The details have finally emerged on the American Power Act, the climate and energy legislation rolled out Wednesday by Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). More telling than the details, however, is a number not mentioned in the bill - 350.
You remember 350, don't you?
Environmental activist Bill McKibben and thousands of volunteers organized events last fall calling attention to this number. It represents the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- in parts per million -- that leading scientists now say is safe and sustainable. We know this because we've already crossed that line - 390 ppm and climbing - and the Earth is telling us to go back. Most of the world's glaciers are in retreat, ice shelves in polar regions are shrinking, and the seas are encroaching on islands and coasts.
Any legislation to address climate change needs to have the overarching goal of getting us back to 350 ppm of CO2 and keeping us there. But you'll find no mention of this in the Kerry-Lieberman bill for one simple reason: There's no way in hell their bill can achieve this goal. What's really scary, however, is that most of the politicians in Washington are operating under the assumption that we don't need to get to 350. The real eye-opener for me came last fall when a Senate aide I met with said we just need to keep CO2 under 450 ppm.
I have the greatest admiration for Sen. Kerry and the now-off-the-bus Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for their tireless efforts to craft this legislation. But the flaws in this bill will prevent it from achieving its most important objective - stopping the worst effects of climate change.
In a statement issued Wednesday, several members of the Price Carbon Campaign weighed in on those flaws.
"The Kerry-Lieberman bill fails the acid test of climate legislation, which is to provide clear signals on emission prices," said Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the Carbon Tax Center. "Investors, entrepreneurs and households all need certainty in future fuel and energy prices, but Kerry-Lieberman hides these crucial price signals behind a curtain of cap-and-trade."
The American Power Act tries to limit the price volatility by establishing a price collar that starts with a floor of $12 and a ceiling of $25. The floor price would increase 3 percent a year while the ceiling would rise 5 percent. Even with the collar, though, there would be enough uncertainty in prices to discourage long-term investments in clean energy.
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As Komanoff also points out, the pricing proposed in Kerry-Lieberman would produce meager reductions in CO2 emissions. Based on his carbon-pricing model, Komanoff estimates that by 2020 the bill would reduce CO2 by only 3 percent over 2009 emissions.
More damaging, perhaps, than the pricing mechanism, is the inclusion of carbon offsets, which could delay by decades America's conversion to clean energy.
"Instead of making needed investments in renewable energy, utilities will have the much cheaper option of investing in third-world projects aimed at cutting carbon," said Tom Stokes, Coordinator of the Climate Crisis Coalition, another member of the Price Carbon Campaign. "Most of these offsets do nothing to reduce current emissions, and they allow polluters in the U.S. to keep burning coal and other dirty fuels."
In his post Wednesday, Kerry said, "Half measures won't cut it," but that's precisely what's been delivered in this bill, which was thoroughly vetted by big coal and big oil.
He also mentioned the Senate hearing he convened with Al Gore back in 1988 that first called attention to the emerging crisis of global warming. Those hearings introduced the nation and the world to climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, whose dire predictions have proven correct in the years since.
When Bill McKibben asked what the target should be for CO2 in the atmosphere, it was Hansen who said we must get back to 350 ppm. Hence, 350.org was born.
It's time for decision-makers in Washington to listen to Hansen again. At the Climate Rally in Washington on April 25, he proposed the "People's Climate Stewardship Act." It's a simple plan to put a steadily-increasing fee on carbon that will make clean energy competitive with fossil fuels within a decade. It also returns all the revenue to households so that families won't bear the economic impact of rising energy costs.
Granted, I'm not a senator, and I don't have to deal with Supreme Court decisions that allow corporations to play kingmaker. But if I'm trying to save the world, James Hansen is the guy I'd want to talk to, not the president of the American Petroleum Institute.