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Republicans Stall, Democrats Abandon Climate Bill
 

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Climate bill, we hardly knew ye. I thought I'd have more time to gather my thoughts on the massive global warming legislation that the Senate took up earlier this week. Senators had given themselves 30 hours to debate the measure, but soon Republicans began stalling. On Wednesday, for instance, GOP senators demanded that clerks read the entire bill out loud, which sucked up 10 hours -- retaliation, apparently, for Democratic resistance to confirming President Bush's judicial nominees. This morning, the Democrats and the bill's sponsors called it quits.

Of course, this simply hastened the inevitable; President Bush vowed to veto the bill had it somehow passed. But because supporters plan to bring it up again next year when a more receptive president is in office (both John McCain and Barack Obama say they would aggressively combat global warming), and because I spent a day paging through the thing, it's worth detailing what the legislation would have required.

I'll cop to indifference when the Senate began its "historic" (their word) debate on climate change. Besides having no chance of becoming law, it's simply not sweeping enough. The author credits give that away at the start: it's known as the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. As in: Joe Lieberman, Independent of Connecticut, and John Warner, Republican of Virginia. Their bill, introduced last year, would establish a so-called "cap-and-trade system" that each year issues a decreasing number of permits to emit greenhouse gases, which can then be traded on an open market.

Lieberman and Warner's particular system would be especially generous to polluters. Instead of auctioning all the permits to the highest bidder, it would at the outset give 43 percent of them away to dirty manufacturers, electricity generators, and the like, weaning them over nearly 20 years. And it could only hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by no more than two-thirds of where they stood in 2005. Tough medicine, maybe, but not tough enough: the target is far lower than what scientists say is necessary to actually stop global warming. By contrast, Barack Obama (along with most of the other Democrats running for president) proposed auctioning all of the permits to raise money to fight global warming, and he would force reductions of 80 percent from 1990 levels, a cutback in line with the science.

But I had higher hopes when I learned that the bill under debate was actually a revision by California Democrat Barbara Boxer. She's known as a passionate advocate for the environment, and her amendment began promisingly: "Strike all after the enacting clause [of the original bill] and insert the following'¶" The "following" was 492 pages of mandates that would've created an extraordinary new bureaucracy. In truth it was little different from Lieberman and Warner's effort. The overall targets are exactly the same. The pace of reductions is largely unchanged. The allocation of free allowances to big polluters is only slightly smaller in this iteration: electricity generators get 18 percent of the annual allowances, carbon-reliant manufacturers get 11 percent, with another five percent issued as a reward for "early action" to reduce CO2 emissions. (It's worth noting that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has concluded that across the economy, energy producers' losses from emissions restrictions would amount to under 15 percent of the total value of all the emission allowances -- anything more is a giveaway.)

And yet, as a big-government liberal, I found much to admire in the effort from Boxer, Lieberman, and Warner. Most of the remaining emission permits would be auctioned off or given to states, localities, and Indian tribes to use or resell. While a substantial share of the proceeds would go to reducing the budget deficit, the rest -- $5.6 trillion over 38 years -- would fund worker retraining, energy bill rebates for needy consumers, as well as a host of new energy efficiency, and advanced technology, climate change adaptation programs at every level of government. (One provision would give allowances to local gas and power companies, which would in turn sell them to fund rebates for small businesses and low-income households.) There'd be money set aside to finance clean coal technologies, super-efficient cars, and renewable fuels. Other reserves would build mass transit systems, energy efficient houses and commercial buildings, help wildlife at home and people in developing countries cope with a warming planet. There'd be money for organic farming, forest conservation, and carbon sequestration.

All of these initiatives have to happen, and soon, and it's clear that market is incapable of organizing them, let alone paying for them. Even the mammoth effort contemplated on Capitol Hill probably isn't enough. Today, as it happens, the International Energy Agency announced that the entire world would have spend at least $45 trillion through 2050 to reduce emissions while keeping the global economy from faltering

Another element I like: the bill solves the problem of emissions from nations like China and India by requiring importers to buy allowances for products from countries that don't have emissions limits. Practically, it's a tariff -- and a notion even Republican presidential nominee John McCain seemed to embrace before he backpedaled.

On the other hand, while I have no problems setting up a big bureaucracy to give away a lot of money, I'm still less sold on a setting up a big bureaucracy to regulate a nascent carbon market. The three titles of the bill that create allowances (146 billion permits between 2012 and 2050) and offsets (essentially credits for reducing greenhouse gasses in other areas) and establish the market for them run to 85 pages, and would no doubt generate thousands of pages in regulations that in turn would require a legion to write, interpret, and enforce. Opportunities to deceive, avoid, and corrupt the process seem limitless. A straight-up carbon tax -- Democrats in the House are working on one now -- seems a whole lot easier to administer.

That's not why the bill died, of course. Opponents instead focused on how much it would cost businesses and consumers at a time when gas and electricity are already painfully expensive. The vote today doesn't bode well for next year: scientists agree that this bill doesn't do enough, but for a powerful minority, it does too much. Sen. Boxer told Congressional Quarterly that the abbreviated debate, such as it was, will serve as a "road map for the next president. This will show them where they have allies; this will show them where they have problems." I'm guessing, though, that the people on the side of humanity know who their allies are. (John McCain, though he wasn't in DC this morning to vote, supports the legislation, but only with amendments.*) But in case you don't know who your allies are, I'll publish the roll of who voted how as soon as I get it.



*An earlier version of this post wrongly stated that Sen. McCain opposed this climate change legislation.

Last updated: Jun 6, 2008




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