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Weekly Mulch: Where is the Climate Change Bill?

Hopes of passing climate change legislation before the climate summit in Copenhagen are quickly dissipating, as Rachel Morris reports in Mother Jones. It seems unlikely that any major action will be taken before the December meeting. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) originally expected all six Senate committees to allocate cap-and-trade pollution permits by September 10, and later extended the deadline to September 28. But on Wednesday, Reid signaled that the legislation might be delayed until next year. Why is climate change taking the backseat? Simply, passing a health care bill and wrestling the economy back into shape have sapped lawmakers’ energy for climate change.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t pass climate change legislation, there is hope. Grist’s Geoffrey Lean is optimistic that a significant global climate negotiation can be reached at Copenhagen. Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, doubted that we would “make it” after the last international climate meetings. But on Friday, de Boer announced that he was now “confident we can reach a significant agreement in December.”

So what changed? Three important things: First, Japan elected a new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who pledged to cut his country’s emissions by 25% by 2020. Japan’s commitment to carbon reductions may pressure the European Union (EU) to raise its targets from 20%to 30%. Second, the EU finally agreed to finance from some of the money developing nations need to reduce their own emissions. While the amount is far short of the total amount that developing countries will need, it is still a major step. And third, de Boer attributes his optimism to China’s new attitude. The large country has privately promised U.S. officials that they will be “a constructive and positive force at Copenhagen,”  with hopes of continued cooperation and development when President Obama visits in November.

Others are less hopeful. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has voiced his concern that international talks might fail at Copenhagen. He points out that negotiators traditionally keep to themselves until the last minute, a strategy that could sabotage the chances that a substantial plan will emerge in December.

Maria Margaronis of The Nation argues that every little bit helps. Even if the Waxman-Markey bill is largely watered down, Margaronis hopes that Copenhagen will serve as a global wake up call that climate change is a serious issue:

“It matters because climate change is already devastating lives in the global south, and because time is running out for the rest of us as well. It matters because the coincidence of a U.S. president who takes science seriously and a leadership in Beijing alert for the first time to the dangers of warming and flooding is too good a chance to waste. It matters because the recession is a once-in-a-generation chance to push for a sustainable economy and fairer distribution. Climate change is not an environmental issue. It’s about resources and global justice, about the future direction of capitalism, about where the next wars will be.”

In Mother Jones, Tony Kreindler notes that the cap-and-trade delay is encouraging: It shows that senators are taking time to work out the details. Kreindler recalls how the bill faced similar criticism when it was in the House: “Back then everyone was yelling and screaming about the stimulus and you didn’t hear a whole lot about climate change. But that whole time Waxman and Markey were quite busy under the radar. Then all of a sudden the bill was out of committee.”

In the midst of an economic recession, Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) will have a hard time proving that we can afford cap-and-trade legislation. Kate Sheppard writes for The Washington Independent that Waxman-Markey has to incorporate a variety of interests that don’t often work hand-in-hand. Environmental advocates are calling for stronger carbon emission reduction targets by 2020, which would make the bill more expensive, and therefore harder to sell to the American public and swing-vote Senators. The Senate needs to produce a bill that helps Americans transition to a clean energy economy, protects jobs and addresses environmental concerns. At the same time, we must remember that the bill won’t pass without 60 votes.

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