Monday, June 29, 2009

The Art of the Possible

Sausage Factory, CC BY 2.0When all is said and done there's a lot more said than done.

This is especially true in politics and sadly is becoming only too true as the legislative sausage factory grinds out the American Climate and Energy Security ("Waxman-Markey") bill, HR 2454. President Obama hailed the US House vote in favor:

The energy bill before the House will finally create a set of incentives that will spark a clean energy transformation of our economy....

This legislation will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy. That will lead to the creation of new businesses and entire new industries. And that will lead to American jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), was considerably less eloquent, calling it a "pile of shit." (via)

The bill next goes to the Senate, where opposition is stronger and prospects for passage perilous at best. Opponents attack from both sides. Most Republicans, so-called Blue Dog Democrats, the US Chamber of Commerce, and many business interest groups fret that it will cost jobs or amount to a tax on the economy that will further impair economic recovery or worse. Most of their arguments are appeals to emotion, however, and a factual review of their claims shows virtually all to be distortions or outright lies. Many progressive Democrats and some environmental interest groups worry that the bill has become so eviscerated by compromise that it is worse than no bill at all:
At the heart of the issue is a belief among some progressives that the bill's standard for carbon emission reductions have been set too low, and that the measure itself is too easy on both the coal industry and farmers. Already, according to Hill aides, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has said that he will not support the bill regardless of whether his own amendments are approved. High-ranking officials involved with whipping votes tell the Huffington Post that there are at least three or four other liberals who are withholding their support.
Kucinich voted against it. Others, such as Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) ended up voting yea. There's no dispute that the bill passed by the House is significantly weaker than the one first envisioned. Many carbon allowances were given away to industry groups and utilities (although not as many to the oil and gas industry as they would have liked). The Renewable Energy Standard targets were watered down.

For me, the largest criticism of the bill is that it devotes far too little funding for renewable energy R&D (via):
The legislation will be voted on at a time when China, Korea, and Japan are all investing large sums to create domestic clean energy industries. China will invest $300 -- $600 billion over the next 10 years in solar, wind, nuclear power, high speed rail, and electric cars. South Korea, with an economy 1/10th the size of the U.S., has pledged to spend $40 billion over the next four years on renewable energy programs. And Japan, which already leads the world in hybrid engine and solar panel technologies, has pledged to cut its domestic reduction of carbon emissions, already among the lowest in the world on a GDP per capita basis, a further 15% through the deployment of renewable energy technology. The three nations meet in August to develop a strategy to combine China's low-cost manufacturing the Korea and Japan's engineering know-how.
As a presidential candidate, Barrack Obama promised repeatedly to invest $150B over 10 years on innovative renewable energy technology. Waxman-Markey appears to be the obvious vehicle to fulfill the bulk of that commitment, yet the money is not there: at best, it allocates $6B to $9B rather than the full $15B per year many of us had hoped to see. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ("ARRA") allocates an additional $32.6B over ten years [pdf] for renewable energy R&D, smart grid, demonstration projects, and battery research; however, taken together the total still falls short.

So the rhetoric is not matching the reality, begging the question is the bill worth supporting? Will defeating it lead to a better piece of legislation or doom all progress on climate change and government support for renewable energy? There are a lot of potential reasons to vote against this bill and its many shortcomings and imperfections. Could the bill be better? Oh yes, in dozens of ways. Should it be defeated so as to start afresh and craft a better bill? The history of efforts at healthcare reform are instructive, as they closely parallel this new, massive, and critically needed effort.

Defeat of Waxman-Markey will ensure years of subsequent inaction on climate change and real energy security, which delay would be absolutely catastrophic for the country and the planet. It would also embolden opponents and calcify their intransigence. No later bill will likely be better rather than worse, if one were to emerge at all.

Imperfect as it is, Congrees should pass Waxman-Markey, strengthening it as much as can politically be done, and then promptly get to work to enact further, and better legislation. This is not the time to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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