Lessons Learned from Climate Change Legislation

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.

Update on Climate Change Legislation – Call Now!

The following is an update on the status of the Waxman-Markey bill, written by Pam Sparr. Pam is a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, and consultant to several religious organizations on matters of climate change and environmental justice.

Representatives Waxman and Markey formally introduced H.R. 2454, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, on May 15, 2009. This is the long awaited official introduction of comprehensive climate change legislation in this session of Congress. The House Energy & Commerce Committee is in the middle of marking-up the bill and the committee chair (Waxman) is hoping to get a vote before they adjourn for Memorial Day.

Many concessions have been made based on what was initially proposed in the bill’s discussion draft in order to cobble together the support needed among Democrats. While the religious community as a whole is eager for the bill to make it out to the floor and be passed, there are calls to strengthen the language in various provisions. Some are concerned that too strong a press to improve the language could tank the bill entirely.


Greenhouse gas emissions targets:
2020 – 17% below 2005; 2050 – 83% below 2005
These targets are not as ambitious as many would like. They are even weaker than what they appear as they use 2005 as a baseline rather than 1990, which is the baseline for international negotiations.

Cap and trade system:
The vast majority of allowances will not be auctioned; freebies phase out over time.
Giving a large % of allowances away in early years diminishes the amount of money available for distributing, including for international adaptation spending. Problems with insufficient regulation of carbon markets can create international financial problems down the road – which can be a justice issue in and of itself. Drafters of the bill have crafted language in a way that they expect free allowances to the utility sector will shield consumers from higher prices.

Ability to buy off-sets:
The draft bill enabled corporations to avoid major emissions reductions through purchasing a sizeable amount of off-sets. This problem does not appear to have been fixed in the actual legislation. The way forest off-sets are handled is a particular concern for human rights activists and environmental groups because of the history of indigenous people and forest communities. Developing countries do not want developed nations such as the U.S. to avoid making their own sizeable emissions cuts by buying their way out of things through overseas off-sets.

International adaptation funding:
2012-2021, 2% of allowances goes to international adaptation and clean tech (1% each); 4% for 2022-2026; 8% from 2027.
These proposed amounts are extremely low in the early years compared to estimates of the U.S. fair-share of adaptation spending, which would be about $7 billion annually (or more than 7% of total allowance value as the bill is currently constructed). The U. S. is legally obligated to provide this funding under international law and the faith community and other groups are arguing that the U.S. has a strong moral obligation to provide compensation for damages developing countries have already incurred as a result of climate change. Crafters of the bill have formulated a system for providing adaptation fund that end-runs the appropriation process. Writers of the bill seem to have found a way to make the stream of international adaptation funding regular and reliable over time rather than subject to the annual vagaries of the appropriations process – which had been a big concern.

Domestic adaptation & worker transition assistance:
The bill provides 2% of allowance values for domestic adaptation needs with half going to address natural resource concerns and half to adaptation purposes, for humans, including public health. Another 0.5% will go to help workers in affected industries.
It will be important to assure that low-income and other vulnerable communities receive priority attention in the use of domestic adaptation funding. The inclusion of worker transition assistance is a big win.

If your Representative sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, contact her/him immediately. The House switchboard is: 202.224.3121. Both Democrats and Republicans need to hear that their constituents support strong climate change legislation. Congratulate them on getting this far on the bill and urge them to:

  • Improve the short-term emissions targets. These are below what the international community expects and what scientists feel is necessary.
  • Increase international adaptation spending. Begin with at least $3.5 billion annually.
  • Assure that low-income and other types of communities that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the U.S. are prioritized for adaptation funds.

After Lieberman-Warner

The first ever climate change legislation to be considered by Congress went down last week when the Senate failed to muster enough votes to end the filibuster. The news was bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s sad to see any climate bill rejected, even one as feckless as the Lieberman-Warner bill was. On the other hand, the bill did not set high enough emissions reduction standards, and gave away too much to the energy industries at the expense of low income families. Its demise clears the way for much better law.

So what do we do now?

While the Senate was wrestling with Lieberman-Warner, Representatives Waxman, Markey, and Inslee began circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter around the House outlining four principles for effective climate change legislation. That is, they outlined principles that any climate change bill should uphold in order to be considered effective and just. They are:

  • Reduce emissions to avoid dangerous global warming;
  • Transition America to a clean energy economy;
  • Recognize and minimize any economic impacts from global warming legislation; and
  • Aid communities and ecosystems vulnerable to harm from global warming

These are principles in keeping with our 2006 Statement of Conscience on Global Warming/Climate Change, principles that we can wholeheartedly endorse. And so we decided that the most positive, effective thing that we could do was to do just that – to endorse and get other Representatives to endorse these principles. Two weeks ago, we asked folks from the UU State Advocacy Networks to collaborate on this and they enthusiastically agreed, bringing their own considerable organizational skills to bear, and together we urged people to call their Reps. Last Friday, even as Lieberman-Warner fizzled in the Senate, I created an online action campaign that allows people to fill in their name and address and automatically send emails to their Representative, urging them to sign onto the letter. I sent it out through our newslist Advocacy News Friday afternoon and by Monday morning over 200 UUs had taken action. By Tuesday afternoon, the number was over 250.

All I can say is that I am awed by my fellow Unitarian Universalists. From the passing of the 2006 SOC to the commitment shown by the State Advocacy Networks, to the awesome response of individual UUs to this action campaign, you guys demonstrate over and over again how much UUs care about global climate change. And I think we’re having an effect. When we started this effort two weeks ago the number of signatories to the Dear Colleague letter was 63. It’s now 83. That’s not to say that we can claim all the credit – other fine people and organizations are working on this with us – but it shows that together we can make a difference.

And so let’s work a little harder even, and more strategically. As Congress winds down in preparation for the Fall election and then a new session, it is even more important now to get as many Representatives as we can to sign the Waxman, Markey, and Inslee Climate Change Principles letter. It establishes the standards by which future climate change legislation is to be measured. Let’s have our Representatives on record supporting effective and just legislation.

Currently, 83 Representatives have signed the letter. We can easily make it an even 100. And if we try a little harder, we can make it 150. Please take a look at the list of signatories. If your Representative is on the list, call or email to THANK them for taking a principled stand on climate change. If your Representative is not on the list, call or email to let them know about the letter and how important it is to you that they sign on. The Capitol Switchboard can be reached at 202.224.3121. Click here to find your Representative and their contact information. Or use the online action campaign to urge your Representative to support principles for effective climate change legislation.