Now that Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, will the US Congress take the IPCC’s scientific advice on how to fight global warming? The IPCC holds that the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 80 percent by the year 2050. Few in Congress seem prepared to go that far, however. And judging from the discussion at a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill last week, even lawmakers who personally embrace the “gold standard” of 80 percent reductions are prepared to endorse a weaker measure in the name of getting some form of climate legislation moving in Congress.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So goes one of the oldest sayings in politics, generally invoked by reformers who think that half a loaf of progress is better than none. Often the reformers agree privately with more ambitious colleagues who want the entire loaf, but they argue that pushing too hard and too soon may end up yielding no progress at all.
There are times when this is sound strategic advice. Is the current battle over global warming legislation one of those times?
The terrain of the battlefield has changed considerably over the past year. For a variety of reasons–including the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, the alarming series of reports the IPCC has issued in 2007 and the news pouring in from the front lines of climate change (scientists recently projected that Arctic summers will be ice-free by 2030, thirty years earlier than their previous “worst-case” projection)–global warming legislation finally is getting a hearing on Capitol Hill. There is even a decent chance that Congress might pass a bill, though President Bush seems certain to veto anything that goes beyond his repeatedly stated insistence on purely voluntary measures.
The question is, what bill will reformers get behind? How ambitious will they be? Will they demand what the scientific community says is the minimum necessary to enable our civilization to (perhaps) avoid the worst future scenarios of global warming: deep cuts in emissions by 2020 on the way to 80-90 percent cuts by 2050? Or, in the name of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, will they favor a more modest and gradual approach?
The latter, incrementalist strategy has the upper hand at the moment. The vehicle is a bill that will be sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut, and John Warner, Republican of Virginia. The bill is still taking final shape, but its key provisions reportedly include a 10 percent mandatory reduction in emissions by 2020 and 70 percent by 2050.
Not only do these provisions fall short of the scientific standard; there is even less here than meets the eye. The bill, as described in briefings and press accounts, contains a number of loopholes, including provisions that (1) will give rather than sell greenhouse-gas-emissions permits to polluters, thus violating the “polluter pays” principle of environmental accounting, and (2) count so-called carbon offsets–that is, paying someone else to reduce emissions while continuing to emit oneself–as genuine reductions.
An alternative approach, sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, and Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, comes much closer to the scientific consensus. The Boxer-Sanders bill (like a similar measure sponsored in the House by California Democrat Henry Waxman) calls for mandatory 80 percent reductions by 2050 and stipulates that they be real reductions; i.e., not just carbon offsets. The Boxer-Sanders bill also would uphold the “polluter pays” principle by selling emissions permits rather than giving them away.