Finally, a climate bill

If greenhouse gases are not curbed, damages from global warming could cost the country $1.8 trillion a year starting in 2010, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Congress is finally getting ready to consider serious legislation about the most crucial issue of our time—global warming. An $846 billion climate-change bill now moves through the House of Representatives, and the stage was set for debate last week when a collection of top scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed evidence that greenhouse-gas emissions trends were “significantly above the worst case” scenarios that most experts had even considered.

But this is Congress, so not all is well.

Despite President Barack Obama’s clear commitment to climate legislation, sparks are already flying over the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill (named after its two sponsors, California Rep. Henry Waxman and Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey). Of course, conservatives and climate-change deniers are opposed to this bill saying, mostly, that it’s too expensive to justify during a recession. This argument doesn’t float, since the real expense would come from not acting to avert the worst and incredibly costly outcomes of global warming (see calculation in column note, right).

But many environmentalists see the bill as deeply flawed also—too conciliatory toward powerful industrial lobbies and inadequate to the task of making fossil fuels more expensive and low-carbon technologies (like solar and wind) more affordable.

There is no doubt the authors of the bill, “the American Clean Energy and Security Act,” were forced to make numerous compromises in order to get this legislation out of committee. Worse, this version of the bill basically forfeits the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide from existing and proposed coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act.

So, yes, environmentalists are correct that the bill is deeply flawed. But we desperately need it to pass anyway.

Here’s why. We see the bill as a first step, a framework. The U.S. government finally would be taking a stand on this most crucial of issues—and in time for Obama to head with it to the global climate-change treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, later this year. The bill’s passage would be historic, even if its ultimate provisions are more of a work in progress than an end product. Mostly, there’s little doubt that failure to pass this bill would put off meaningful climate legislation for years.

To be clear: This bill will not reduce greenhouse gases as fast as science knows we must. But it will, at long last, bring the United States fully to the table on this issue and, hopefully, edge Obama into a new global leadership role in championing the curbing of global emissions of carbon dioxide.

It’s an important start. We support it. After that, we’ll move on to what comes next in the fight to avert the most catastrophic impacts of global warming.