The bill may not be up to the task it was supposedly designed to accomplish — drastically reducing our greenhouse gas emissions over the next four decades and kick-starting a transition to a renewable energy economy. But it does represent the most serious attempt to date at the national level to tackle climate change. I hope fervently that the supporters of Waxman-Markey are right: that this is just a first step in the right direction, and that if it is ultimately signed into law other countries will no longer be able to justify dragging their feet by saying that the U.S. is failing to take climate change seriously.
I also fear that if the legislation fails, we will not see another serious national effort at tackling climate change for a long time to come. It’s too bad that this is the reality of the situation — it’s too bad that a stronger, less overwhelmingly complex bill is politically impossible. But I’ve come to accept that this probably the best we can do for now.
As readers of this blog probably know, my concern about the legislation is that it is incredibly complex and too weak. On the latter point, the cost of carbon seems to be too low to get the job done. But you’d never know that from the debate being waged in Congress and in the blogosphere. Republicans are making disgraceful claims about the cost of the legislation, while climate activists are hammering home the point that the legislation would impose very modest costs on Americans. Republicans are saying, for example, that Waxman-Markey would raise the cost of gasoline by 77 cents a gallon by 2020, whereas there is reason to believe the real figure is closer to 20 cents per gallon. (For a good analysis of these numbers, with accompanying primary source documentation, see Joe Romm’s post here.)
But does anyone really believe that a hike of 20 cents per gallon is going to have a significant effect on American drivers?
I agree with Thomas Friedman on this point:
Imposing an immediate “Freedom Tax” of $1 a gallon on gasoline — with rebates to the poor and elderly — would be a triple positive: It would stimulate more investment in renewable energy now; it would stimulate more consumer demand for the energy-efficient vehicles that the reborn General Motors and Chrysler are supposed to make; and, it would reduce our oil imports in a way that would surely affect the global price and weaken every petro-dictator.
But I’ve been writing about climate change and energy, teaching about climate change and energy, and haranguing friends and family about climate change and energy since 1982, and if Waxman-Markey passes today, it will really be the first time in all those years that I will be able to say we’ve gotten serious about the issues on a national level. (I know that some will excoriate me for using that word “serious,” so I hope we can have that debate next.)
I’ll also have mixed emotions, because I’ll know just how tentative a step we will have taken.