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Senate Climate Bill: Fight First, Then Compromise

It’s showtime!
Nearly a year after the House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey bill—and after months of Capitol Hill intrigues, cloakroom double-crosses, and whisper campaigns—the Senate is finally set to move on comprehensive climate legislation. If you’re a die-hard green, you’ve probably already seen the slew of coverage here and here about the press conference by Senators Kerry and Lieberman [Wednesday] unveiling the legislation. But, and here’s the rub: Most people aren’t die-hard greens. According to a recent Gallup poll, only about one in five of Americans surveyed would list energy and climate legislation as the highest priority for Congress. Which means that, for most voters—including the enviro-symphathetic—the fight is just getting started now.
There is still plenty of time left to influence the debate in Washington and to mold this (draft) legislation into something that progressives can honestly feel good about.
As debate gets underway, a chorus of voices are arguing (with good reason) that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Senator Kerry has a well-reasoned and thoughtful piece up on Grist laying out his strategy for getting the 60 votes needed for passage and explaining some of the hard-to-swallow compromises. Influential climate blogger Joe Romm agrees with the Kerry strategy, and says, “We need to keep our eyes on the prize: There is no Plan B.” On NPR, leading climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford said that environmentalists shouldn’t be so “pure” that they are unwilling to compromise.
No one in the environmental community (at least as far as I can tell) is under the delusion that this bill won’t include some disappointing concessions. All of the grownups in the room understand quite clearly that politics involves give and take. Yet we also need to remember that politics involves conflict. Politics is about reconciling conflicting worldviews, and struggle is a natural part of that process.
So before making compromises, environmentalists should put up a fight for what we really want.
As I said at the start, most people are just now tuning into the discussion. This is the moment when the major (and minor) green groups need to activate their members and ignite a forceful grassroots lobbying push for a bill that doesn’t have too many polluter giveaways. This is the time when all of those people on the lists of the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, NRDC, and the Center for Biological Diversity need to be pushing, and pushing hard, on their elected officials.
I’m of the school that it’s not citizen groups’ business to craft legislation; that’s the job of our legislators. Public interest groups should stick to principles and positions, and let our paid policy-makers figure out the exact policies. Former Greenpeace head John Passacantando put it best when he wrote a few weeks ago: “I didn't join the environmental movement to try and become a master dealmaker. Let's leave that to the politicians and their staff. I'm more interested in the people building a powerful swell of public support that politicians eventually have to follow. Democracy done right means politicians listen to the people.”
When it comes to the Senate climate bill, that will involve putting real pressure on the swing votes, including senators such as Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; and Democrats like Michiganers Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Jim Webb of Virginia, to name just a few of the fence-sitters. We need to try to pull the swing votes toward a better bill before conceding key points. The phone lines, email addresses, and websites of those senators and others need to be lighting up with comments demanding strong climate legislation.
And what does “strong” look like exactly? Well, that’s where things get even trickier. Should environmentalists support a bill that includes massive loan guarantees to the nuclear industry? Should they green light a law that includes billions for pie-in-the-sky carbon sequestration technologies?
There are at least two places where the green groups should hold the line.
The first is the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to enforce the Clean Air Act. While the current draft retains EPA authority over existing power plants, it still waives some Clean Air Act safeguards. Retaining complete EPA authority is a must.
Second, and more importantly, greens shouldn’t fold when it comes to offshore drilling. Obviously aware of how the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has shifted public opinion on off-shore drilling, the draft legislation says that states can veto any drilling less than 75 miles from its shores. That’s not enough. Greens should demand a full moratorium on any new offshore drilling: not just in the Gulf of Mexico or the Mid-Atlantic, but also in the Chukshi and Beaufort Seas off the coast of Alaska. This issue will be a major test of environmental organization’s muscle—and also of their principles. If the green lobby isn’t prepared to fight for a moratorium on off-shore drilling as millions of gallons of crude pollute the Gulf Coast, politicians and the public can be excused for wondering if the green groups really stand for anything.
Before accepting this legislation as a done-deal, environmentalists need to remember that this bill is already badly compromised. Its key provision—reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020—is far below what scientists say is needed to stabilize the climate.
At this point, greens shouldn’t give up anything more without a struggle. Will a battle over the Kerry-Lieberman bill give us everything we want? Of course not. But at least we’ll know that, before bending to political realities, we fought the good fight.
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica,,, E magazine, and Yes! He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. When not writing and editing, he co-manages Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest food production site.\n
This piece first appeared in the Earth Island Journal blog.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user dbking\n

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