When Do You Compromise on Climate Change?

Katy Yan

As regional and national climate change bills continue to ebb and flow in the US, environmental groups have often found themselves split down the middle depending on how much they are willing to compromise with industry.

On the one hand, you have big green groups throwing their support behind the upcoming Kerry-Lieberman-Graham (KGL) bill (still unpublished), even though there are some glaring loopholes and red flags. These groups include Environment America, Alliance for Climate Protection, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others. Given how often federal climate legislation has stalled, perhaps getting anything passed at this point is better than no climate bill at all – at least you'd have something to work with and build on (or so the line goes).

On the other hand, groups like Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and Friends of the Earth (and an increasingly large group of activists known as Climate SOS) expect the KGL bill to be far worse than Waxman-Markey. According to Reuters' secret sources ("Details of draft climate bill in U.S. Senate," April 26), among it's problems may include:

  • Weak targets: A 17% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels, which translates to just 3% from 1990 levels. Compare that to the 25-40% below 1990 levels that the IPCC calls upon rich countries like the US to achieve.
  • Stripping EPA's powers: The EPA would be barred from regulating carbon dioxide emissions. This tops the charts as one of the most outrageous provisions. Even without comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has the tools necessary for the US to respond to the climate crisis. According to Kassie Siegel of the CBD, "The Clean Air Act can achieve everything we need," including the 40% target, perhaps enough to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius and triggering runaway climate change (i.e. more frequent and intense droughts, hurricanes, social conflicts, etc).
  • Domestic and international offsets: Like Waxman-Markey, billions of offsets will most likely be included, allowing polluters to delay transitioning to cleaner technologies.
  • Phase-in cap-and-trade (C&T): This legislation is expected to avoid using the term"cap-and-trade" (once the darling of the business world). Electric utilities would be put under the program in 2013, with manufacturers phased in in 2016.
  • State and regional C&T programs terminated: Despite critiques we've had on California's AB32 and the western US and Canada's Western Climate Initiative, they are among some of the strongest legislation we've seen in the US (AB32 is currently law, but the WCI has not yet been enacted). On the question of compromise, it's much easier to do so when your starting point (ex. AB32) is moderately strong. With all the uncertainty around the federal bill, western states in the US have starting dropping out of the WCI. A bill that would suspend AB32 in California recently claimed it had enough signatures to make it to the November ballot ("California may vote to freeze landmark climate law," May 4).

While the text for the KGL bill has not yet been published, it's time to start asking some hard questions. When do you compromise and where do you draw the line? Do you throw your support behind the underdog, the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act for instance (see Grist critique and defense), even if chances are slim it will have any political support? Do you join the big dogs and keep a bill like the KGL from getting further weakened by industry, in case that's the only bill that will ever pass? Or do you sit back and watch it all happen, as the global climate regime continues to spin out of control?

What would you do?