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Waxman - Markey : For it or against it?

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 8:37 PM GMT on July 10, 2009

Change is on the way

When I started my class on climate change problem solving in the winter of 2006 many of the students in the class had as their number one issue that the U.S. had not signed the Kyoto Protocol. This failure to sign was placed firmly on the Bush Administration. This example provides a place to start to explore the complexity of developing policy. It only takes casual analysis to start to unravel this knot. First, the U.S. had signed the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton Administration. What the U.S. did not do was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol within our government. In fact, knowing the Kyoto Protocol would go down to certain defeat, the Clinton Administration did not send the Protocol forward for ratification. The U.S. had, however, been a very active participant in the writing of the protocol, which included many provisions to stand at the foundation of a future cap and trade carbon market. The Bush administration maintained that there were fundamental flaws in the Kyoto Protocol, and in fact, there were substantial flaws. It is difficult to look at the Kyoto Protocol and to conclude that it has led to any reduction of the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

As that first class evolved the students started to talk more about the symbolic and political value of the Kyoto Protocol. In the following years, students coming into the class have placed far less attention on the Kyoto Protocol. Yes, there are political and symbolic consequences that follow from the U.S. not ratifying, and ultimately disowning, the Protocol, but there are lessons learned - we need to move forward with policies and laws and behavior that will really work.

On June 26, 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, often called the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. This bill has both been hailed as a historic breakthrough as well as strongly criticized. Negative comments have come from all sides – ranging from those who feel that it does not really address climate change to those who feel that climate change is a dangerous hoax promulgated onto society by conspiratorial elements. The full text and history of the bill can be found at opencongress.org . At the end of the blog I have placed a set of links to analysis and opinion about the bill. ( A good QandA from Washington Post)

A week ago I had a plan of presenting some sort of comprehensive, objective analysis of the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill. I have received a number of summaries and analyses by people and organizations that I respect. I decided that before I wrote such a blog, I would actually look at the whole bill, not just summaries. I have looked at the bill, and it is enormous. It defies my naïve skills. Here are my reactions.

The bill is representative of the participatory government that we have. The issues of all are included in some way or another. The bill does explicitly recognize the link between energy consumption and climate change, and hence, the link to energy security and a robust economy. As such, interests of the coal industry are represented in a way that promotes more environmentally friendly use of coal. This stands in contrast to those who feel that there is no way to use coal in a way that does not damage the environment. Such tensions are built throughout the bill, and this has been the source of hundreds of blogs and comments that have attacked the bill.

That said - everything that I can think of is touched in the bill in some way or another. For example, there is discussion of forestry and the role of trees in cities. There is the question of the length of time carbon dioxide is held in the trees. There are trees in the cities, trees in the National Forests, and trees in diplomacy. There is much to be said about efficiency, how a market might be set up, and ways to motivate the development of alternative energy. There is language to promote the future. There is also language to perpetuate the present, often based on the need to maintain economic stability.

At one level, the bill does lay on the table the issues that are important for addressing climate change and the relation of these issues to energy policy. This is important; that is, getting the issues on the table. On the other hand these issues do not exist in a coherent and integrated fashion in a way that, convincingly, addresses the issue of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and mitigating global warming. It is like the bill is a closet, with a very long closet rod, and every one has made sure that they have something hanging on that rod. This is often the case when something is built through a participatory process; it is the natural result of a process that strives to build majority (or consensus) buy-in.

This process leads to something that is fragmented. While all of the pieces are there, the pieces that are most important are not clearly distinguished from the pieces that are less important. The granularity that separates the near term from the long term is not clear; that is, what are the important things to do first? And the ultimate goals, energy security, a robust economy, and a safe environment - are these fragments brought together in a way that achieves these goals?

The question of whether or not to support the Waxman-Markey Bill then comes down to does this bill work? And if we do not think that it works as written, are getting these issues documented, on the table, and into consideration of essential importance?

The Waxman-Markey Bill is a long way from being law. At this moment it serves as a valuable starting point; it is on its way to the Senate. It is not realistic to expect what will emerge from the Senate and come back to the House will be the law that "solves the climate change problem." The issues are too complex and the constituencies too broad, too volatile, to expect a solution at birth. Therefore, the question becomes is this the bill to build on going forward? Does the bill do the important things in the next 10-20 years that matter to climate change? Are there mechanisms in the bill that, explicitly or implicitly, maintain our current behavior going forward?

My opinion, the Waxman-Markey Bill is an important step, and it is just that – a step. We do not have the luxury of continuing to defer climate policy and controlling greenhouse gas emissions. In the Senate, there will be another round of participatory policy making. And whether or not the American Clean Energy and Security Act is an effective and good legislation will depend on whether or not the bill does the right things in the short-term and lays a flexible and robust foundation for the long-term. It is not, yet, a bill to oppose or support, but it is one to change and to make work.


Commentary and Analysis on Waxman-Markey:

Breakthrough Institute

Sightline Institute

Grist 1

Grist 2

Yale Environment 360

The Heartland Institute

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.