Archive for June 19th, 2009

Waxman-Markey: Disastrous, Destructive, and the Only Game in Town

Sharon June 19th, 2009

“Bart: No offense, Homer, but your half-assed under-parenting was a lot less scary than your half-assed over parenting.

Homer: But I was using my whole ass!”

There’s a lot of discussion about the merits (some) and demerits (many) of the Waxman-Markey bill in Congress.  I won’t rehash them here - let us just say that despite the truly heroic efforts of Waxman and Markey, both of whom I admire, they have produced a (maybe) politically possible bill that is, depending on who you ask, either an imperfect first step to dealing with climate change or a disastrous failure to do so.  You can read a compelling range of opinions in various spots, and I won’t rehearse the information here. 

I will instead simply give my opinion.  If you actually care about limiting the worst of climate change, it is a disastrous bill.  It enriches the powerful at the expense of the poor world and ordinary Americans.  It fails to do anything useful, or to even address the science.  We are clearly using our whole asses here, to get the worst possible climate bill.  And it is the only shot we’ve got, at least for a while, at getting one passed.  I hate it.  I support it. 

What interests me about Waxman-Markey is the degree to which its accomplishments are very much in keeping with the kind of accomplishments we seem to be able to make at the national level.  The bill is woefully inadequate - among other truly disastrous acts, it removes the newly won power of the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions - this alone is sufficient to undermine the bill.  The targets are extremely low, the actual science mostly ignored in dealing with climate targets, the coal issue is not dealt with, carbon capture and storage, which doesn’t work and has no merit receives a ton of money, and corporations are unduly enriched and pandered to.  And yet, for environmentalists, aware that we are truly teetering at the point of no return, there is a desire to hope, to appreciate the first step, to reassure ourselves that it will be strengthened later, as people adapt.

But what are the odds?  The last three decades of US policy has been one of pandering to industry and consistently, across party lines, undermining and weakening inconvenient legislations, whether ecological or economic, that corporate interests claimed hurt them.  If we had some certainty that Democrats, who mostly at least deal with the science of anthropogenic global warming, if inaccurately in many cases, were likely to stay in power, we’d still have no real certainty here - Clinton’s commitment to regulation wasn’t any better than many of his Republican predecessors.  But that seems unlikely, particularly if we face an extended economic downturn - if the green shoots don’t manifest themselves in a real recovery, the voters are likely to feel very much betrayed at having sold their patrimony down the river to bail out a few Wall Street corporations.  I’m not optimistic for the long term stability of Democrats in office.

The truth is that this bill may well be the grounding for everything that comes after it, at least until climate change strikes us in ways that are so acute that we cannot but respond - and at that point, it will almost certainly be too late.  We are now creating an offset market that we will be dealing with nearly forever - and with all of its lack of regulation and potential for misuse, I anticipate vast lies and failures - if we actually hit even these ridiculously low targets, I won’t just be surprised, I’ll be stunned.

And yet, even though every environmentalist I know essentially agrees about this, we also know this.  If Waxman-Markey doesn’t pass, it isn’t clear that a better bill will.  If we go to Copenhagen without a national policy, that’s a disaster. More importantly, if the economy gets worse, which it almost certainly will, our window to address climate change will close altogether - the threats of industry will become too much to bear.

So Waxman-Markey falls into the category of things that I do not like but can’t do a damned thing about.  I think it is very likely that Waxman-Markey is the best America can and will do.  And it will fail at many levels, most importantly, at the international level - bringing this bill to the table with China, India and Russia will be a disaster.  All three nations argue that they are trying to bring their people out of poverty, while we are already rich.  If we are not willing to stop using coal, they certainly are not.   And yet, given all of these facts, I still support Waxman-Markey, because it does some small good.

And that, I think is the interesting thing about it - it is, I think, a really perfect metaphor for what we can expect in most of our responses to our collective situation.  That is, most of what we will be able to do - for political reasons, economic ones, and a whole host of others, is, to create half-assed solutions, while umm..using our whole asses.  And we are going to have to put our backs behind all sorts of truly half-assed, stupid things in order to get the little bits of good one can get out of them.  Waxman-Markey does something important - it means that we have a climate bill - a stupid, largely useless, sometimes destructive climate bill, but a climate bill.  Without it, we can’t meaningfully go to the table in Copenhagen at all.  Without it, my bet is that the US won’t pass any climate bill, or if we do, one that could barely pass as quarter-assed, so to speak.  We have to support it.

 My guess is as the nation awakens to our realities, there will be a lot of holding our noses, or recognizing that the solution is really only marginally better than leaving the problem alone.  But the truth is this - we need our little bits better, our small softenings of the blow.  We need what we can get, because the alternative is nothing.  Waxman-Markey may do little, it may fail miserably, but there is money for renewables we desperately need, and there are emissions targets there, even if they have no relationship to climate reality.  I suspect our health care reform, if we get it, will look much the same.  So will a host of other adaptive projects.  I suspect, for most of us, the national level efforts may become increasingly irrelevant - and yet, we also can’t abandon them.  The reason we can’t is this - even the small solutions have some real possibility to mitigate the misery of many.  And that’s worth it.  But it should also remind us that on smaller levels - state, regional, community - we have to do more.  We can’t afford to do a half-assed job, while using our whole asses there.  Leave that to congress.