The Climate Debate Heats Up

The Climate Debate Heats Up

Published: May 8, 2009

Earlier this week, and not a moment too soon, President Obama put the weight of his office behind a bill that aims to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, tackle the rise in greenhouse gases and create millions of clean-energy jobs.

The bill has been stuck in a House committee: uniformly opposed by Republicans; feared by rust-belt Democrats who think it will hurt manufacturers; regarded with suspicion by some environmentalists who think it offers too many escape hatches.

Mr. Obama told Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to work out a consensus, which they must do. Though flawed, the bill is an honorable start on a problem too long neglected. Fix it, but get on with it, in the certain knowledge that failure to act would almost certainly doom comprehensive climate change legislation for this year and, probably, for this Congress.

The heart of the bill is a provision to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent by midcentury — cuts scientists say are necessary to avert the worst consequences of global warming. The mechanism for achieving them is a cap-and-trade system that would place a steadily declining ceiling on emissions while allowing emitters to trade permits, or allowances, to give them more flexibility in meeting their targets. This would put a price on carbon, ideally raising the cost of older, dirtier fuels while steering investment to cleaner ones.

Since previous bills focusing exclusively on capping emissions have gone nowhere, the two seasoned politicians behind this one — Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts — are offering other provisions aimed at increasing energy efficiency, encouraging cleaner energy sources and providing subsidies for industries that produce them. Their theory is that if they can win over the diverse and cantankerous energy committee they can win the House itself.

The bill deliberately left big questions open for discussion, and as negotiations proceed, Mr. Waxman and Mr. Markey must resist crippling concessions. One debate is whether companies should get the allowances the government will assign to polluters for free or whether they should pay for them at an auction.

Legislators from coal-dependent states want free allowances to mitigate costs of compliance and give emitters time to switch to cleaner fuels. Others fear that free allowances would delay hard choices while reducing revenues the government could use to make clean-energy investments and help the poor with higher energy costs.

Mr. Waxman and Mr. Markey should make only modest adjustments, if any, in their original targets; better no bill than one that would cut the 2020 reduction goal from 20 percent to 6 percent, as some Democrats have suggested. That’s a joke, not a compromise.

The Republicans are no help at all, insisting without exception that the bill would bankrupt the economy. The truth is that no one knows how much this bill will cost. A lot depends on how it is structured, how the auction revenues are applied, how quickly new, job-producing technologies come online and how much the country can save through efficiencies.

We do know that the emissions cap will not begin to bite until 2012 and that past programs to clean the air have always cost less than predicted. And, if the scientists are right, we know that the costs of doing nothing will dwarf the costs of acting now

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