Pass a flawed climate bill now, or wait for a better one? Environmentalists duke it out.
Josh HarkinsonJun. 22, 2009 6:00 AM
A long-awaited vote on the Waxman-Markey climate bill, expected this week or early next month, has environmentalists teetering at the edge of existential crisis. Some believe the bill is so deeply flawed it might actually make matters worse; disillusionment with the bill is causing fierce recriminations within the environmental movement and has led to a knockdown, drag-out fight within the Sierra Club.
“This situation represents much more than just a normal legislative fight,” says former Sierra Club president Larry Fahn, who as a current board member has argued that the bill has been watered down to the point of being unsalvageable. “It’s about the core of what we’re now fighting for, and who we are.”
Emission Reductions The Good
Would cut and offset emissions by as much as 17 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 The Bad
Watered down from original goal of 19 percent The Ugly
Scientists say a 25 to 40 percent cut is needed to avert catastrophic climate change.
Efficient and Renewable Energy The Good
Requires states to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources and energy efficiency improvements by 2020 The Bad
Watered down from original goal of 40 percent by 2025 The Ugly
Because the requirement would supersede stricter laws in states such as California, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that it might have the overall effect of hampering clean energy production.
Coal Power The Good
Requires new coal plants built after 2009 to capture 50 percent of their carbon emissions The Bad
The requirement doesn’t go into effect until 2025 The Ugly
Strips the EPA of its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions from new and existing coal plants
Cap and Trade The Good
Ambitiously caps emissions at 68 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 by creating a market in tradable emissions permits The Bad
By 2020, the cap will have cut emissions by only 4 percent The Ugly
Only 15 percent of the tradable emissions permits will be auctioned off by the government; the bill hands out another 50 percent of the permits to the fossil fuel industry for free.
Offsets The Good
Emission reduction projects funded through carbon offsets must be verifiable, permanent, and “additional,” meaning that the projects would not have occurred on their own. The Bad
If US polluters use all of the offsets allowed under the bill—equivalent to 2 billion tons of CO2 per year—they won’t have to start cutting their own emissions until around 2025. The Ugly
Despite similar regulation of offsets under the Kyoto Protocol, a 2008 analysis from Stanford found that between one-third and two-thirds of the projects did nothing to counteract carbon emissions.
By now you may have seen the deluge of heckles on Twitter directed at Michigan Representative Pete Hoekstra since yesterday, when he tweeted, "Iranian twitter activity similar to what we did in House last year when Republicans were shut down in the House." Wha? Anyway, the resulting tweet storm has been fierce (example: "Arjunjaikumar @petehoekstra i spilled some lukewarm coffee on myself just now, which is somewhat analogous to being boiled in oil").
Capitalizing on the 140-word fury, a new website, Pere Hoekstra is a Meme, is now pairing the best twitter retorts to Hoekstra's gaff with photo illustrations:
In March, Michelle Obama delighted locavores when she planted an "organic" vegetable garden on the White House's South Lawn. For years, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and other sustainable food activists had been pushing the idea as a way to reseed interest in do-it-yourself agriculture. Less than two months later, the National Park Service disclosed that the garden's soil was contaminated with toxic lead, and the plot's educational value took on a new flavor as the New York Times and other papers discussed how to make urban backyards that are laced with old lead-based paint safe for growing kale and cauliflower. But those stories might have fingered the wrong culprit.
Starting in the late 1980s and continuing for at least a decade, the South Lawn was fertilized by ComPRO, a compost made from a nearby wastewater plant's solid effluent, a.ka. sewage sludge. Sludge is controversial because it can contain traces of almost anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. Spreading sludge at the White House was a way for the EPA to reassure the public that using it as a fertilizer for crops and yards (instead of dumping it in the ocean, as had been common practice) would be safe. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998, "but it's very clean poo."
The release today of the first climate report from Barack Obama's presidency prompted a dizzy reaction in the press. The AP called it "the strongest language on climate change ever to come out of the White House" and the Washington Post pointed out that it called evidence of climate change "unequivocal." Unveiled by Obama's scientific advisor and packaged by a San Francisco-based environmental PR firm, the report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, helped convey the idea that Obama was breaking from the Bush years to tackle climate change head-on. Nevermind that almost nothing of substance in the report is different from a draft that the Bush administration had released last summer.
Take this line from the executive summary, which so impressed the Post: "Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced." Here's what the the Bush administration's draft said: "Global warming is unequivocal and is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases and other pollutants." Not much difference there.
Aside from the natural gap in polish between a rough and final draft, very little seperates the two documents. The Bush version prominently states that the impacts of human-induced climate change "are apparent now throughout the United States," that "climate changes are occurring faster that projected," and that reducing climate change will entail "reducing emissions to limit future warming." It's as if the report had been written by Al Gore.
Of course, Bush didn't want to release this report. The first draft, made public last summer, was published four years late and only after an environmental group successfully sued for its release. Yet that doesn't make Obama's decision to hype the final version any more impressive. It comes at no political cost to him but could be seen as a way to placate environmentalists. Many green groups are on the verge of mutiny or have declared it over the Waxman/Markey climate bill, an unconscionable giveaway to big polluters, in their view, that Obama has called "a historic leap." Those groups won't be impressed by today's news, but some of their supporters will.