Washington Picks Up the Pace on Climate Action

We have 228 days until the international climate negotiations begin in Copenhagen, but today stands out among them. It is Earth Day. And though I nodded in agreement when I read Energy Secretary Steven Chu's comment in the New York Times Magazine "that from here on in, every day has to be Earth Day," today is still significant for me.

Later this morning I will be testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce about draft climate legislation. These hearings will add to the momentum we so urgently need as we head toward the Copenhagen talks. We may not have a lot of time before then, but the last six days show that progress can move swiftly.

The quickened pace started last Friday, when the EPA officially recognized that carbon pollution is harmful to our health and to the climate. This conclusion requires the agency to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. 

The EPA's decision is not surprising. After all, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon emissions from cars qualify as air pollutants and ordered the EPA to determine--based on scientific considerations alone--whether those pollutants are dangerous to human health or welfare and if so, issue standards for them. (Read my NRDC colleague David Doniger's--one of the attorneys in the Supreme Court case--thoughts on EPA's decision here.)

With last week's announcement, the EPA finally did what it was supposed to do all along: follow the science and the law.

But the timing of this inevitable conclusion is significant for the climate debate in Congress. Before the EPA's Friday announcement, people could say that if Congress did not act on climate, then nothing would happen. Stonewallers and filibusterers could hope for the last word.

Inaction is no longer an option. Something is happening, and the question now becomes: will national climate action be driven by EPA regulation alone? Or will it also be driven by a comprehensive Congressional effort that unleashes the full economic potential of building America's 21st century energy infrastructure?

The hearings I am participating in today will address those questions. Congress holds a lot of hearings. Some are for information gathering, and don't lead to action, but the one I am going to is specifically designed to move legislation forward.

Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey scheduled four days of hearings to gather feedback on their draft language for the American Clean Energy and Security Act. It's the Committee's chance to get into the nitty gritty of the issues, and after listening to the testimony, Rep. Markey will introduce a revised version of the bill.

The themes of the various panels offer a preview of the issues that will be debated as climate bills move through the House and Senate. These range from maintaining American competitiveness to regulating a carbon market when skepticism of markets is running high right now.

One key panel will take place on Thursday. It's on allocation--in other words, when we put a cap on carbon emissions, polluters will have to acquire pollution allowances to release carbon. How do we distribute those allowances? How many will be distributed based on a formula?  How many will be auctioned, and how will the revenue be used? 

NRDC, together with our partners in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, reached agreement on A Blueprint for Legislative Action, which identifies principles to guide the fair and equitable allocation of pollution allowances. NRDC has developed some more specific recommendations consistent with the Blueprint that we hope will be helpful to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when it revises the bill.

The Committee has 60 members, including some swing votes who have not yet committed to supporting action on climate. My hope is that the hearings will convince them that passing climate legislation is the smart thing to do for the economy and the environment.

I will be monitoring the Committee's progress closely to see if that is the case. Rep. Waxman has pledged to report a revised bill to the House by Memorial Day. That leaves us only six months until Copenhagen, but if American voters keep the pressure on our lawmakers to pass a climate law, that will be enough.