One brief shining moment for clean energy

Passage of the first climate bill in the House is a big first step to cut global warming. But it's not enough

Topics: Environment, Energy, Global Warming, Science

On Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill 219 to 212. The bill would transform the U.S. economy in four decades, replacing the vast majority of American’s carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuel consumption with a clean energy economy built around energy efficiency and renewable energy.

ACES would push tremendous amounts of low-carbon energy into the electric sector. Obama’s stimulus bill had already directed $90 billion toward clean energy, dramatically boosting projections of wind and solar and biomass energy penetration in the near term.

ACES directs many billions of dollars at an as yet nonexistent technology — coal with carbon capture and store (CCS). If CCS proves practical and affordable in the near term, which I think is very unlikely, then coal use would only drop modestly at first. More likely, though, coal use will drop steadily in the coming years, first replaced by natural gas and biomass, and then increasingly by every kind of renewable energy, including concentrated solar thermal power.

This bill requires a 20 percent CO2 cut by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, a 42 percent cut by 2030 and a whopping 83 percent cut by 2050. On top of that, the bill devotes significant resources to a major global effort to stop deforestation that would add yet more CO2 savings in 2020 equal to 10 percent of current U.S. emissions.

While the bill’s targets may seem dramatic, they are in fact less than what the science tells us is required to avoid catastrophic warming. The 2020 target in particular is far too weak and quite easy and cheap for the country to meet with efficiency, conservation, renewables and fuel-switching from coal to natural gas. The definitive analysis of ACES by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found the cost to the average American household in 2020 of ACES would be about a postage stamp a day — despite repeated claims of conservatives using dubious industry-funded research that this bill would devastate the economy.

The GOP arguments against the bill, which included calling global warming a hoax, were so lame that one Democrat, Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who had announced his intention to vote against the bill because it was too weak, switched to supporting the bill after “listening to the flat earth society and the climate deniers, and some of the most inane arguments I have heard against refusing to act on this vital national security challenge.”



It is worth noting that the original Clean Air Act — first passed in 1963 — also didn’t do enough and was subsequently strengthened many times. Similarly, the 1987 Montréal protocol would not have stopped concentrations of ozone depleting substances from rising and would not have saved the ozone layer. But it began a process and established a framework that, like the CAA, could be strengthened over time as the science warranted. The painful reality of climate change is going to become increasingly obvious in the coming years, and strengthening is inevitable.

The bill’s targets are also less than what the Europeans would like to commit to and what developing countries have been demanding of us. Still, the bill is likely to be strong enough — if the Senate also passes it — to bring about a successful international climate deal in Copenhagen in December. Equally important, the bill should be strong enough to reach a bilateral deal with China — ideally before Copenhagen (and even more ideally, before the Senate vote).

Politically, the vote Friday is a stunning achievement, a rare alignment of the stars. This is the first climate bill either house of Congress has passed. This country hasn’t enacted a major economy-wide clean air bill since the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. And that bill was focused on direct, obvious, short-term health threats to Americans, quite unlike global warming. Also that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, when the entire Republican establishment wasn’t dead set against any government led effort to reduce pollution.

In this galaxy, the country can only contemplate serious environmental legislation when we have the unique constellation of a Democratic president and Democratic majorities in both houses, an occurrence far rarer than a total eclipse of the sun. Yet ACES did get eight Republican votes, which is eight more than the stimulus bill got. This bill needed Republican votes, which will also be true in the Senate. The closeness of the House vote — with 44 Dems voting No — makes clear that the really hard work is yet to come.

Getting to 60 votes in the Senate will be a great political challenge, requiring all the skills of Majority Leader Harry Reid. It will require an even bigger push by President Barack Obama, who did give his full backing to ACES and certainly did twist arms to get key votes, but who did not make the kind of push he has already begun for his health-care legislation. Ironically, strong climate action may be politically easier than serious health-care reform because ACES pays for itself whereas genuine health care reform looks to add $1 trillion or more to the deficit.

Senators do, however, tend to see themselves as historical figures more than House members. The key to framing a win on this bill is to portray it — accurately — as the single most important vote a member will ever cast. If we fail to stop catastrophic global warming, future generations will not care what we have done on issues like health care, the deficit and Iraq. If we fail to stop massive sea level rise, widespread desertification, and 10-degrees-Fahrenheit warming over much of the inland U.S. — all of which we face on our current emissions path — then every person who voted against this bill will be vilified by history.

For now, though, progressives should savor an impressive victory that puts the nation on a path to a truly clean energy economy.

Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees ClimateProgress.org. He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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