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The Battle Over the New Climate Bill

Today, hundreds of citizens are on the forefront of the climate movement; 20 years ago, in the summer of 1989, the fight against global warming had only two well-known spokespeople: Senator Al Gore and NASA Scientist Jim Hansen.  (Bill McKibben, now at the helm of the indispensable, joined this august roster with the publication of The End of Nature).  Recently, I was lucky enough to hear each of them share their strong opinions about American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), the House’s energy and climate bill that just passed in a 219-212 squeaker.  Their opinions diverge, but together Gore and Hansen map out the movement’s next critical steps. At a mid-May gathering in Nashville, Gore fired up hundreds of climate troops on behalf of ACES.  The bill is many ways a dream come true for Gore and others who have been in this fight almost from the get-go:
  • It sets the aggressive target of 83% emissions reductions (compared to 2005) by 2050, and a modest but acceptable target of 17% by 2020
  • With a permit system, it places an economy-wide cap on emissions; to minimize costs, it gives polluters the right to trade these permits.
  • It sets a federal renewable electricity and efficiency standard and prioritizes investments in a smart grid and other necessary technologies.
In short, this is the kind of bill that was not even a remote possibility for most of the last 20 years.  Sure it’s full of disappointments and potential loopholes: it’s far from the ‘100% auction’ of emissions permits that President Obama has called for, and the 2 billion tons of emissions offsets are a real concern. But Gore’s case is simple: “ACES is not the last step, but it is the necessary first step.” Yet if you are giddy about this bill, Jim Hansen’s assessment should give pause.  During his keynote address at our ‘Getting to 350’ workshop at Middlebury College, he minced no words: “ACES will be a disaster.”  Hansen’s argument hinges around, among other things, the dark-side of the market forces that underlie the bill’s cap-and-trade provision. But Hansen’s biggest worry is that ACES does not put coal in the bull’s-eye.  For as his current work illustrates, atmospheric CO2 can peak by mid-century if the global economy rapidly transitions away from coal.  With a coordinated global effort to change forestry and farming practices, we can then be on a path back to 350 ppm. To get on this path, Hansen calls for a carbon tax and research into “4th generation nuclear power” (as well as carbon capture and storage.)  But above all, he calls for a moratorium on coal – which ACES in no way supports.  In fact, the prices of coal stocks jumped up in the last week as investors realized that coal’s future is not in doubt here in the US.  This is depressing stuff. And yet on ACES, I fall into the Gore camp.  We need a climate bill, fast – in part to be credible at the December meeting of global climate negotiators in Copenhagen.  And as enamored as I am by alternatives to cap-and-trade – I’m a big fan of cap-and-dividend – I think that the goals of ACES are essentially the right ones, and the approach has the potential to work. That’s the key – the potential.  Just as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 did not represent anything close to the final victory for racial justice in the US, climate movement activists will not be able to rest if President Obama signs a bill like ACES in the fall.  Indeed, it is at that point that each of us will need to redouble our efforts – in particular, in the fight against coal. And like Hansen, I believe that the key lever of that fight is to take on mountain top removal.  For in shedding light on this injustice, the broader, multi-generational injustices associated with coal will also come to light.  Credit goes to Hansen and other dedicated activists: see this (at times chilling) video of what they faced last week in getting arrested last week in Coal River Valley.  More mass arrests are in the works; all of us should be involved. (Learn more at and In a note that just went out to all supporters of Energy Action, Jessy Tolkan – certainly the embodiment of this next generation of climate leaders – wrote: “The fight for bold federal climate and energy policy has only just begun. We need to make sure that the Senate passes a MUCH stronger version of this bill in the fall.”  I say amen to that!  And right now, let’s all offer up our support to those who are fighting the injustices associated with coal extraction, use and disposal.