On emissions legislation, lawmakers should step up

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JULY 02, 2009 7:20 AM

Two percent — only 2 percent — is the margin by which one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever to come before Congress narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives last week. By a margin of 219-212 the House passed a piece of legislation that will, for the first time, address climate change by reducing carbon emissions. Seven votes (2 percent!?!?) separated passage of a bill attempting to mitigate carbon emissions from the world’s second highest emitter of CO2 and number one emitter of CO2 per capita. The American Clean Energy and Security Act calls for a 17 percent reduction in carbon from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 83 percent reduction by 2050.

What makes this so distressing is not that the vote passed almost entirely upon partisan lines or that those opposing the bill reasoned that global warming was a complete conspiracy concocted by the many scientists coalescing to conspire and concoct from all over the world. What troubles me — and what should trouble you — is not that congressional leadership of that same opposition called the bill “a pile of shit.” What truly saddens me is that there were 212 members of Congress who’d rather put their narrow parochial interests above doing what is right and necessary for the United States and the world at an absolutely critical time.

This bill wasn’t just about the United States addressing climate change. Climate change is a global challenge, and to effectively meet this challenge it’ll take the international community working together. To effectively address climate change, we’ll need developed nations working with developing nations and rising powers such as China and India to make sacrifices. We’ll need non-governmental organizations engaging policymakers and informing the public. To effectively address climate change each and every one of us, John or Jane Q citizens of the world will have to think differently and change. Climate change is maybe the one issue unlike any other that will test our capacity to overcome differences, bridge divides, and find commonality in our common humanity.

Although the bill that passed the House and that is on its way to the Senate is a weaker bill than what was originally proposed, it’s significant in that a year ago, this bill would probably have had no chance of passing. And fair-minded critics correctly point out that in the short term this will increase costs for consumers and businesses and maybe this isn’t the right time to do something like this while we are in the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Fair point, yet the bill does account for the pain that such cost increases might have on certain individuals, particularly on low-income households.

But at the end of the day, and during the final roll call for the vote, those reasons were simply obfuscating the fundamental issue and reality at hand. Fact: Climate change is happening. Fact: It is largely caused by what we are doing. And, fact: Staving off catastrophe will require us to do something different right now, at this moment in history, before it’s too late.

In December of this year, the United Nations will convene a conference on climate change in Copenhagen. Government officials from all across the world will join non-governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations in an effort to lay out a global framework that will replace the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon emissions. Coming out of Copenhagen with an agreement by all parties that can then be taken back to each country and implemented will be a very difficult task. Yet we are living in a moment and we have an opportunity to really do something significant. Passage of a law that seriously addresses climate change in the United States will give us leverage with countries like China and India to adopt emission cuts and targets as well as set an international standard for the world to follow. Unfortunately 212 members of the U.S. House of Representatives shrank from a moment for the United States to show true leadership or quite possibly they just don’t even get it.

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