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The Moral Imperative to Drop Carbon Trading: An Open Letter to Al Gore

by Gary Houser

"Most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon - with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution. This is by far the most effective and simplest way to accelerate solutions to this crisis."

- from Al Gore's the Nobel Lecture (2007)

At the 11th hour, when many thought all hope of a climate bill was being crushed by the onslaught of the fossil fuel lobby, a new opportunity has arisen which actually has a chance to break the logjam and find bipartisan support. As the prospect of a trillion dollar market in carbon trading becomes increasingly identified with the same kind of manipulation schemes on Wall Street that brought on the nation's financial collapse, Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman have been forced to re-open the process and consider alternative approaches. Your historic position of leadership on this issue places you in a unique position to influence the process toward a bill that can truly rein in emissions before the crossing of irreversible tipping points that cause the crisis to spin out of human control.

Before there was widespread awareness, you demonstrated the courage of conviction and did not hesitate to be a "voice in the wilderness" sounding the warning even when few listened. Your willingness to do so was a mark of true leadership, and gained the respect of many. Given this history, many have hoped you would once again provide such leadership in leading Congress out of its present quagmire.

In your recent op-ed in the New York Times (Feb.27), you articulate a spirited and needed defense of climate science against the extremist deniers and fossil fuel industry hacks that are taking a tiny handful of data errors and using them to fuel an orchestrated attack on the credibility of the overwhelming mountain of evidence in favor of human-caused climate disruption. You also rightly decry those "entrenched" interests that "are ferociously fighting against the mildest regulation - just as tobacco companies blocked constraints on the marketing of cigarettes for four decades after science confirmed the link of cigarettes to diseases of the lung and the heart."

But it was disheartening to continue reading and discover you are once again defending the very same tragically weakened legislation in the House which has been systematically dismembered by these same entrenched interests. In order to gain passage, the original Waxman-Markey bill became so riddled with giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that its essence was gutted. Carbon polluters are being allowed to game the system and "buy their way out" by obtaining unverifiable "offsets" in the Third World. The fundamentally important ability of the EPA to regulate carbon would be dismantled. Speculators on Wall Street would be enabled to play a phantom-like "shell game" involving the trading of "rights to pollute", where the bottomline is not protection of the planet but rather profit margins. The end result is that actual emission reductions would be delayed for 15 to 20 years, and the urgent warnings of the climate scientists completely ignored.

In the world of politics, it is said that compromise is a necessity. But you also know that the laws of physics are inexorable and cannot be placed "on hold" while vested interests are allowed to destroy any meaningful restrictions placed on them. You know from the science that our options are limited and that our time to act is fast running out.

For many years, you have championed the approach known as "carbon fee and dividend" which would require polluters to pay a steadily increasing fee for the carbon they emit and then return the revenue generated directly to the American people. Even though the fossil fuel industry would likely pass the added costs to the consumer, the dividends would allow recipients who shift their lifestyles toward less consumption of carbon to be able to retain more of this money. It would be a win - win. Incentive is provided for the mainstream economy to shift in the required direction, while a much needed cash stimulus at the grassroots level assists those willing to take part in the "clean energy revolution".

Even at the auspicious moment when you were receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, you shared your strong support for this approach. It would also be far simpler (40 pages rather than 1400), far more transparent, eliminate Wall Street manipulation, preserve the regulatory ability of the EPA, and ensure actual emission reduction rather than allow the escape route of unverifiable offsets.

An alternative bill introduced by Senators Cantwell (Democrat) and Collins (Republican) - entitled the "CLEAR" Act - incorporates features similar to that of carbon fee and dividend. It does not set strong enough targets for emission reduction and contains other aspects that need to be strengthened, but it supplies an excellent starting point that can be developed into truly meaningful legislation. It already has a Republican co-sponsor, and its inclusion of a dividend distributed directly back to the American people is attracting other Republican interest. The potential for bipartisan support is real. The ground has shifted and the fee/dividend approach is now being given more serious consideration than ever before.

You correctly point out the fundamentally critical role of U.S. climate policy in shaping the character of a global agreement. You quote from Winston Churchill and say that visionary leadership is needed. And yet no vision is displayed by recycling a House bill that is a prescription for disaster. On the one hand, you urge young people to stand up for their future by using nonviolent civil disobedience to block the bulldozers that break ground for coal-burning plants. But then you support a bill that will allow those same plants to continue with business as usual for the next 20 years. Can you understand why young people are becoming disillusioned?

With the most powerful lobbying force in the country working to undermine any legislation with "teeth", it is clear that a countervailing voice willing to speak for the planet is urgently needed. You have said: "This crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge. What is at stake is the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth." There are precious few public figures who not only understand the tremendous urgency of the truth but also possess the stature to act as a counterweight to this surreal withdrawal from reality. You are certainly one of those few.

Genuine appreciation has been extended for the courage you have demonstrated in the past. But with all due respect, Mr. Gore, I do not see this same leadership being exhibited in the present context. It is difficult to comprehend that you would labor so many years to gain the world's attention and then at this most critical juncture of all, turn your back from the fray. You correctly denounce those creating the conditions for which our grandchildren may "one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands". But then your current stance on climate legislation forces what I believe is a legitimate question as to whether you are not in fact looking away from these same warnings in the name of "expediency"?

The 11th hour shuffle in the Senate on climate legislation has created a unique opportunity to lead the world to sanity. On behalf of future generations, I ask you to reclaim the moral high ground and speak up for true solutions. I implore you to take a principled position on behalf of the kind of legislation the planet really needs and then actively fight for that on Capitol Hill. Most important of all, please answer this question. What will have been accomplished by "political expediency" if it leads to the crossing of tipping points of no return and planetary catastrophe?

It is not too late to still do the right thing.

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