Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

How Shall We Act?
distributed 5/22/09 - ©2009

Last night, US House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the "American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009." The New York Times has described this bill (commonly known as Waxman-Markey) as "the most ambitious energy and global warming legislation ever debated in Congress."

Following on the heels of the big boost in vehicle fuel economy standards announced by the Obama administration earlier this week, I celebrate the growing list of signs that the United States is finally gearing up to deal with climate change.

The 900+ page Waxman-Markey bill is complicated and complex. Getting it through the first of many committee votes in the House required strong political leadership and some remarkable political compromises. The initial progress of this legislation is a definite victory in the climate change movement. For the first time, we can see the real possibility that a comprehensive and serious law might get through the House, the Senate, and receive a Presidential signature. That possibility of real action also means that we are entering some new, exciting and challenging political territory.

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The momentum behind Waxman-Markey indicates to me that a central political question has changed. For years, the essential debate in Congress was about a very simple question: "Should we act?" The answer was "No." Climate legislation was not taken seriously, and did not stand a chance of passage.

In 2008, a significant climate bill died in Senate. When that happened a year ago, I wrote, "everybody knew that -- even if the Climate Security Act somehow made it through both houses of Congress -- it was certain to be vetoed by President Bush. What was going on in the Senate, and in all of the lobbying of Senators by countless groups, was political preparation. The groundwork was being laid for the next time."

With Waxman-Markey, this is "the next time." The 2009 Act seems to be a viable piece of legislation, and that means that the details of the bill really are important. With Waxman-Markey as a viable bill, the "Shall we act?" question is being answered with "Yes." That leads us to a new and very different question: "How shall we act?"

Because we're playing for real this time around, the tensions and divisions among those who have been working for climate action are revealed. Those who had joined forces for the sake of advancing any form of action are now split over the forms of action. The field of political action has shifted from general principles to detailed policies.

It has taken a grassroots effort over 20 years to build popular support in the United States for strong climate legislation. That movement has emphasized general principles -- the reality and urgency of global warming, the need for legislation of some sort, and a consensus on long-term goals. Two of those consensus points have been an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 and the need to avoid some of the most unconscionable impacts on the poor.

But general commitments about the urgency of the crisis, and broad goals for the CO2 reductions by 2050 don't move us far into the details. And that is where things have now become very hard. The individuals and organizations that have worked together for many years are deeply divided over many details of the current bill. Waxman-Markey is built around a "cap-and-trade" mechanism for controlling carbon emissions, but some prominent leaders insist that a carbon tax is the only workable mechanism for significant reductions. There are fights about whether it is best to give away or auction off pollution allowances. Other points of conflict have to do with "offsets" as opposed to direct reductions, the possibility of capturing carbon from future coal technologies, the role of ethanol and other biofuels, and the ways in which the economic hit on the poor can best be moderated.

A Wednesday post on the Grist website described the sharp divide between strong advocates for climate action. The article contrasts the positions of Al Gore (whose political realism support the bill) and climate scientist James Hansen (whose rejects the bill as too weak and using the wrong incentives). The Grist page provides a good scorecard about the mix of reactions and strategies around Maxman-Markey. Nobody sees it as perfect (what legislation ever is?). The range covers those who see the current draft as generally acceptable, those who think they can amend it so that it might be acceptable, and those who think it is too flawed to support.

A year ago, we could advance the climate cause with simple calls to Congress in support of strong legislation. The details didn't matter all that much. But now the details are very important, and very complex. We have to take sides, and break ranks with some of our historic colleagues and friends.

In this new situation, I confess to being confused and conflicted. I know enough about the public policy issues to see how complex they are, but not enough to discern clearly which options are the most likely to succeed. I am not enough of a policy wonk to sort through the fine details, and I know that I don't have the sort of political access that would allow me to define new options. Realistically, I have to pick from available choices, and do my lobbying around only the most immediate amendments.

I am caught with the same sort of conflicting principles expressed by commentator Joseph Romm: "Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill." Like Romm, I am inclined to see the bill that is now being considered by the House as the viable option. The multitude of amendments will strengthen or weaken Waxman-Markey (perhaps fatally), but for now, it is important to work for the improvement and passage of that bill.

Confusion and conflict about these details don't give me an excuse to sit on the sidelines. The full House vote on the climate bill will happen within the next month or two. The Senate may take it up next fall. Powerful lobbyists are hard at work, representing lots of interests and perspectives. It is essential that those of us who represent moral perspectives be part of the debate, too. We -- the grassroots and people of faith -- are the ones who will speak for the poor, for people outside the US, for future generations, and for the whole creation. Our voice is essential. With a bill that is actually moving through Congress, we must be both informed and vocal about the details of legislation.

I encourage you to join with me in becoming more informed, and in being politically active. I will be turning to the news and policy discussions on Grist for general information. I will be looking to my most informed colleagues in the faith-based movement for moral and legislative leadership -- The Regeneration Project/Interfaith Power and Light , and the National Council of Churches.

Even as we steep ourselves in policy details, it is still important to lift up the general principles that we have long expressed. In the coming months, there will still be many legislators, citizens and groups who claim that climate change is not a problem, and that action is not necessary. We must still hold firm to our basic affirmation about strong and urgent action. Debates about policy details cannot distract us from the long-term goals of our movement.

I rejoice that we are in this new and challenging situation. It is exciting that the United States is finally at a point where action is on the near horizon, and where the difficult debates make such an important difference. May we be informed, vocal and passionate as we witness for strong climate action to our legislators and communities.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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