To Get Principled Actions, Start with Strong Principles

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Momentum appears to be building in Congress for another attempt to put a price on U.S. carbon emissions before the international community convenes in Copenhagen this December.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, announced last week that she hopes to have a cap-and-trade bill blessed by her committee by the end of the year. She also unveiled a list of principles that her committee’s climate legislation will follow.

Her announcement left room for criticism. Action advocates wished Boxer had been more specific about goals for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, if we want Uncle Sam to wow the world with new-found religion on climate action and to do so in time for the U.S. to take its seat at Copenhagen in a morally upright position, then a committee vote by year’s end will be too little too late.

A better goal would be affirmative votes by the House and Senate well before Copenhagen, along with aggressive, progressive energy legislation and continuing bold action by the Obama administration this spring and summer.

Still, if we want principled action, principles are a good place to start. Let’s take a look at some of the principles offered so far.

Sen. Boxer’s principles for climate change legislation:

1. Reduce emissions to levels guided by science to avoid dangerous global warming.

2. Set short- and long-term emissions targets that are certain and enforceable.

3. Ensure states continue pioneering efforts to address global warming.

4. Establish a transparent and accountable market-based system that efficiently reduces carbon emissions.

5. Use revenues from the carbon market to: keep consumers whole as our nation transitions to clean energy; invest in clean energy technologies and energy efficiency measures; help states, communities, workers, and businesses adapt to global warming impacts and transition to a clean energy economy; work with the international community to help developing nations respond to global warming.

6. Ensure a level global playing field by providing incentives and deterrents so all countries do their share.

These will be a hard sell. A climate bill truly guided by science, for example, would cause U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to peak and begin a rapid decline by 2015. That would require a radical turnaround by our economy.

All the vested interests that will be affected by carbon pricing, including big emitters and fossil energy producers, will define a “transparent and accountable” trading system as one that includes more protections for them than for the atmosphere. The tendency will be to fill the bill with off-ramps, price caps and giveaways that make the trading system neither transparent nor accountable.

The prospect of billions of dollars in new government revenues from carbon pricing will set off a feeding frenzy among constituents who want some of the money. The desire to send much or all of the revenues back to the American people to make carbon pricing more politically palatable will compete with the other worthy investments Boxer identified.

But I’m quite sure that when she took the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Boxer didn’t mistake it for a rose garden. If she improves the principles and sticks to them, they can be the standard against which this year’s climate legislation should be judged.

What kind of improvements?

The Presidential Climate Action Project proposed these criteria for good carbon pricing:

1. Cover all six greenhouse gases;

2. Reduce emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and 20-30 percent by 2020;

3. Auction 100 percent of the emission allowances;

4. Be transparent, simple and relatively inexpensive to administer;

5. Cover the entire economy;

6. Be flexible, with some mechanism for review and adjustment without further congressional action;

7. Be compatible with whatever international carbon-control mechanism the international community develops;

8. Measure carbon reductions in absolute tons rather than carbon intensity (emissions per dollar of GDP);

9. Reward early adopters.

Another set of good criteria is the Wingspread Principles on the U.S. Response to Global Warming, which I wrote in 2006 based on the counsel of 40 national experts who met at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread Conference Center in Wisconsin.

With very little publicity, the principles have been signed by scores of experts, business people, elected officials and lay citizens.

The Wingspread Principles are:

Urgency: Every year that we delay action to reduce emissions makes the problem more painful and more expensive – and makes the unavoidable consequences more severe. Leaders in government, business, labor and religion must rally the American people to action.

Effective Action: The U.S. must set enforceable limits on greenhouse gas emissions to significantly reduce them within the next 10 years. Experience proves that voluntary measures alone cannot solve the problem. Aggressive government action, including mandates based on sound science, is imperative.

Consistency and Continuity of Purpose: Climate stabilization requires sustained action over several decades to achieve deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy. Leaders in both government and civil society must shape policies and institutions that ensure sustained climate protection.

Opportunity: Mitigating and adapting to global warming offer the opportunity to create a new energy economy that is cleaner, cheaper, healthier and more secure. We must awaken America’s entrepreneurial spirit to capture this opportunity.

Predictability: Measures that signal investors, corporate decision makers and consumers of the certainty of future reductions are essential to change the economy.

Flexibility: Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions demand and will drive innovation. Our economy will innovate most efficiently if it is given the flexibility to achieve ambitious goals through a variety of means, including market-based incentives and/or trading.

Everyone Plays: Measures to stabilize the climate must change the behaviors of business, industry, agriculture, government, workers and consumers. All sectors and the public must be engaged in changing both infrastructure and social norms.

Multiple Benefits: Actions to stabilize, mitigate or adapt to global warming should be considered alongside other environmental, economic and social imperatives; for example, "smart growth" practices that conserve forests and farmland while reducing the use of transportation fuels.

Accurate Market Signals: The true and full societal costs of greenhouse gas emissions, now often externalized, should be reflected in the price of goods and services to help consumers make more informed choices and to drive business innovation. Policymakers should eliminate perverse incentives that distort market signals and exacerbate global warming.

Prudent Preparation: Mounting climatic changes already are adversely affecting public health and safety as well as America’s forests, water resources, and fish and wildlife habitat. As the nation works to prevent the most extreme impacts of global warming, we also must prepare for the changes already underway.

International Solutions: U.S. government and civil society must act now to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of the actions of other nations. Because greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change are global, however, the ultimate solutions also must be global. The U.S. must reengage constructively in the international process.

Fairness: We must strive for solutions that are fair among people, nations and generations.

Congress can find more useful bricks for the foundation of climate legislation in the “State of the Climate” message the Presidential Climate Action Project submitted to President Bush before his final State of the Union address in January 2008.

The "State of the Climate" message has been signed by many of the nation’s distinguished leaders in climate science and policy, including John Holdren, now President Obama’s advisor on science and technology. It’s worth reading in its entirety, but here are some highlights.

Highlights from the "State of the Climate" message:

We must recognize that global climate change is an issue that transcends politics and partisanship.

We must accept that while climate science is complex, our options are simple. We have three: We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep the impacts of climate change from growing far worse, we can adapt to the changes already underway, or we can suffer.

We must recognize that national climate policy and national energy policy are inextricably linked. Public policy must support only those technologies and resources that simultaneously stabilize the climate and enhance national energy security.

We must acknowledge that global climate change is more than an environmental issue. It affects national security, economics, public health, humanitarian issues and moral issues.

We must protect the Earth’s natural ecological systems, particularly forests, which are the lungs of the planet and play a critical role in sequestering greenhouse gases.

We must not wait for other nations to go first. The United States will have little influence on other nations until we lead by example with a credible, comprehensive domestic program.

We must break the grip of special interests that are working to perpetuate the technologies, resources and practices that served us well in the past but that now threaten our future.

We must restore federal funding for Earth sciences,engage the talents of our best scientists and engineers, and restore respect for science in the federal government.

We must redefine "clean" and think long-term. Each product and energy resource must be evaluated for climate impact over its entire life cycle.

Finally, we must recognize that global climate change is the leadership issue of our time. Given the long lag time involved in reducing atmospheric concentrations of carbon, we cannot procrastinate any longer. This is indeed the defining moment for each of us as voters and consumers, for our generation, for our leaders, and for our world. We must not fail.

These are the standards our leaders must embrace and hold on to if we are to close the gap between politics and science with a truly principled response to the climate and energy crises.