Because extinction shouldn't be an option!

Friday, May 14, 2010

The American Power Act Comes to Congress

Okay, so I am going to make this post relatively brief. This past Wednesday, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts unveiled his new climate bill, the American Power Act, which he collaborated on with Senators Lieberman and Graham. The bill is somewhat more progressive than I thought it would be, and it derives some of the dividend model of the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act that I have been supporting. You can view Kerry's own description of the bill on Grist here.

Though it is too soon to make a complete judgement of the bill, based on what I've read so far, and based on a teleconference I partook in with environmental leaders in D.C. yesterday spearheaded by 1Sky, I am not convinced this bill will effectively address climate change.

Though Kerry claims that the EPA will still be able to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from some of the oldest and dirtiest coal-powered plants, the bill would still essentially strip it of a great amount of its Supreme-Court mandated authority over carbon. If I am understanding it correctly, the bill would also dismantle regional and state regulations, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, here in the Northeast. Again, if I am understanding it correctly, the Clean Air Act sets certain baseline national limits for criteria pollutants that are regulated under its National Ambient Air Quality Standards. All states must adhere to the minimum standards of the federal law; however, states have autonomy under the CAA to pass more stringent laws than the national mandates. I believe as it is currently written, this bill might be undermining state autonomy to pass tougher climate laws than those proposed in the Kerry bill.

The Kerry bill also still heavily relies on offsets to achieve many of its emission targets. Offsets programs are not a valid source of emission cuts--there is no way to monitor them, and the emission decreases they are intended to achieve could take decades to a half-century to reach. We do not have that time.  Also, quite frankly, a vast majority of offset programs are usually proven to be scams. Furthermore, APA would designate authority of overseeing offset distribution to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as opposed to the EPA, setting up a fox-guarding-the-henhouse scenario.

On the issue of adaptation for poor communities both here and overseas, the Kerry bill offers a pittance of an amount, esimated to be lower than that promised by Secretary Clinton during the Copenhagan talks. Additionally, this adaptation assistance would not kick in until 2019. Though the Oxfam representative who spoke about the funding, denounced it as a "day late and a dollar short," she still declared that Oxfam ultimately supports the bill.

The Kerry bill makes the mistep of still allowing expansion of offshore drilling (though states will have the option of getting an exemption), and offers obscene giveaways to the industry, particularly for coal and nuclear. Imagine what is happening right now in the Gulf. Now imagine that was a nuclear blast instead of an oil rig explosion. We should not be enabling the perpetuation of dirty and dangerous energy sources. If we wouldn't want to live near such facilities for fear of our safety, then we should not force others to, to satiate our gluttonous demands for energy (coal and nuclear plants will inevitably be zoned in proximity to poor communities).

And here is where I am reaching an unprecedented point of frustration with the environmental movement. I understand that compromise is an intrinsic part of politics. I worked as an intern in D.C. for the environmental coalition, where I worked on campaigns through lobbying and grassroots outreach. However, the level of compromise the coalition has submitted to has become so large as to completely undermine (or even counteract) their efforts. When dealing with the issue of endangered land or species, sometimes it makes sense to allow the sacrifice of some parcels of land, or X amount of species in a certain region to save it from overall extinction. This logic does not apply to climate change. We have a very short timeframe with which to make the cuts necessary to avert catasrophic climate change. We cannot compromise with the hard laws of the physical universe, but we think we can. I have been called naive for pushing for a harder bill...I have been told that I do not understand the "reality" of this. Because we have reached a point where our politics and our money is somehow more real to us that the planet and its tipping points. We do not understand that we cannot bribe or blackmail it, or meet it half-way. We do not seem to understand that it was around for billions of years before us, and will be here long after we are gone.

This isn't about saving the planet. This is about saving us. But we're too stupid to see that.

The other day I was informed by a member of the environmental lobby that though they have deep reservations with the Kerry bill, and believe that the Cantwell-Collins bill is superior in terms of achieving more realistic progress on addressing climate change, that they will still support the Kerry bill. The reasoning for this support is this: the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries (the sectors largely accountable for anthropogenic climate change), do not support the CLEAR Act because they don't have influence in it. The politicians do not want to offend the corporations, and most amazingly, the environmental movement does not want to pressure the politicians to thumb their noses at the corporations. The environmental coalition that we have entrusted with protecting and advocating us is basically abandoning its (our) ideals to compromise with corporations. This movement has forgotten its roots. No important paradigm shift in our civilization has occurred if not from the bottom up. But the movement now works from the top down, allowing industries to decide our future instead of putting them in their places.

I see this move as a direct result of January's Supreme Court ruling that audaciously declared that corporations should be afforded the rights of individuals and their money equated with speech. The American people have been outspent because they don't speak in dollar signs.

Surely, surely, we must see the problem here?

We cannot let corporations write our climate bills. By doing so, they are writing our death certificate as a species. The same day Kerry released his bill, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) released a report that declared that unless the world takes quick, "radical and creative action" to conserve our planet's biodiversity, that the ecosystems that support human populations are at risk of a complete, collective collapse. The Kerry bill distracts us from such action with the same old tired politics.

So, where is the hope here? My time working with the environmental lobby overlapped with one of the most rabidly anti-environmental administrations and Congresses in recent history (2005-2006: During the heydays of the Bush Administration and when the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate). During that time, we had a number of large environmental victories even when mainstream environmental reporters smugly stated our efforts were in vain. This shows that the environmental coalition, if and when it decides to stick to its guns and dig in its heels, is capable of performing political miracles.

Yet, ironically, with Democratic control of both Congressional Houses and a Democratic President who is relatively amendable to environmental progress, we find our political and environmental leaders rendered almost impotent. They can't get it up to meet the challenge of climate change.

I would argue that it's because we feel we need to play nice with the Dems. And, of course, the Democrats have always been soft-spined. Well, I don't think this is the time for that.

We need to remind the environmental coalition that it is responsible for protecting our interests, not that of the politicians', and certainly not that of the corporate sector. They need to be holding Congress' feet to the fire on this, instead of giving them ego strokes. We cannot broker deals with the bad guys in this case--what would today's nation be like if we let our politicians sit down with segregationalists and broker a deal on civil rights? Too much is at stake here.

If they cannot come around, those of us consumed with concern about our warming world will need to part ways with our environmental coalition, which may simply be too entrenched in the political atmosphere to understand whose side they are on.

For more on the American Power Act, please check out:

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