New climate bill at last: Legislation offers a good start to build upon

Wednesday’s introduction of a Senate proposal to curb global-warming from Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.) — called the American Power Act — was long overdue and offers our last best opportunity to take immediate action this year that addresses the massive challenge of addressing climate change in a comprehensive way.

Introduction of the bill sparked a flurry of questions. How would it affect public lands? How would it affect greenhouse gas pollution? And the most common question around the Beltway: has anyone read this thing? But with the Gulf still flooding with oil, it is more important than ever to move legislation that will shift the nation away from dirty, unsustainable fuel sources — and this is the first time those questions have been asked in the Senate in months.

Now that the dust is settling, policy and science experts from The Wilderness Society are digging into the 987-page behemoth and analyzing what the bill means for our wild places.

What they know so far is that like any piece of legislation, the American Power Act has upsides and downsides.

The Good

Most importantly, the American Power Act works to put a lid on heat-trapping pollution by charging major polluters for each ton of CO2 that goes into the atmosphere and reducing the amount permitted each year.

Ending this free ride for polluters is a major first step towards reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and reducing the threats to our wildlands from droughts, lesser snowpacks, invasive species, and other dangers.

Wind farm at sunset. Courtesy NREL.This will also drive investments toward energy efficiency and clean energy — tapping into American ingenuity to help create jobs and improve our environment.

The bill also responds to our calls to provide funding to protect our communities and wildlands from the unavoidable effects of climate change - providing resources to do things like fight off invasive species and restore wetlands and forests. In addition to the benefits to the wildlife that use these habitats, these activities produce high-quality jobs and help protect the clean air and water that we rely on every day.

Find out how green adaptation jobs can help the economy and the environment.

The Bad

In an unfortunate reflection of the bitter divides in contemporary politics, the American Power Act strays from its climate control purpose, and begins pandering to anti-environmental interests.

Despite the continuing devastation in the Gulf of Mexico, the bill encourages more — not less — offshore drilling. By offering willing states a financial inducement to drill within 75 miles from their shores, the bill creates incentives to continue depending on dirty fuels. Such states would be allowed to keep nearly 40% of the revenues. While a hastily-written provision for neighboring states to veto these dangerous off-shore plans was inserted at the last minute, these provisions do nothing to help cure America of its addiction to oil.

The community and wildland protection funding isn’t nearly as much as is needed — and worse, doesn’t begin until 2019 (7 years after the bill goes into effect in 2012). Delaying funding for climate adaptations projects will only make the problems facing our natural places worse, and with fewer resources, efforts to address climate impacts will be less effective. The climate-related threats looming over our wild places won’t wait for almost another decade, and neither should we.

And while renewable fuels are a hot topic right now, the American Power Act includes language that would abandon sustainable forestry principles to use our forests as an energy source — threatening to turn our private forest ecosystems into mono-culture tree farms that are no more natural than skyscrapers or space shuttles. Without proper safeguards, we run a very real risk of having the same pressure placed on our public lands — the same places we have fought so hard to protect.

The Ugly

The worst part of the bill isn’t any of the provisions contained within, however.

Glacier National Park. Courtesy NPS.The worst part — the ugly — is that it is so late in coming. In 2010, America has yet to act to confront the threat that climate change poses to our wild places and our communities.

Scientists and environmentalists have known that America’s addiction to carbon spewing fossil fuels was a hazard to our ecosystems and our way of life. Glacier National Park, one of our jewels of America’s vaunted National Park System, has already lost a third of its iconic glaciers to a warming climate.

From the polar bears in the Arctic, struggling to find food and shelter on the diminishing ice, to the native plants and animals being pushed out by exotic invaders that were once contained by cooler climes, the threat of global warming isn’t just obvious — it’s here.

Why should a climate bill fund natural resources projects in your community? Watch a few experts on restoration and adaptation talk about the importance of our wild places to a healthy environment and a healthy economy.

Parched earth.
Wind farm at sunset. Courtesy NREL.
Melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, Montana. Courtesy NPS.