared in the trap rock that makes up our driveway. We purposely didn’t pave it with asphalt so as not to interfere with water’s natural tendency to sink into the ground.

We live on a slope so steep that this house couldn’t be built here today. Lucky for us, the zoning bylaws 25 years ago didn’t concern themselves with erosion. Lucky for our land, we did, so we put down crushed trap rock (12 million years old, I’m told, and sharp! From a mine near here.)

When I lived in Philadelphia I went barefoot everywhere, even downtown, from April to October. The only way to get across a trap rock driveway barefoot is to levitate, and that’s not one of my skills. Here I wear shoes, the kind that keeps gravel out, not sandals. But the rain sinks in and erosion doesn’t happen. Or didn’t. Until now.

In spring if we’d had a heavy-snow winter, we’d have to get out in the driveway with a rake and smooth things out a bit. These days, with carbon dioxide at 390 parts per million and deluges the new scattered showers, gulleys are the new rivulets. Now we get out the rake after a “scattered shower.”

Remember the water cycle they taught you about in third grade science? Heat causes water to evaporate from rivers, lakes, and oceans. Clouds hold onto the water droplets until there are too many, and then they fall as rain, replenishing the rivers, lakes, and oceans. And the cycle repeats.

Carbon dioxide is the gas our lungs breathe out and trees and other plants breathe in. (Oxygen goes in the opposite direction.) Eons ago, before we interlopers started populating the earth, earth movements beyond our comprehension trapped layers of plant life below layers of rock, where the plants turned into coal and oil – what we call fossil fuels. The plants’ carbon dioxide stayed with them.

Since the late 19th century, we’ve been digging up coal and later, pumping oil, and burning them to provide energy and heat. In doing so, we put long-sequestered carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Some fifty years ago scientists began warning that this extra CO2 was raising the earth’s temperature and that the increased heat would increase evaporation, hence rain, speeding up the water cycle.

Did anybody listen? Well, no. Are we listening now? Some of us are, but the people best able to do something about this are listening to other voices: those who sing the siren song of money, commerce, and “free enterprise.”

Memorize this fact: nothing is free, especially enterprise.

It is the nature of capitalism to take the labor of human beings, turn it into goods and services, pay the human beings less than their labor is worth, and sell the goods and services for more than they pay the people who produce them. This is fact, plain and simple. I’m saying it without making a value judgment, but if you want to call me a socialist, I’ll answer, “What’s bad about that?”

There are other ways of organizing economic activity. I’m not expert enough to discourse upon them, but with a little bit of effort you can find those who can. Here’s one. What I’m saying here is that unbridled capitalism, the American form of capitalism, is what may well bring the present chapter of civilization to an end – not just here in America, which would be unfortunate but not inappropriate, but all over the earth.

That’s me speaking, not Bill McKibben. I’m not far enough into his book to know if he makes the connection between the catastrophe that we’re facing and the economic system that supports it. So blame me, not him, if you don’t like what you see here.

All this meandering is meant to get you in the mood to do some serious thinking about what you want to see Congress do to mitigate the unavoidable effects of global climate change. There are things. They won’t turn back the clock, but they can slow what may be inevitable. If we do it right.

Doing it right means reducing the amount of CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere. Drastically. Those with a financial interest in burning fossil fuels to stuff their pockets will go kicking and screaming into that good night (and blaming others as they go) before they’ll allow Congress to do what must be done.

What follows is a brief overview of issues and options before the Senate, intended to help you decide what you want to see in climate change legislation before the year ends. You don’t have to decide now, but there’s a lot to think about so you do have to start now.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be going ever more deeply into the implications behind various issues and the reasons why some decisions would be better – in the sense of more life-sustaining – than others.

Here are the basic menu options for energy and climate change legislation:

  • Does the US provide funds to encourage building more nuclear power plants?
  • Do we provide funds to encourage development of “clean” coal?
  • Do we provide funds to encourage off-shore drilling for oil?
  • Do we provide funds to encourage research and development of renewable energy sources (e.g. wind, hydro, geothermal, solar)?
  • Do we provide funds to encourage research and development of carbon sequestration facilities (we keep on burning fossil fuels and generate CO2, but find a way to store it so it doesn’t get into the atmosphere)?
  • Do we provide funds to encourage increased energy efficiency in things that move (cars, trucks, trains, etc.)? Do we require they meet increased energy standards without financial assistance?
  • Same question about things that don’t move (big factories – nobody’s looking at the small ones – generating plants, etc.)
  • Do we tax large facilities for every pound of CO2 they produce (again, nobody’s coming after the small fry. Even if they all shut down, which nobody wants, it wouldn’t make a dent in climate change if the big guys keep on as they are.)
  • Should we set a limit on how much CO2 producers can produce without being taxed, and let those who can put out less sell their unused rights to those who produce more? (This is the so-called “cap-and-trade” idea, which Republicans say has cooties all over it, so nobody calls it that anymore.)
  • Should the Environmental Protection Agency have total, partial, or no control over enforcement of whatever law emerges from Congress?
  • And here’s the biggest question of all (unfortunately): If we exercise stringent control over greenhouse gas (CO2 is the main one) emissions and put resources into developing renewable energy sources, will that mean more, or fewer, jobs for Americans?

I say it’s unfortunate that that’s the biggest question because it seems certain that if we don’t do something meaningful – now, this year, not next – it isn’t going to matter before very long. Our lives will be so different that being unemployed will be the least of our problems. And chances are good that legislative decisions will be driven by whether the money people can convince us Americans that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will drive away jobs. Lots of experts say it will do just the opposite, but it’s easier to persuade people of a negative than a positive.

At present four bills up for Senate consideration:

  • H.R. 2454 Henry Waxman (CA-30) and Ed Markey’s (MA-7) American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009

Enacted by the House of Representatives last year and sent to the Senate, where Republicans declared it Dead on Arrival, probably because the two sponsors are Democrats.

  • John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman’s (I-CT) American Power Act (Not to be confused with its predecessor, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act)

Announced but not yet filed, so it has no number by which to track it. This and Waxman-Markey are the most comprehensive and, therefore, the most subject to attack and disapproval by Republicans and environmentalists alike (but for different provisions and different reasons.) Both address R&D support, but emphasize different technologies; both address reducing emissions, increased efficiency, cap-and-trade (cooties and all). Lindsey Graham (R-SC) took part in the design of this bill, then pulled out before it was introduced.

  • S. 3464, Dick Lugar’s Practical Energy and Climate Plan Act of 2010

Takes an industry-friendly point of view, which Lugar says will save jobs. Emphasizes increasing energy efficiency; funds development of nuclear power and “clean” coal; doesn’t place costs on CO2 emissions.

  • S. 2877, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins’s (R-ME) Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act

Mainly focused on reducing fossil fuel use, a modified cap-and-trade approach.

So we have one bill, enacted in the House, the work of two Democrats; one announced but not yet filed in the Senate, the work of a Democrat, a Republican who resigned, but whose ideas are still in it, and an Independent. We have one bill filed by a Republican, and one filed by two women, one a Democrat and one a Republican.

I mention that the filers of the last-named bill are both women for a reason: When people talk about the ideas from which the final legislation can be drawn, nobody seems to mention Cantwell-Collins.

I think I know why: I’ve sat in political campaign strategy meetings and magazine editorial meetings where I was the only woman at the table. The men would struggle with a weighty decision, kick things (and each other) around, while I sat and listened, sometimes for an hour or two. Gradually a resolution would occur to me and when all the moving mouths had run out of gas, I’d present my suggestion. The men would react the way true gentlemen would if a woman farted; they’d ignore it. Talk would resume and, some 20 minutes later one of the men would say, “How about this?” and present my idea almost verbatim. And that would be what we all decided to do.

I’m not saying that Cantwell-Collins has all the answers, only that it’s not getting attention paid because to the men in the Senate it has the importance of a fart. I have a hunch that, when the chips are down and the guys are at an impass, one of them will start retailing Cantwell-Collins ideas as their own and maybe we’ll get somewhere.

That is, unless the money whisperers get their way and no legislation gets enacted this year. I wouldn’t bet on this, one way or the other.

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