Lieberman-Warner: A Political Card Game Worth Playing

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Is anyone else as impatient as I am for this summer, when (supposedly) we will finally learn whether it’s possible to pass greenhouse gas legislation in the current U.S. Congress, and get it signed by the president?

The good news is that amid calving ice shelves and new estimates from James Hansen suggesting that we’ve already passed the climatic tipping point, I’m sensing there may be an emerging new mood of unity out there on legislative action–at least if it passes a certain threshold.

Environmentalists have been fractious up until now on the Lieberman-Warner bill, which clearly isn’t as strong a piece of legislation as some might wish to see. In particular, Friends of the Earth slammed the bill for giving industry loads of free pollution permits under the cap-and-trade regime that it sets up. Others object that the emissions reductions required by 2050 under Lieberman-Warner fall short of what’s scientifically required to stabilize the climate.

(If Hansen is right, they definitely fall way short.)

But more recently, perhaps in part because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have heaped calumny on the bill–cranking out soaringly unrealistic cost estimates and engaging in standard job-loss fear-mongering–it’s starting to feel a bit more like we have a common enemy.

If this bill scares industry that much, can we really argue that it doesn’t have any teeth?

I don’t think so.

No: Lieberman-Warner is moderate, but serious. It’s not enough, but it is a start. And one could argue those are precisely the attributes that first-time legislation on such a difficult subject ought to have (so long as it isn’t weakened, which kind of goes without saying.

But whatever happens as the debate on this bill unfolds–and I will be tracking it here for DeSmogBlog–I think we ought to keep something in mind. Not only is Lieberman-Warner too strong for significant sectors of U.S. industry, it is also probably too strong for the U.S. public–at least in the sense that the public is not making a lot of noise to demand it.

Consider the following data from Pew (January 2008) on where the U.S. public’s priorities lie.

It is shockingly depressing information, but it is consistent with many other surveys: Just 35 % of the American public rates dealing with global warming, a la a bill like Lieberman-Warner, as a “top priority.” That puts global warming behind Iraq, healthcare, the economy, the budget deficit, poverty, immigration, crime, and many, many other things. It puts it tied for dead last on the roster that Pew provided–tied with making Bush’s tax cuts permanent, for crying out loud.

In a situation like this–with such a dramatic gap between the urgency of the problem and the public’s priorities–it takes courageous politicians indeed to move on a global warming bill, and moreover, a global warming bill that will assuredly have an economic impact, even if nothing as dire as foes project.

But folks like Barbara Boxer are doing it anyway, because it’s the right thing to do, and they know it. And bless them for it–but given the state of public concern, and the resistance from many holdouts in industry (like the NAM and the Chamber), is it any wonder that a bill like Lieberman-Warner is the strongest thing we have any chance of passing at the current moment?

In other words, given the very, very unfavorable cards that legislators have been dealt, could you really expect them to play a better hand?

In the end, it may be that our leaders won’t play their cards all the way anyway–that instead they’ll fold, walk away from the table, come back in a year. One could hardly blame them.

But I like the idea that we’re going to try it, not least of all because it may inject more talk about global warming into the presidential race. That can hardly be a bad thing. And perhaps we’ll even force president Bush to sign or veto a global warming bill.

After everything we’ve been through with this administration on global warming, I think that on some level we’re entitled to see the squirming that would result.

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