Climate Change Reset Needed

Tomorrow is not an option.

Those ought to be the words coming from the White House right now on global warming. Never again can we tolerate a year like 2009, when attempts to cap carbon pollution go nowhere. Already this month, President Barack Obama has confirmed two painful truths. First: Congress will not complete work on a global warming bill in 2009. And second, the corollary blow: There will be no international climate deal in Denmark next month, dashing years of international hopes.

So Mr. Obama should move quickly from explaining failure to achieving real success. He should travel to the Copenhagen climate conference in December and guarantee drastic action from the U.S. in 2010, even if it means blowing everything up in Congress and starting over. If a "cap and trade" bill won't fly in the Senate in 2010, then let the Environmental Protection Agency explore maximum-strength carbon regulations while, legislatively, we switch back to Mr. Obama's original presidential campaign plan: "cap and rebate."

Apologists, of course, are rushing to defend the president, explaining away the now-official climate failures of 2009. There was never enough time, they say, to fix in a few months all the global warming harm George W. Bush created in eight long years.

Maybe so. But we can't blame Mr. Bush forever. What's the plan for 2010? The only strategy the Democrats seem to have is borrowed from 2009: Get the Senate to finally pass the cap and trade bill. That would be the 1,400-page bill narrowly approved by the House in June and loaded with subsidies for "clean coal" and likely big profits for Wall Street traders. It's been stagnating in the Senate for most of the autumn.

Centrist Democrat Jim Webb of Virginia - a vitally important vote - all but condemned the cap and trade bill last week in a news conference. What if the bill simply never passes? What will Mr. Obama take to the international treaty talks in Germany in June 2010 or in Mexico next December?

As long as Mr. Obama sticks to a principle of "Act now, not tomorrow," then Plan B should become relatively clear. Allow the EPA to move rapidly forward with its court-sanctioned ability to require carbon reductions across the economy under the Clean Air Act. This has always been the shotgun in the closet. No one really wants to proceed this way, unleashing messy regulations from a bureaucratic agency. But if the Senate won't act, then the EPA must - and Mr. Obama has full power to make it happen.

And while the EPA door is opening, we should all ask why the Senate has had trouble acting. The most obvious (but least discussed) problem is the concept of "cap and trade" itself. The bill treats our life-giving global atmosphere as if it were the property of private corporations. Up to 85 percent of the pollution permits under the bill would be given away free to polluters, on top of loopholes that allow, for example, coal companies in America to avoid carbon reductions by paying faraway Zambian farmers to stop tilling their fields. Two prominent EPA attorneys - both with extensive experience implementing federal pollution regulations - have recently asserted that the cap and trade measure before Congress simply won't work and shouldn't be tried.

So what will work? For starters, we must rightly view the atmosphere as a shared resource belonging to all people, not as a commodity owned by polluters. Mr. Obama had this idea in mind when he campaigned for president. His global warming proposal then would have required all polluters to pay for emissions permits. And at least 80 percent of the money raised would be rebated to American households. The rest - more than $10 billion per year - would be invested in clean-energy projects.

By rebating almost all the permit money to American households, this policy approach robs Republicans of their cherished ability to call a carbon cap a "carbon tax." And by making all polluters pay, the approach relieves many Democrats of their nervousness over corporate welfare. These features alone will provide a fresh and popular boost to the climate debate should the cap and trade approach stall completely in 2010. A rebate approach - especially one that gives all Americans an equal refund every month - would also create the political space necessary for the kind of deep emissions cuts scientists say are needed to save the climate.

Unfortunately, after Mr. Obama's election, thanks to big lobbying from Big Oil and Big Coal, Congress went down the dubious trading path that now finds the clock running out in 2009. But if Mr. Obama wants to succeed as a politician and truly earn his Nobel Peace Prize, he'll again embrace what the Rev. Martin Luther King called "the fierce urgency of now" and move the country toward his better, original instincts in the new year.

© 2023 Baltimore Sun