Young Advocates Call for Framing Shift on Waxman Bill

Craig Altemose at Massachusetts Statehouse

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At 648 pages, the Waxman-Markey climate bill is a literal behemoth. But the endless page-count and dry legal jargon isn’t stopping young climate advocates who recognize the potential for movement in Washington now and want the best legislation.

The minute the discussion draft was released last month, policy groups and citizen journalists alike began gnawing through the immense document, finding the weak and strong points, and coming out with compelling analyses and demands for lawmakers in Washington.

Young people have been less than thrilled with what they’ve found, and they’re not shy about saying so.

To get a handle on what they’re thinking, and how their congressional “asks” differ from colleagues one generation removed, I talked with a number of young climate policy experts intimately familiar with the Waxman-Markey legislation. I wanted to understand their take on the bill, the political war-zone it has to fight through, and where they see young people contributing in the policy debate.

They want carbon dollars flowing into clean tech RDD&D, green jobs corps, and a portion into citizen’s hands to counter persistent Republican tantrums about increased energy costs (which GOP leaders shamefully exaggerated earlier this month).

What they don’t want is money and policy perks flowing to float the dirty energy industry – and they’re outraged that the bill is chalk full of them.

Fundamentally, they’re calling for a complete reframing of the climate debate, in two major ways.

The first deals with rhetoric around the cost of the policy. When Republicans say, “It costs too much,” and Democrats respond with, “We’ll make it cost less,” they’ve already lost the argument. The debate needs to be around “how much it can help” – how much will it stimulate the economy, how many jobs will it create, how secure will it make us, etc. And inversely – how much will a weak bill, or inaction, cost us?

The second framing critique deals with the climate movement’s unfortunately schizophrenic disconnect between our messaging and our policy prescription.

For years, we’ve been hammering the following point: climate change = red alert global catastrophe, it threatens all life on Earth and the future habitability of our planet. Yet our policy solution is nowhere near the red alert level, it lies somewhere between Velveeta cheese and Taco Bell hot sauce in terms of punch.

By asking for slow-moving emissions reductions targets far into the future, we’re sending a completely inappropriate and ultimately disempowering message for our cause – that solving climate change isn’t urgent, we’ll deal with it sometime later, and it won’t require much change from the status quo since we’ll transition so gradually. Two percent reductions per year – easy, right?

Wrong, say young advocates, whose personal future is at stake. We’ve got to go full steam ahead and transition off carbon fuels as fast as possible, with our goal not 80% by 2050 but “maximum effort”, as Holmes Hummel likes to describe. And because this bill appears to be our only shot at climate legislation this year, youth are in no position to compromise.

I’ll let their stories speak for themselves.

Jesse Jenkins, 25, is director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute. He’s been shouting the weak points of the bill over public radio and on web, and fears that without a clear focus on where the carbon dollars are going, the legislation will be prone to Republican attacks.

In failing to explain where the money raised from cap and trade will be spent, he says that the bill “has allowed Republicans to quickly and easily frame the entire debate on climate change around increased energy prices and economic costs … a fight Republicans take up with relish — and one they will surely win.”

In the recession’s economic climate, justifiable concerns about job security and costs of living amplify the effects of such attacks, and Jenkins says, could spell doom for effective legislation on carbon emissions.

That concern is echoed by Craig Altemose, a former executive committee member of the Sierra Student Coalition and now a student at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government.

Altemose, 25, contends that an effective bill should rival the economic stimulus package in both size and scope.

“We should invest hundreds of billions of dollars into solving the climate crisis—now,” he says.

A politically viable and environmentally responsible bill must recognize the economic imperative for jobs and the global urgency for climate action, he says, and connect them through a transformation to a clean energy economy.
Altemose also criticizes the current paradigm of emissions reduction policy, which focuses on far-off targets (80% reduction by 2050) betrays the urgency of the problem.

“After 9/11, did anyone go on TV and suggest we should try to reduce the number of terrorists 20% over the next 11 years, and 80% over the next 40 years? Or did we say that we needed to hunt down and catch every single terrorist as quickly as possible?

“The same needs to be true for tackling climate change. Citizens and lawmakers aren’t convinced we need to act now, because if this was truly a big problem, we would be looking to solve it now, not slowly over the course of 40 years.”

Richard Graves, the 27-year-old director of Fired Up Media, worries that the bill’s impact on state-level efficiency standards is being overlooked.

“The preemption of stronger state standards is a Trojan horse provision that could seriously hamper future efforts to strengthen the bill to science based targets, he says. “Basically, corporations and others want a uniform standard for efficiency, but this means that progressive states can’t move ahead without control of the federal government.”

The massive gains in efficiency and renewable energy standards that California pioneered, for example, would be squelched for future progressive states under the current version of the bill.

“It’s my impression that no one thinks that this bill is going to solve global warming in one go," Graves adds. "Environmental groups from within the process have argued that we can strengthen the bill later.”

Whether that’s a viable strategy is hard to predict – if the pendulum swings back towards the Republican side in 2010, beefing up the bill could be nearly impossible.

The deficiencies in the current legislation are even more problematic considering that the bill will be subject to a rough and tumble Senate debate, where Republicans will lob attacks regarding supposed economic harm inflicted by climate change legislation.

Jenkins asserts that compromises to the legislation are inevitable, likely resulting in lower, less effective carbon prices and emissions reductions. A bill without high enough carbon prices would be one without teeth – it will leave the U.S. without an effective emissions-reduction policy while simultaneously missing the opportunity to use the bill as a jumper cable for the clean energy economy.

Lack of clean energy technology investment is a central concern for young advocates, as Juliana Williams of the Sierra Student Coalition explains:

“Because the bill is currently structured around emissions reductions rather than investment in a clean energy economy, the reductions targets seem to be the most powerful force in the bill. However, these targets are not adequate for the level of reductions needed.

“If the bill is focused on investment in clean energy technologies rather than emissions reductions, we will likely make deeper and faster cuts in emissions because the immediate steps will be solutions we need. The long term goals are empty if we don’t take the first steps now.”

Another sore point is that the legislation is already “bloated with concessions to carbon-based industry”, including heavily use of carbon offsets, Jenkins says. With the future habitability of the planet in the balance, young people don’t feel that these questionable credits should be given out so easily.

Additionally, the $10 billion investment in carbon-capture and storage technology feels like a slap in the face to most activists, and indicative of the coal lobby’s thirst for dollars to provide life support for the dirty energy status quo.

Since dirty energy companies and special interests will assuredly petition for most auction permits to be given out for free in order to float their industry, young folks are worried that concessions to these interests will hamper the ultimate goal of the legislation – fast emissions reductions and a transition to a clean energy economy.

John Landefeld, a 24-year-old researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, believes that instead of reducing the efficacy of carbon pricing legislation by redistributing the proceeds to an already monopolistic and powerful dirty energy industry, lawmakers should instead explicitly pledge auction revenue towards tech investment to spur a clean energy renaissance.

While clean energy investment is vastly popular with the public, it is remarkably barren from the current bill. Why the authors of the bill aren’t jumping to make use of this abundant political capitol, is unclear. What is clear, however, is that both a substance and a messaging shift needs to occur for the bill to be environmentally and politically successful. Landefeld puts it this way:

“By changing the paradigm of this legislation and the broader debate on climate change from one of ‘how much will it hurt’ to ‘how much can it help’, Congressional Democrats can ensure an effective environmental bill and change the political dynamic in their favor – a vital win-win.”

See also:

There’s Nothing Quiet About Campus Climate Activists

Media Savvy Youth Are Blogging Coal to Death

Students Give Their Take on How Well Congress Listens

11,000 Students Flood Washington with Demand for Bold Climate Action