The following on air debate was moderated by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, the day after a new climate bill was introduced into the Senate.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the pros and cons of the proposed climate and energy legislation introduced by Senators Kerry and Lieberman, we now host a debate on the American Power Act.
Phil Radford is executive director of Greenpeace USA. In a statement released Wednesday, he called it, quote, “largely a dirty energy bailout bill.” He joins us from Washington, DC.
And for a more optimistic view of the bill’s potential, we’re joined by Joseph Romm, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. A former acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy during the Clinton administration, he edits the blog “Climate Progress.” His latest book is Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Joseph Romm. Why do you like this bill?
JOSEPH ROMM: Well, this will be the first bill ever passed by the Senate, if it were to pass, that would put us on a path to get off of fossil fuels. It requires, over four decades, an 80 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.
The other critical piece of this—this was something that Senator Kerry emphasized—was we need to pass a bill that enables us to meet our commitment that Obama made at Copenhagen. Pretty much every other country in the world is ready to take action, and we’re the only ones that are holding up a global deal. So if we can pass this bill, there can be a global deal that finally addresses the grave threat posed by global warming. If we can’t pass this bill, then I’m afraid I don’t see much prospect for a global deal.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Phil Radford, your main concerns about the legislation, as reported out by Kerry and Lieberman?
PHIL RADFORD: Well, I think that this bill possibly jeopardizes a global deal. You have Western Europe committing to cutting pollution by 30 percent below 1990 levels, and this bill cuts it by three. So we’re doing one-tenth of what other countries are planning to do. And that really weak pledge that President Obama made last year in Copenhagen made so many people so angry that it basically blew apart the negotiations.
I think the bill basically just needs to get stronger. The problems are the pollution isn’t cut enough. While the oil spill disaster did take some of the oil provisions out, there are still incentives for states to drill for oil. And then, another crisis just happened. In New Jersey, radioactive tritium just leaked into the aquifer from a nuclear plant. It’s getting in people’s groundwater. Hopefully that disaster can show people that we’re really gambling with our children’s future when we’re giving tens of billions of dollars to nuclear energy in this bill.
AMY GOODMAN: Joseph Romm, your response?
JOSEPH ROMM: Well, there’s no question the bill should be stronger, but Phil’s characterization of what happened in Copenhagen is not accurate. The fact is that the Chinese didn’t want to deal, and Obama came in at the last minute and personally negotiated a deal, and he brought a commitment that is matched in this bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. So, if we can pass this bill, there’s a chance at a global deal.
But there is no question that—there’s no plan B. There’s no plan B. If this bill doesn’t pass—and this is something that Al Gore has said many times, and so has Senator Kerry—then we’re kind of left with business as usual.
Now, I think it’s important for people to understand that this bill could easily be stronger. And I think it would be great if we could strengthen it on the Senate floor. But the primary thing we need is a shrinking cap on greenhouse gas emissions and a rising price on pollution. And that is what will incentivize a transition to a clean energy economy.
We have—the environmental community has, for decades, tried to figure out how to pass a law that would start shutting down existing dirty coal plants, and they have failed to do so. This is the first bill that’s ever been put before the Senate that has a possible chance of passing that would actually start shutting down existing coal plants.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Phil Radford, several major environmental groups have given some qualified support to this bill. The Environmental Defense Fund put out a statement, said that it contains strong goals for reducing carbon emissions and protecting the climate, significant consumer protections against cost increases, and provisions to boost domestic energy production with environmental safeguards. And also the Natural Resources Defense Council came out and said the draft legislation gets us moving in the right direction. Where do you think that these groups are wrong?
PHIL RADFORD: Well, I think—I think the tepid endorsement that most environmental groups have given to this bill just reinforces Greenpeace’s argument, which is that this bill has very little to do with what scientists say we need to do. I agree with Joe, this is a step. It’s, at best, a very small baby step.
But the real issue is that we need to cut pollution by about 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2015, and this doesn’t get us anywhere close to that. And so, while it’s a baby step, Congress is busy negotiating with themselves, when really we just can’t negotiate with physics. We can’t negotiate with the fact that scientists say that if we don’t address this problem really quickly and cut pollution by up to 40 percent within the next five years or so, then we’re likely going to have far less water in the Southeast and in Atlanta for people to drink. We’re likely to lose anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of the world’s species in the next century.
And so, while Congress negotiates with itself and decides whether or not they want oil or how many baby steps they take on cutting pollution or whether or not to threaten more aquifers like New Jersey’s with nuclear power, scientists are saying, “Wait a minute, you can’t negotiate with nature. You need to do something more serious.”
And so, I think that’s why you see groups like NRDC and EDF very tepidly say this seems OK. But I think the entire environmental community agrees, if we want to stop global warming, this needs to get much stronger very quickly.
AMY GOODMAN: What, Phil Radford, would be your version of a climate bill? What would satisfy you?
PHIL RADFORD: Well, I think—I think the first thing is that we just need to take more serious steps to get off of oil. I think that we—by 2020, we could have 30 percent of our fleet plug-in electric or plug-in hybrid. By 2030, we could have 90 percent. We should just get there now.
I think the second thing is that we need to really have a price on carbon. While everybody tells you that there’s a price on carbon, what they don’t tell you is the price on carbon is so low that utilities will be making money off of it, but it won’t drive clean energy investments, because the price is so low.
And so, there are a lot of provisions here that need to be strengthened. The requirements for clean energy in the bills are either equal to or less than what states are already doing. So when people tell you this will produce clean energy jobs in the next decade, it’s just barely or completely untrue. And so, there are a lot of provisions in here, if we really want a bill that addresses the environment and global warming, that need to be significantly strengthened.
AMY GOODMAN: Who has the ears of these senators, Phil Radford?
PHIL RADFORD: Well, I think a lot of people do. I think, unfortunately, they’ve listened too much to the coal companies, to the nuclear companies, to the natural gas companies, to the offshore oil drilling companies.
And they haven’t listened enough to the people who say, “You know what? I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they don’t get to see 35 percent of the world’s species or where we’re still sending our sons and daughters overseas for wars for oil.” And I think if politicians listen more to those people instead of the polluters, we’d have a much stronger bill.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Joe Romm, what about this whole issue of nuclear energy and the incentives for more nuclear plants in the United States, given the—obviously the Obama administration itself supports that, but there are many Americans still who remember that just like maybe it took a few decades for a major oil spill in the Gulf, it was only a few decades ago that we had a major nuclear accident here in the United States at Three Mile Island?
JOSEPH ROMM: Well, anyone who reads my blog “Climate Progress” knows that I don’t think nuclear power is going to be one of the major solutions going forward. It’s just too darn expensive. There are a lot of risks to it, too. But right now, it is just staggeringly expensive. There are, you know, I think, pointless subsidies in this bill for about a dozen new plants. I don’t know if we’ll ever build those plants, because they’re so expensive.
But, you know, the bottom line is, we don’t get to write the bill.
And this was something that Senator Kerry made very clear yesterday. It’s not the bill he would write if he were king. But you need to get sixty votes in the Senate. So I think we can all sit here and imagine the perfect bill, but the fact is, in this political climate, it’s going to be very hard to even get this bill passed. So I guess the choice is, we can sort of keep doing what we’re doing, which is catastrophic, or we can start the process of pushing clean energy into the marketplace, getting off of foreign oil, and putting a penalty on pollution.
I’d like to do more, you know, and don’t get me wrong. Anyone who reads “Climate Progress” knows I would like a much stronger bill. But if you don’t start, then you certainly never get anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Joseph Romm, editor of “Climate Progress,” senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. And Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
(Republished with permission of Democracy Now!)