I walked out of the US Capitol on Friday evening just as a torrential downpour started. The sky opened up, and all the humid DC air released its pent-up energy in a big, blustery storm of thunder, lightning, and horizontal rain. It was a fitting conclusion to a very intense and stressful week of working on climate legislation.
The entire day was a long and crazy adventure in politics. I started my morning at 8am in a demonstration in front of the White House in anticipation of Angela Merkel's visit with President Obama. The Avaaz Action Factory had giant green hard hats and cut-outs of the two leaders were there to show the domestic and international press that Americans expect a lot more from both leaders. Read more about that action here, and see the coverage in the Boston Globe.
But my day wasn't over. After heading back to my house to read updates on the climate bill and send off some tweets urging DC folks to come to our afternoon rally, I left with our van of props for the Capitol. That rally, organized by the Energy Action Coalition and Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the Avaaz Action Factory had been thrown together in 2 days with news of the upcoming vote with one major goal: insert ourselves into the climate debate as saying, "We want more!" (Photo in WSJ).
So by the time I left the Capitol, I had participated in two actions, led a team of young people in green shirts through the Capitol to remind reps of where the youth stand (in favor of a STRONG climate bill) and then sat in the gallery for an hour with 40 youth leaders watching the circus that is Congress.
I anxiously watched those votes come up on the basketball-style scoreboard, as the Yea's were at 185, and then 204, and then 209, and then 214, and then 217, 218, and finally 219. And that was it, one of the most powerful assemblies in the world had just voted to reduce emissions in the United States --a truly historic achievement. But I couldn't celebrate at all, because no matter how historic this event was, it is not based on science, it is not a measure that seeks to urgently safeguard the most vulnerable people in this country and this world. And it is not a bill that moves us directly or boldly towards a clean energy economy.
Supporting this bill in the past few weeks, and working for its passage, was the lesser of two evils. We were stuck with a very mediocre bill, but we were also faced with the prospect of climate legislation being ‘defeated.’ After 8 years of climate denial, defeat of this bill would destroy what little momentum we have gained in congress, But in supporting such a shoddy bill, I sincerely hope that we haven't sacrificed too much. Among my activist friends, the questions have flown back and forth: 'How weak will you let it get and still support it?', 'Is it better than doing nothing?', 'Does this help get a strong enough treaty in Copenhagen?', 'Will this do anything to end the injustice of coal mining or tar sands or prevent a new derivatives market?', 'How can a climate bill give so much money to the coal industry?'
I can't reply to most of those questions directly because I'm not proud of the answer. Instead, I have to respond with different lines of argument: this process cannot stall out here, because we would lose years of not doing anything. We didn't have a tidal wave of public opinion calling for a climate bill, but rather left Waxman and Markey to fight for this legislation largely without presidential support or intense grassroots demand.
A few weeks ago it became apparent that this bill was not going to get strengthened in the House, and reps were going to be largely left with just a Yes or No vote. At that point, many of us realized we had been naively led into the trap of supporting the bill's sponsors, instead of creating a clear demand for more with the threat of not settling for less. Creating that strong demand should be the work of the grassroots movement, which we didn't create coming into this. I'm thinking about how we can build for the next time around.
I'm very proud of the actions that I helped to organize around the bill. But now it’s time to quickly regroup and form a much stronger position around the things that we are not willing to compromise around. I agree with Alex Tinker’s recent blog post--
"If ACES does not get a whole lot stronger in the Senate, it is time to kill the bill. Kill the bill and start over, or kill the bill and let EPA use its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Of those options, I strongly prefer the former." -link
I will not support a bill that is as weak as this in the Senate. Furthermore, the bill needs to allocate 5% of auction revenues each to reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation internationally, international clean-tech transfer, and international climate adaptation. The world is looking to the US for 15% of revenue to go to these international leadership areas, and currently only 7% is spread over them. The bill needs to invest a lot more in renewables in a way that catapults their development forward much faster than 'business as usual.’
The frame of this bill needs to be changed, from 'How do we tackle this problem while causing as little change as possible?,' to 'How can we be transformational?.'
I walked out of the capitol in a very reflective mood, but over the weekend the path ahead has become much clearer. We need to be clear that we will not settle for anything less than a transformational piece of legislation that reflects the urgency of the crisis we are in, not to mention the opportunity that a very different future provides.