Should Democrats Walk Away from the Climate Bill?

Since last weekend, television viewers in the D.C. metro area have been confronted with advertisements sponsored by Friends of the Earth calling for action on global warming. But instead of hailing the first major piece of climate change legislation that stands a chance of passing in Congress, the ads call on Senate Democrats to fix the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act -- or ditch it altogether.

"Where do Senate Democrats stand on global warming? With Clinton and Obama, or with John McCain?" the ad asks.

The "Fix It or Ditch It" campaign, which Friends of the Earth launched on Jan. 30 with ads in The Hill, in Roll Call, and on liberal and environmental blogs, asks Congress to do just that -- improve Lieberman-Warner or wait for a better bill next year. The ads point out that both Democratic front-runners have put forth strong plans to confront global warming. The proposals call for emissions cuts to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and force polluting industries to pay for the carbon they emit into the atmosphere. However, the legislation sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and John Warner of Virginia that Senate Democrats are backing falls far below those standards, and looks a lot more like something John McCain would endorse, considering it comes from two of his supporters.

After a contentious mark-up process and narrow passage out of the Environment and Public Works Committee in December, debate over climate legislation is heating up again as the committee chair, Sen. Barbara Boxer, works to round up votes to get the bill passed this spring. If Friends of the Earth has any say, the biggest threat to her crusade might not be the GOP but the environmental community itself. Most major environmental groups agree that Lieberman-Warner's emissions-reduction targets and plan for allocating carbon credits are far from ideal, yet the groups are split on the best method for achieving strong legislation. And the fact that environmental groups are already deeply divided before the legislation even hits the floor presents serious questions about whether the climate is right for congressional action on global warming.

"There's no question that this is an urgent issue, and we've got to move quickly on it," said Nick Berning, press secretary for Friends of the Earth. "It's so urgent that we might not get another chance to get it right."

Much of the divide between these environmental organizations lies in what they view as the best strategy for getting strong climate legislation in place -- pass something weaker now and build on it, or push for the gold standard and nothing less. This is nothing new; environmental groups have long differed over strategy. But this is the first time that these differences are playing out in such a public way.

The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act, the first major piece of climate legislation to hit the Senate floor, failed in 2003 and 2005 by stiff margins in a Republican-controlled Senate. But in today's Senate, the legislation may actually stand a chance of clearing the 60-vote hurdle, though it's only likely to pick up Republican votes if its standards are relatively limp. And in the years since the failure of that first legislative effort, the science on climate change has painted an even bleaker picture if the appropriate steps to curb emissions aren't taken soon. The stakes are much higher this year, which has further elevated the intra-green tension.

Friends of the Earth was the first big environmental group to come out against Lieberman-Warner, and has been a consistent critic of the bill's shortfalls since it passed committee in December. Since then, other groups such as Greenpeace and Clean Air Watch, which, like Friends of the Earth, tend toward a more hard-line approach on legislative issues, have aligned with the campaign.

On the other side, organizations like Environmental Defense, the National Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change -- which tend to be more amenable to compromises on legislative issues -- want Congress to pass Lieberman-Warner now in order to get the ball rolling on action against climate change. Some of these groups have started fighting back against "Fix It or Ditch It." Shortly after Friends of the Earth launched its campaign, Mark MacLeod, director of the special projects division at Environmental Defense, sent an e-mail to the offices of members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee asking them to launch a counter-campaign supporting Boxer's efforts on behalf of the Lieberman-Warner bill. "There are growing calls in the liberal blogosphere for opposition to the bill and a general push against passing any climate bill in this Congress," he wrote. "This position has NOT yet solidified but will become orthodoxy if we do not present a counterview from respected pro-environment voices."

But all of the major environmental groups, including Environmental Defense, agree that the bill in its current incarnation is far from ideal, and would like to see it strengthened on the Senate floor. Its targets for emissions reductions fall far short of what current science says we need to aim for: 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Lieberman-Warner calls for reductions of less than 70 percent by 2050. And as the bill currently stands, a sizable portion of pollution permits would be given away rather than auctioned off, which amounts to up to $2 trillion in handouts to the very industries that the legislation should be penalizing. Both Clinton and Obama have called for 100 percent auction of carbon credits, the proceeds of which would be used for programs beneficial to the public -- like investing in renewable energy, offsetting energy price increases for low- and middle-income Americans, weatherizing homes, or creating green-job training programs.

The climate bill that Boxer sponsored last year with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont included significantly stronger standards, though the legislation didn't gain the traction that Lieberman-Warner has. Critics of the plan are asking, if the Democratic presidential front-runners and the committee chairwoman have supported stronger legislation, why should Senate Democrats settle for less?

Groups like Environmental Defense and Pew argue for getting something in place this year and then strengthening it later, but others worry that once Congress passes this first major climate bill, it will create the appearance of having handled the problem, and the matter won't be revisited for quite some time.

"At some point we're going to pass the tipping point, and it's going to be too late. And once everybody's gone out and said, 'Hey we've done it,' it's awfully hard to turn around again the next year and revisit the issue," said Berning. "Politically it doesn't make sense to enact a solution to a problem and then the next year say you have to solve the problem."

If Congress declares victory on climate now and fails to strengthen legislation in the near future, Berning and other critics argue, we would be locked in to a set of standards that don't impose the reductions necessary to curb the effects of global warming. They say Congress should aim to get the bill right the first time.

Environmental Defense and other groups supporting action now believe that it's too early to write off Lieberman-Warner. They have expressed hope that the bill will include "look back" provisions, or planned re-examinations of the impact of the legislation to assess and strengthen it as needed. Boxer has voiced support for incorporating these provisions in order to keep the legislation up to date with current science. And passing the bill as-is would be an important starting point for passing future legislation that is tougher on climate change.

"We're in many ways trying to support the process as much as the bill, and I think that's important because we have a very strong start here," said Tony Kreindler, spokesperson for Environmental Defense. "We just don't think we're at a point right now where it's worth drawing a line in the sand. We think it's much better to say look, we've got something here we can work with, we've got a historic opportunity to actually make something law which has never presented itself before on climate change."

Kreindler also points to strong support for passing climate legislation coming from groups as diverse as business leaders and religious organizations as a reason to get legislation through this year. "When you have that big coalition saying ‘it's time to go,’ that's how you get big bills passed, and you've got to capitalize on that."

But as Berning points out, the support from business leaders, especially in the energy industry, might be high right now precisely because they think that legislation passed this year is likely to be weaker than it would be in the next Congress.

Other environmental organizations, like Sierra Club, are withholding official judgment on the subject until they see what happens on the Senate floor. "We haven't turned our back on this process, but that's not to say that we would take the bill as it currently stands as the final product," said Debbie Sease, national campaign director of Sierra Club. "Our campaign is going to be about trying to strengthen it, and making sure that something that is not strengthened, or worse yet, something that is weakened, does not make it to the president's desk."

Even in its comparatively weak current form, the bill won the support of only one Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee -- that of John Warner, the bill's co-sponsor. In order to win the 60 votes it would need to pass the Senate and be signed into law by President George W. Bush, it's likely that the bill would have to be watered down even further.

While Kreindler said he wouldn't outline the lowest standards for the bill that Environmental Defense would still support, he emphasized that the group believes that further delay on legislation will only hurt the process. "The case for urgency has been made, and we think by extension the case for making law has been made," said Kreindler.

Yet it's unlikely that the bill could be improved enough this year to win the support of groups like Friends of the Earth or even Sierra Club, which lends credence to the idea that it's better to wait until next year, when the Democrats stand a chance of gaining some key Senate seats as well as the presidency. And with stronger legislation, Senate Democrats will have the backing of all these green groups, rather than splintered, hesitant support. With environmental groups already drawing a green line in the sand, it might be better for the planet, Senate Democrats, and the future of the environmental movement to wait for a more amenable legislative climate.