Almost one year ago at the Ft. Lauderdale General Assembly, Van Jones challenged us in his prophetic Ware Lecture, “Prepare to Govern.” The presidential elections had not yet happened, but Van predicted that change was in the air, and that we who have been outside protesters would suddenly find ourselves as inside leaders. Prepare to govern, instead of protest. What adjustments would we have to make, not just procedurally but also mentally, in order to take up the task of creating a more perfect union, rather than just critiquing what was wrong with the current one?
A case in point could easily be climate change legislation. Last year, when the Lieberman-Warner “America’s Climate Security Act” was coming to the Senate floor, a few in the environmental community were tempted to support the bill. It’s hard to stand against a climate change bill when one is so desperately needed. But the bill did not cut emissions of greenhouse gases sufficiently (according to the recommendations of the scientific community) AND it gave billions of dollars worth of pollution credits to industries while providing very little assistance to low to middle income families. With a president in the White House that, up until recently, had denied that global climate change was an issue and the bill having been introduced by senators with no credentials in economic and racial justice, it was easy to be the “protester” and say that we likely could have a better, more just bill after the elections. Instead of supporting the bill, the UUA, along with the UU State Advocacy Networks, decided to put our energy behind a “climate change principles” letter being circulated by Representatives Waxman (CA), Markey (MA), and Inslee (WA). We encouraged representatives to sign on, thereby setting the groundwork for strong and just climate change legislation in the near future.
The Lieberman-Warner bill died in the Senate, victim of a filibuster. In November, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. In December, Representative Waxman staged a “coup” of sorts, replacing Dingle (MI) as chair of committee on energy and commerce. Because Dingle’s constituency is heavily dependent upon the fossil fuel industries, he has historically been hostile to climate change legislation, whereas Waxman has been a proven advocate for both environmental and economic issues. In February, the new president’s stimulus package was passed with billions of dollars going into green jobs. Obama picked Van Jones to be the person in charge of overseeing the funding. Suddenly, we had several government officials who seemed to know that environmentalism must go hand in hand with racial and economic justice. It seemed like a tide had changed and the right people were in key positions in order to make effective and just climate change legislation a reality.
In March, Waxman and Markey introduced their own bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA). It had many good things about it. But there were also things that were less than perfect. At coalition meetings we were told that even though Waxman was now chair of energy and commerce, the committee itself still leaned to the right of the House of Representatives in general in the matter of climate change. So, we were told, the strategy would be to make concessions now in order to get the bill out of committee and then improve the bill later with amendments to strengthen it. The outside protester would have been… protesting, but we were part of the “in” crowd now. It was our allies who were in power and they were sharing their reasoning with us, reasoning that made sense. So.. we praised representatives Waxman and Markey (rightfully so) for an ambitious bill, spread the word that a good comprehensive climate change bill was coming, and waited.
In the mean time, the fossil fuel industries spent tens of millions of dollars to make changes in their favor. When the bill did leave the committee last week, it was even weaker than originally written.
This week, we’ve been told that complex negotiations were made in order to get a version of the bill that had the votes to pass in the House, and the bill’s sponsors (Waxman and Markey) and Speaker of the House (Pelosi) were afraid that any substantive efforts to improve the bill would cause the compromise to collapse. Therefore, no substantive amendments will be allowed on the floor of the House. Moreover, as it stands no representative is willing to attach their name to a substantive amendment AND no members of the progressive caucus are willing to vote against the bill. No one wants to be the person to derail the only climate change bill on the table, so there is no bargaining power to renegotiate. As I met with an interfaith “envirojustice” working group yesterday, almost everyone around the table was stunned. “So…,” I said, “last year I asked UUs to refrain from supporting Lieberman-Warner because it wasn’t effective enough and it wasn’t just. Am I supposed to one year later ask them to support a bill that is not much better (and even worse in some respects)? Just because Waxman and Markey are the sponsors?”
Many around the table were wrestling with similar questions. The facts were that Waxman and Markey said that this was the best bill that they could deliver, and we have no reason to believe otherwise. Last year, we had many reasons to believe that we might be able to get a stronger bill this year. This year, we have no reason to believe that conditions will be more favorable next year. If anything, with midterm elections coming up, there is the danger of the reverse. And every moment of delay means more greenhouse gas pollution being released into the atmosphere. As we continued to discuss, different voices kept coming back to one thing – that representatives had not heard from many constituents telling them they needed to strengthen the bill as it was being considered, so they thought that the bill was ok. (Whereas they were getting plenty of pressure to weaken it.) The conclusion was inevitable: we had failed to mobilize our grass roots.
When Barack Obama won the presidential election last November, we at the Washington Office had told ourselves that while things would definitely be different with someone in the White House whose socio-political views are more closely aligned with ours, there would still be a lot of work to do. Just because we elect a leader whose vision we like doesn’t make it a given that the vision will be realized. But when it came to climate change legislation, many colleagues and I in the environmental justice community – both religious and secular – had made this mistake. Because we had allies in charge of the legislation, we had trusted them to come through for us with strong legislation. But they could not give us strong legislation if we did not have people telling the other representatives that they need to agree. In the absence of that collaborative effort, the bill we have now is the best that they could give us.
Prepare to govern. It was relatively easy to understand that governing meant that we were no longer outside protesters. But in retrospect, it was not so easy to identify what to do in its place. It was not so easy to understand that there was still just as much a need for activism, for grassroots mobilizing, for vigilance in holding our elected leaders accountable. But as Van Jones has said, there needs to be “holding” in holding our leaders accountable. Instead of just telling them what we think is wrong, we need to put forth the vision of what would be right and to make space for it to happen.
In that light, we’re not giving up just yet on the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Please contact your representative; acknowledge that a climate change bill is desperately needed this year, but it also needs to be a strong, just bill. Urge them to:
1. Ensure more clean energy by increasing the renewable electricity standard (RES) to 30 percent by 2020.
2. Hold polluters accountable by giving the EPA authority to regulate carbon emmisions.
3. Reduce free pollution permits to fossil fuel industries (worth billions of dollars) and use the revenue gained to create more domestic green jobs in America and help both domestic and international communities adapt to the global climate changes.
The House of Representatives switchboard number is: 202-224-3121. OR you can fax your representative through 1Sky’s website.