U.S. Legislation

The following quote embodies the trajectory of declining expectations that have accompanied the U.S. climate legislation process.

First we were told not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Then we were told not to let the good be the enemy of the mediocre. Then we weren’t to make the mediocre the enemy of the awful. And now we must not be purists who turn the awful into the enemy of the completely disgusting.


We reject this line of reasoning entirely because our lives depend upon it! Instead, we aspire to a climate bill that rises to the challenges we face, because science, and our obligation to the future demands nothing less.

In recognition of the severity of the climate crisis we are facing, we believe that the U.S. must adopt truly groundbreaking and historic legislation to address global warming. This legislation must take the scientifically sound, yet, often politically difficult steps needed to avoid the catastrophic impacts we will otherwise experience. To meet this challenge, key features are essential, features that were not reflected in the recent House version of climate legislation, Waxman-Markey’s “American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA).

The below platform lays out the key issues, reflected in the House “American Clean Energy And Security Act” (ACESA), that must be changed to put us on track towards meaningful and effective legislation with a real chance of leading us into a viable future.

Our goal is to clarify what is needed, and demand it of our representatives and policy makers. Now is the time we must call on our leaders to do not just what is politically or economically feasible according to the many competing vested interests, but what is necessary to ensure a future for life on earth!


Any effective climate legislation must be based in the best available scientific advice.[1] Current scientific evidence clearly indicates the safe upper limit of atmospheric greenhouse gases to be somewhere between 300 – 350 parts-per-million carbon dioxide equivalent (ppm CO2-eq), in order to avoid catastrophic warming. We are currently already beyond that range, at about 387 ppm, and experiencing serious consequences, while further consequences are already inevitable and coming down the pipeline as the climate system responds. In December 2008, a major Climate Science Congress, attended by over 2,000 scientists, concluded: “the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized.” ACESA targets are far less ambitious even than stabilizing greenhouse gases at 450 ppm. This is unacceptable and will virtually guarantee catastrophic warming. We must do all we can to return to below 350 ppm, not simply revise upward and accept greatly reduced chances of survival.

We cannot afford to lock in place inadequate responses to climate change. Nor can we honorably approach the international community in Copenhagen with such a fundamentally flawed US bill in hand. As the historically highest cumulative emitter and still with the highest per capita emissions among developed countries, the US has an inescapable moral responsibility to lead by example. Also, the US is party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which obligates us to take necessary measures to protect against climate change.[2] This obligation must be met and can only be met if US climate legislation meets the scientifically mandated goals and does so swiftly and effectively.


Cap and trade cannot be counted on to adequately address the urgent requirement to reduce emissions. Proponents, largely based in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a partnership between a handful of corporate environmental NGOs and representatives of the most polluting industries, claim that cap and trade will be “most effective”, and will “spur innovation”. However, cap and trade approaches have already been tried and proven less effective than straightforward regulation, and even counterproductive in numerous other contexts, both internationally and regionally.[3] Better options exist, including strong regulation and a revenue neutral carbon charge and dividend. While less popular with industry, such alternatives ensure protection from economic harms to low income members of our communities, will more effectively reduce emissions, and avoids inherent risks of a highly volatile carbon market.


ACESA’s cap and trade scheme includes an astronomical quantity of offsets. Instead of actually reducing their emissions, polluters can buy cheap offset credits from international and domestic sellers that supposedly reduce their emissions in stead. At least half (and by some account much larger portion) of the offsets granted under Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which ACESA is modeled on, were found not to meet the criteria of “verifiable, permanent and additional”. ACESA would permit such massive quantities of offsets as to defeat the intent of the legislation by allowing the U.S. to avoid reducing greenhouse gas emissions domestically until 2030.

We need straightforward and effective legislation to directly reduce (not offset) emissions a) without delay or uncertainty b) without potential for cheating c) without further subsidizing polluters, d) without placing additional burden on those who can least afford it, and e) without creating risky carbon markets.


One of the foremost tools we have available for achieving these goals is EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Whereas ACESA sought to repeal this authority, it must be maintained and even strengthened, along with a number of other laws, (such as the Endangered Species Act, for example), which can provide useful tools for action on climate change.


Incentives for production of renewable energy must be directed towards those technologies that are in fact clean, renewable and sustainable. Subsidizing energy production from biomass and waste burning cannot therefore be part of an effective climate bill. Burning biomass results in at least 1.5 times as much CO2 at the smokestack per megawatt hour as burning coal, and burning wood, garbage and other forms of “biomass” also results in harmful air emissions and ash residues. Emissions from land use change also must be included in any realistic accounting, even though, this would likely prove that such energy sources are not “carbon neutral”, certainly not in the time window for action necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. Under a system where biomass carbon emissions are ignored, huge incentives to replace fossil fuels with biomass threaten our forests, biodiversity, agricultural lands and our health.


We need an immediate moratorium on new coal power plant construction, and a moratorium on unconventional fossil fuels like oil shale and tar sand, coupled with a rapid phase-out of all existing operations with these fuels within a decade. Coal, oil shale and tar sand are the dirtiest fossil fuels, with the highest greenhouse gas emissions per unit energy output. Continued reliance on these fuels is incompatible with any scenarios of returning below 350 ppm.

ACESA not only grandfathers in dirty old coal power plants, as well as new ones built before 2012, it will allow new coal plants with no CO2 restrictions to be built until 2020, as long as certain retrofits to capture carbon are installed by 2025. Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) is a speculative, unproven, expensive and potentially risky technology focused on keeping the coal industry in business. ACESA hands out tens of billions of taxpayer dollars for this illusive technology that is nothing more than the coal industry’s public relations campaign. Large scale investment in CCS, even if ultimately successful at reducing smokestack carbon emissions, would perpetuate the many other destructive impacts, from mountaintop removal mining to harmful air and ash emissions to toxic coal waste disposal, and leave future generations with the time bomb of CO2 leakage from underground storage that negates any mitigation efforts, and threatens the safety of communities on the ground.

In sum

We request that the U.S. Senate reject the ACESA cap and trade bill as a model for their version of climate change legislation. The many flawed features of ACESA, in combination would likely do more harm than good, undermining the fight against global warming. We urge the Senate to consider direct regulation of greenhouse gas emissions through carbon fees or other approaches and to be guided by the scientific and regulatory advice of the many experts who have analyzed the bill and documented the various inadequacies and harms it embodies. Global warming is the single largest threat to our planet, and we must act accordingly.


We ask our allies, and all people of conscience to join us in demanding not just any climate bill, but one that stands an honest chance of averting the worst consequences of climate change, in a just manner. The time is past for business as usual in the halls of congress and also on the streets of our communities. We must make our demands known and ensure that our leaders hear our voices above those of corporate lobbyists. It is time to do what is necessary to ensure the future for ourselves, our children and all of life.


[1] Current indications are that immediate reductions on the order of 30-40 percent below 1990 levels are necessary, with the longer term goal of 85-95 percent below 1990 levels by mid century. As currently drafted, Markey Waxman bill seeks to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 (not 1990) levels by 2020. This is only about 4-5 percent below 1990 levels.

[2] Articles

Article 2

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Such a level should be achieved within a time frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.

Article 3: The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof.

[3] GRIST article: Emissions Trading: A Mixed Record with Plenty of Failures