Lieberman-Warner: A Political Card Game Worth Playing

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.



This is a painful argument to read that, at its core, rests on: “Wow, there are bad people attacking Lieberman-Warner, that must make it okay.” Come on, let us be serious.

Let’s think about basic principles for Global Warming legislation. I would recommend these:

  • Meets scientific requirements
  • Polluters pay
  • Does not worsen (hopefully improves) societal equity

How does Lieberman-Warner stack up? As you should be well aware, it fails on all three of these.

L-W is not a start but, if it passes, it risks being a roadblock to doing what is required.

Now, I do agree that there is the quite serious challenge that the public is not ‘polling’ strongly on Global Warming. To a significant element, I see this as a challenge of leadership. And, we might see the impact of the WE campaign on changing the basis for action.

Finally, I think you can take a far more critical (not criticism, but serious examination) of Boxer’s political strategy. How did Lieberman-Warner end up as “moderate”? Perhaps because Boxer-Sanders, the only Senate bill to come close to meeting scientific guidelines, is set up to be ‘extreme’. Hmmm … What if Senator Sanders had introduced a 90% or 95% bill, would Boxer’s bill seemed a little more ‘moderate’? Or …

Talk about depressing….

It’s a weak bill, doesn’t do enough, or move fast enough and if we’re really past the tipping point has no chance of solving any actual problem…

but it’s the best we can get.

Mr President, members of congress, fellow human beings who don’t think GCC is that important: F U!

Why try to get this tepid bill in this year, when it would obviously be vetoed by Bush?

Why get a half-assed bill in this year when next year (fingers crossed), an all-singing all-dancing bill could be passed which actually did what it’s supposed to do in terms of the science?

The Bali agreement left a little space for a new and more progressive regime in the US - the whole world is waiting for decisive action from a new regime.

And as for the Chamber of Commerce et al, this heavy pressure from the more vociferous industry voices will continue on every single piece of legislation even vaguely mentioning climate change for the foreseeable future. They have been screaming for years - often questioning the science itself.

A more progressive regime, we hope, would be less influenced by this lot than the current administration, especially as next year won’t be election year.

Get the new legislation in in the first 100 days. Ditch the moderate Warner Lieberman - it would only have to be strengthened anyway.