Political victory goes wrong in seeking ways to fix rapidly warming planetLike a rock-hard ancient glacier that has finally calved a meager iceberg into the sea after being frozen up for eons, the U.S. House last month narrowly managed to approve something that superficially resembles meaningful climate legislation.
There is no reason to be happy or content with what was achieved. Even if the U.S. Senate musters the political will to adopt something no worse than the House did, future generations will look upon all this as an exercise in vapid appeasement, of fiddling while the world burned.
Passage of Waxman-Markey climate legislation has been called a remarkable political achievement. Unfortunately, maybe this is correct. Faced with an impending disaster that many voters still find hard to conceptualize, the safest position for many political leaders is to do nothing to impact the financial interests of hometown constituents and industries.
The same is true internationally. Some ask why we should begin weaning ourselves away from polluting fuels when China and India are mindlessly setting fire to their rooms in the house we all occupy. The answer is that we'll have no ethical capacity or pragmatic ability to influence any other nation's actions until we take care of our big piece of the crisis. We'll all cook if we sullenly sit around waiting for China to act.
So Congress is trying to do something, swimming against a deadly rip tide of resistance from science-deniers and the self-interested who fear damage to coal-burning power plants, car manufacturers and a thousand other stakeholders tightly wedded to the catastrophic status quo.
The bill that was passed is an ugly mess, larded with expensive give-aways and compromises that reward the well-connected at the expense of the many. President Obama and the legislation's other advocates are celebrating, on the principle that it's at least a start. This is a mistake. Far too often, the flaws that are present at the beginning badly corrupt a law's effectiveness forever.
Even this law's "pure" underpinning - the cap and trade system beloved by many mainstream environmentalists - essentially is a government gift of the right to pollute to politically powerful interests. It's a tax with the proceeds flowing to private parties. If we are going to try to keep carbon out of the atmosphere by making it more expensive, we ought to have the moral courage to simply tax it outright and use the money generated to moderate the impacts of higher energy costs on the poor. Instead, we are following the corrupt Russian model of creating energy oligarchs, selected by Congress.
The brainy researchers at M.I.T. recently predicted that average global temperatures will rise more than 9 degrees by 2100, sparking deadly heat waves and massive social, economic and environmental disruptions. The mighty dam is bursting and we're arguing about what kind of caulking gun to buy to fill the crack.
The danger and shame of this situation is mind-boggling.