Given that the Markey-Waxman bill making its way through congress is America's first attempt at a climate change bill, anything will be a step in the right direction. The bill calls for a 17% reduction in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2020, and an 83% by 2050, through a comprehensive cap-and-trade scheme.
However, there are several LARGE problems with the bill. As Breakthrough Institute reports here, companies may not have to actually reduce emissions until 2030 by using various loopholes, specifically where emissions offsets are concerned. Companies will be allowed to divert offsets internationally, and domestic offsets appear shaky. For example, one offset opportunity listed is forest conservation, which is surely important, but a stable forest actually does not act as a sink for carbon, instead is at equilibrium (it is no longer growing, so there's just as much carbon capturing photosynthesis as there is carbon producing respiration).
Also, even if the companies pull through with emissions cuts as advertised, we must look at what these numbers really mean. 17% reductions by 2020 may seem like a lot, but it all depends on what we are setting as our standard. The US was held to a 7% reduction in the Kyoto Protocol, but never signed the treaty, and instead increased carbon emissions from around 6 billion metric tons to 7 billion metric tons, or about a 16% increase. So, the Markey-Waxman bill actually puts us back where we were in 1990, which is not where we want to be.
The bill also devotes $1 billion dollars to clean coal technology, which is truly a travesty. This money should be put towards developing truly renewable technology. We may be able to pump carbon dioxide from coal-fire plants underground, but this in no way makes coal "clean." The extraction of coal, particularly through mountain top removal, is extremely toxic, contaminating local water sheds. The storage of coal ash, the product of coal plants, is also very harmful and dangerous, as we saw with the TVA earlier this year.
Now let me correct myself: this is NOT the first climate legislation to be proposed in America. Actually, we have a bunch of it already. For example, ten states have signed the Regional Greenhoues Gas Initiative, which calls for 20% reduction below 1990 levels! California has similar legislation in place, and the Midwestern Greenhoues Gas Accord has yet to come to fruition.
Is any change good? The Markey-Waxman bill seems to be a compromise between congress and industry. Such a compromise seems unnecessary when we have a president who promised action on climate change, a democrat-controlled congress and an (almost) fillibuster-proof senate. Should we be aborting our efforts here and save our legislative resources and lobbying power for a stronger bill? At the very least, I say that if this bill does pass, let us not settle. Let's keep going, and let President Obama and congress know that this is not good enough.