There seems to be a good chance of a vote on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill in the US House of Representatives in the coming week or so. Coverage on the bill has been very mixed, even among strong supporters of action on climate change. Partly, that reflects the sheer complexity of the thing, with all the special favours and unexpected consequences that represents. Partly, that is the product of obvious mistakes, such as giving away rather than selling the right to emit greenhouse gasses. Some have gone as far as to say that this bill is worse than useless. It certainly seems that the overblown cost estimates that some groups have produced are inaccurate. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget office estimates the cost at just $175 per household. Of course, there are legitimate questions about how many greenhouse gas emissions reductions can be secured when households are not presented with strong financial inventives.
The basic strategic questions are (a) is the bill so flawed that it should be rejected as a starting point and (b) what are the timing issues involved here? Timing is important both domestically and internationally. While climate change has had a relatively high profile within the Obama administration, it seems that they are refocusing their attentions towards health care reform – another issue rife with complexity and special interests. Missing this opportunity may mean a great deal of delay before another attempt can be made, as well as making it likely that the administration will have less overall energy and political capital to put forward. Internationally, the UNFCCC negotiations in Copenhagen this December certainly seem likely to go rather more smoothly if the United States has brought forward domestic legislation. If something can get through the Senate – even if it has some serious flaws – it might significantly improve the chances of an effective new global treaty.
How flawed is Waxman-Markey? This isn’t a question I feel that I can answer, given how sources I consider trustworthy have come down on opposite sides of the argument. Organizations like the Sierra Club have seen deep internal splits between those willing to accept the bill’s flaws and those who see it as beyond redemption. It is certainly a corrupt piece of legislation, in the sense that laws that do special favours to influential industries are corrupt, but that seems to be inevitable when advancing complex pieces of legislation in places like the US. In the end, I hope it passes, revealing that the US Congress is at least willing to take the first steps in dealing with climate change. The task then, as with many other environmental laws and regimes, will be to tighten the rules, eliminate the most egregious loopholes and handouts, and hopefully eventually produce an effective system for decarbonizing the American economy.
[Update: 26 June 2009] The bill passed in the House of Representatives, by 219 to 212, with 44 Democrats voting against it. While it is an imperfect piece of legislation, it is nonetheless exciting to see that it squeaked past this hurdle. The Senate will be tougher to convince.