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Lessons from Congress’ last big battle on climate

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As momentum builds for climate action in the U.S., the Green New Deal has guaranteed that climate will be a major issue in the next election. States are passing aggressive clean energy laws nearly every monthThree-quarters of Republicans under 40 would be more likely to support a candidate backing a bipartisan carbon price.

But will that momentum turn into action in Congress? The American Clean Energy and Security Act, the only comprehensive climate legislation ever to pass a chamber of Congress, holds lessons for us today, a decade later.   

At the time, I was a House Energy and Commerce Committee staffer working on the bill, also known as Waxman-Markey. It was named in part for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who claimed the committee chairmanship in 2008.

All the research and wrangling produced legislation that passed the House of Representatives 219-212 on June 26, 2009 and could have put us on a trajectory to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050.

Alas, like so many critical bills, it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate and was abandoned when control of the House flipped, and a decade of congressional inaction began.

Today’s legislators and climate activists can learn from what worked and where that bill came up short:

First, we can do more than we think. A decade ago, there were intense discussions about the bill’s emissions reduction target for 2020.  Had we understood how quickly costs for renewable energy could fall, we could have done far more.

Where policymakers have put a price on carbon, the same pattern shows up — emissions reductions are less expensive than anticipated. With expert warnings and real-life climate impacts becoming more dire by the day, there’s little reason to listen to industry’s overblown claims about aggressive targets. 

Second, Republicans are no longer the party of business. In 2009, staff worked hard to align the bill with a framework laid out by a coalition that included Shell, GM, DuPont, Duke Energy and others. Ultimately, only eight House Republicans showed the courage to side with industry leaders. 

Despite the chorus of businesses now calling for action on climate, Republican leadership still prefers denial or vague calls for “innovation” — all while blocking the kinds of policies that would make that innovation possible.  Businesses and activists need to help the public understand how out-of-touch the party dogma has become.

Third, the worst polluters will fight dirty. Expect them to trot out the same Chicken-Little arguments about damage to the economy that the industry has used since the 1970s and to spend hundreds of millions lobbying. 

It won’t stop there. In 2009, coal lobbyists hired a firm that forged letters opposing the legislation that appeared to be from minority groups. This playbook is still open; just last year another energy company hired actors to support a new fossil-fuel plant in a minority neighborhood.

Fourth, as Green New Deal supporters know, addressing climate change requires improving many laws and regulations. Reporters loved to refer to Waxman-Markey as a “cap-and-trade” bill. While it did establish a cap-and-trade program, it also contained stronger building codes, programs to prepare communities for climate impacts, and a host of other smart policies.

Even so, there was still a need to reform flood insurance, agricultural incentives, transportation funding and tax credits to align with our climate goals. Not every bill in Congress is a “climate bill,” but nearly every major bill can make changes that support a rapid and just transition to a clean economy and a stable climate.

Finally, you have to have the votes. Activists are right to demand ambitious policy but, at the end of the day, bills that don’t pass can’t reduce emissions. Policy windows where big changes can happen are small and can close unexpectedly.

Passing Waxman-Markey involved compromises, but still preserved essential goals. This kind of balance will be critical for legislation that can pass. We need to be working every day to ensure the next election produces a president and Congress ready to take the bold action the public wants. Legislators need to be working to ensure those policies are ready to go.  We can’t afford to look back on another decade of inaction.

Alex Barron, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Smith College. He previously worked as professional staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and as deputy associate administrator in the Office of Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Tags Alex Barron carbon emissions Carbon pricing Climate change Environment Henry Waxman

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