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The Late, Unlamented, Not-Really-a-Climate-Change Bill

Last week

Last week, Senate majority leader Harry Reid glumly announced that the Democratic leadership lacked the votes to push through even truncated carbon-limiting legislation, which would have called for carbon caps on power plants. “We don’t have a single Republican to work with us … We know where we are … We don’t have the votes.” The Senate had long ago abandoned trying to pass Lieberman-Kerry (the American Power Act), the twin of the Waxman-Markey boondoggle, which the House passed last year. Reid’s admission that they couldn’t attract Republican support is basically true. What he might have added is that the bill wouldn’t have had uniform support from Democrats, either. Senators from states specializing in coal extraction and manufacturing weren’t going to support a bill against which their constituents – coal companies and industrial enterprises – were lobbying.

Immediately, chatter turned to why the bill died. The New York Times opined, “Reid abandoned the fight for meaningful energy and climate legislation. The Republicans – surprise – had been fiercely obstructionist. But the Democratic leaders let them get away with it, as did the White House.” Wily Republicans and weak Democrats – pretty familiar narrative trope, same one we see about ending the massacres in Afghanistan, too. David Roberts at Grist offered a different explanation: the undemocratic structure of the Senate, alongside the now nearly built-in requirement for a filibuster-proof supermajority, combined with a weak economy that generates suspicion over potentially expensive green climate bills. Roberts flirted a bit with a more compelling explanation – that the American people see the issue as economy versus ecology, the product of 40 years of brainwashing from the “right,” and so, as a result, they “were just bound to be indifferent and/or suspicious of grand environmental initiatives during a time of economic pain.” There’s a bit more truth there, but not enough. Roberts doesn’t quite get it: he starts off his piece with the pregnant lead-in, “With the climate bill officially dead …”

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That one line exemplifies the main problem with nearly all the commentary we’re likely to see on the death of the senatorial climate bill. The bulk of it – even by purported progressives – elides a basic logical problem. The climate bill didn’t die: it couldn’t. Death has a pre-requisite: life. In this case the bill never met that qualification.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, Lieberman-Kerry contained “major ill-advised proposals to promote new nuclear power plants and new offshore oil drilling. These include excessive subsidies for constructing new nuclear power plants and weakening changes to nuclear plant licensing requirements and safety and environmental safeguards.” It added that the bio-fuel loopholes threatened to “significantly erod[e] the bill’s carbon pollution reductions. Covered firms are allowed to ignore carbon emissions from burning ‘renewable biomass’ on the assumption that they are completely counterbalanced by carbon uptake when biomass is grown.” The inducement was to be for a switch over to bio-fuel-based energy infrastructure. Nice idea, except that there’s absolutely no evidence that bio-fuels yield net emissions reductions. The heralded reductions in CO2 emissions are mostly speculative and mostly specious. Bio-fuels aren’t worthless, but their worth will be on a small scale as a careful and circumspect replacement for some difficult-to-substitute activities: airplane flights, for instance.

Earth Track adds that the essence of the bill was willy-nilly distribution of “subsidies” to embryonic and existing energy firms, in order to try to get senatorial support, somewhat akin to passing legislation which taxes you to bribe a robber to get him to stop stealing from you. Some of those subsidies include attempts to speed up the development of clean coal technology through Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). Another nice idea, except CCS is an unproven technology that’s at least a decade, probably far more, from implementation. Instead of making coal clean, a real climate change bill would keep it in the ground, where it’s really clean.

Environmental attorney James Handley notes that the bill provided for a “cap” that would have added 2 billion tons of offsets to the 5.4 billion tons of CO2 that the economy generated in 2009. That “means that even if the cap tightens a few percent each year, polluters will be able to buy (cheap) offsets instead of making reductions for the next two decades. By design [Kerry-Lieberman] calls it ‘cost containment’), CO2 prices will be set in the offset market, not by supply constraints of the ‘cap.'”

Researchers from the Peterson Institute for International Economics add that the Kerry-Lieberman bill would have effectively reduced “economy-wide” greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 31 percent by 2030, assuming that offsets would have functioned as planned. They never do. Even the conservative federal General Accounting Office questions their efficacy. The researchers add, “If emissions from noncovered sources continue to grow on a business-as-usual trajectory, overall US emissions (including domestic offsets and sequestered carbon) will decline 8 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 17 percent by 2030.” The researchers tendentiously assume that hydropower and bio-fuels are “renewable,” and that nuclear energy contributes to net CO2 reductions. While coal, petroleum and natural gas use would have decreased in their projections, the differences would have been made up from “renewable” and nuclear energy, generously subsidized. None of those assumptions are straightforwardly true – some are untrue – and even then, projected energy use was projected to rise 5 percent by 2030.

Charles K. Ebinger of the Brookings Institute’s Energy Security Initiative adds, “The offset provisions should be significantly revised or scrapped. If we are trying to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S., let’s do it. Otherwise we simply are exporting capital and jobs. The bill’s price on carbon is unlikely to be high enough to generate any real movement away from fossil fuels. Furthermore, the provisions under schedule E for trading in carbon are too complex and as written could allow gaming of the system.” He adds that the bill was “poorly designed” and unlikely to accomplish its objectives. Ebinger isn’t exactly an eco-radical from Earth First!. When a senior establishmentarian energy bureaucrat describes energy legislation thusly, it’s time to look for a box of matches and an urn for the ashes and some new paper and pens with which to start over.

It is impossible to quantify how much warming the reductions envisioned in Kerry-Lieberman would have put us on track for. The Center for Biological Diversity comments, “the 0.7% reduction from 1990 levels envisioned under the APA [Kerry-Lieberman] is consistent with a trajectory that would result in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations of 650 ppm.”The Sustainability Institute suggests that the proposals on the table would have allowed for 715 ppm (parts per million) of CO2-equivalent (ppmCO2e), a measurement that includes other sorts of greenhouse gases, highlighting the real world results of relying on other carbon-emitting nations to offset American or Western CO2 emissions, while simultaneously expecting them to stabilize or reduce their own emissions. It just doesn’t work and, as should be clear, the bill would have done next to nothing to even arrest global warming.

The National Research Council gives some estimates of the effects of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The range of 650 to 715 ppmCO2e virtually locks in 3 degrees Celsius of average “transient” global warming – more in some places, less in others. That means between 15 and 30 percent changes in precipitation, 10 to 30 percent increases in torrential rainfalls, 15 to 45 percent reductions in United States and African maize and Indian wheat yields and 45 percent decreases in annually averaged sea ice. (The US produces 40 percent of the world’s maize). There’s more. Sea levels will rise 0.5 to 1 meter by 2100, while there will be extensive coral bleaching due to oceanic acidification. Wildfires will burn out of control. In the United States, “Studies are limited in number, but suggest that warming of 1°C (relative to 1950-2003) is expected to produce increases in median area burned by about 200-400%.”

Transient global warming is the nearly instant response of the oceans and atmosphere to increases in greenhouse gases, as well as net radiative forcing. The climactic changes cataloged above will be the likely effects if CO2e arrives at that point, then thereafter, decreases. They are not as large as the longer run “climate sensitivity,” which include adjustments from the oceans to the added temperature in the atmosphere. But there is also “equilibrium” warming: what happens if CO2e concentrations don’t decrease after reaching a local peak – if they plateau instead. If that happens, tack another degree Celsius onto the estimates. Then, nine out of ten summers will be warmer than the warmest summers ever experienced in the last decades of the 20th century in nearly all terrestrial land areas. Those are simply highest-likelihood estimates. Five hundred and fifty ppm CO2e could produce transient warming of 5 degrees Celsius. Such warming could cause global food prices to double. For the world’s poor, that will mean economic famine.

Clearly, the Kerry-Lieberman legislation was zombie lawmaking from the outset. No one except the deluded thought it would stop climate change. The criminals aren’t the ones who assassinated the bill. The criminals are the ones who drafted it. And they thoughtfully took the trouble to attach their names to the legislation – and they are not Republicans. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to indict just Kerry, Lieberman and Reid. They’re only footmen for those with real power: the fossil fuel conglomerates that profit from powering our fossil-fuel based economy, and the transnational corporations intent on tricking us into thinking we need desperately the latest worthless gewgaw out of a Chinese or Korean factory, never mind the costs – a moribund planet.

So, through millions spent on advertising, on funding unthinking think-tanks devoted to denying climate change, and a compliant press, Americans are kept in a state of advanced retardation and hysteria vis-à-vis climate science. Even Iraq and Palestine place higher priorities on dealing with anthropogenic global warming. And they plausibly have other problems. So, there is a reason for our confusion, and we know who to blame: those benefiting from the economic system and the scribes who obediently draft the legislation their superiors request, senators from both sides of the aisle, bought off by transnational oil firms spreading their bribes throughout the Senate chambers (although more of it ends up in the pockets of Republican senators). Those scribe-senators are all from the “right,” as Grist’s Roberts notes. But it must be added that, in America, as Gore Vidal commented, we have “one party with two right wings.” Until that’s acknowledged as the starting point for discussion, we can pout all we wish about dead climate change bills and Republican obstructionism. But that pouting is performative at best – at worst, propaganda. Cathartic, maybe, but for those concerned about a dying planet, some more honesty would be cool.

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