Forecast for climate change bill: cloudy

A buffeted measure passed a House committee last week, but faces more headwinds.

A climate change bill that escaped from a House committee last Thursday – and which Congress will confront again next month – has already seen some mighty wriggling from lawmakers forced to take a stand. Yet most realize that capping greenhouse-gas emissions is a subject they can no longer tiptoe around.

Without "rapid and massive action" from governments, Earth's climate is likely to heat up twice as much by 2100 as thought just six years ago, says a new MIT study – about 9 degrees F. instead of 4.3, a rise with potentially severe consequences. "The least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies," says the study's co-author, Ronald Prinn, director of MIT's Center for Global Change Science.

Whether the bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee qualifies as "rapid and massive" action remains to be seen. The draft bill's initial goal of a 20 percent cut in carbon emissions from 2005 levels by the year 2020 was weakened to 17 percent. It would, however, keep the long-range goal of an 80 percent reduction by 2050 that is widely thought to be necessary.

The carbon-permit plan (so-called cap-and-trade) described in the 900-plus-page document (at least the bill itself is "massive") is mind-numbingly complex and thus open to abuses without careful oversight. As constituted now, it would give away 85 percent of its pollution permits free of charge, endangering both its goals of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and providing funds for clean-energy research or to compensate Americans for higher energy costs.

The costs to taxpayers are the subject of wide disagreement. President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency says the cost to a family would be less than $200 a year, not a bad price for avoiding climate disaster. But the conservative Heritage Foundation argues families could eventually pay several thousand dollars per year.

Still, those in Congress of the "something is better than nothing" frame of mind are hopeful. The legislator's mantra that "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is being tested. At least, proponents point out, we now have a real bill to argue over – although coal-state senators may kill chances of passing a law this year.

Having a weakened climate bill in Mr. Obama's hip pocket may not give the US much leverage at a world summit on climate scheduled for December in Copenhagen. The summit aims to draw up a plan on greenhouse gases to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. If the US expects to win the cooperation of China – the world's No. 1 greenhouse-gas emitter – as well as other major polluters such as India, then the US must show itself to be a leader.

House majority leader Nancy Pelosi, visiting China now, calls working together with the Chinese on climate issues "an opportunity that we cannot miss." As of now, Beijing has a much different idea of what developed countries such as the US should attempt. It's asking them to make a much deeper 40 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020, while arguing that China should be exempt from meeting any specific goals because it's only a latecomer to the pollution game. That's a big gap.

Ramping up from a 17 percent cut in 2020 to 80 percent just three decades later seems like an ambitious goal, one predicated on the concept that economically viable technological innovations will emerge to solve tough problems like capturing carbon dioxide released from coal-fired power plants, building a smart power grid, or providing safe long-term storage for spent nuclear fuels. But it appears this generation of politicians will leave tougher goals for a later generation to meet.

At least the US may at last be setting off down the arduous road to addressing climate crisis.

In the end, that is what matters most.

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