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Senator Graham shouts “Play Ball!”


Asher Miller is executive director of think tank Post Carbon Institute. Any opinion expressed here is his own.

It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the politics of climate legislation to hear Senator Lindsey Graham pronounce, “the cap-and-trade bills in the House and Senate are dead.” The truth is that they’ve been dead for quite some time. It’s just that now we finally have the coroner’s official report.

Many proponents and opponents of climate legislation have had one thing in common for some time now—they hate the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey bill which passed in the House by a narrow margin back in June).

So an unlikely assembly of hardcore climate activists and equally hardcore climate deniers likely greeted Graham’s announcement with some measure of satisfaction.

The opponents’ argument against the bill is stunningly simple: They don’t believe in human-caused climate change.

The arguments on the other side are, not surprisingly, more numerous and more complex, not to mention more valid. The reason why so many climate activists like myself have opposed ACES is that the 1,400-page House bill was riddled with so many giveaways to polluters, and set targets so low and so slow, that folks were honestly debating whether or not it would be better to have no legislation at all than this piece of… paper.

Keep in mind: with a much narrower majority in the Senate, the bill was likely going to get watered down even further.

So is Graham’s pronouncement good news? Yes, and for two reasons:

First, at least Senator Graham is being honest. This is an election year and the healthcare debate is now going into extra innings. How likely is it that the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats are up for a doubleheader, when game two is far less of a guaranteed win in terms of public support than game one was supposed to be?

Lack of progress in Copenhagen and doubts sewn by coordinated campaigns to discredit climate science only serve to make the outcome of any debate on Capitol Hill all the more uncertain.

It’s no surprise, then, that Congressional leaders are looking for new approaches. And that’s a good thing.

Which gets to the second point: If this is indeed a new ballgame, Senator Graham’s pronouncement could actually open the way for more meaningful legislation.

Graham is busily crafting a new bill with Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. Who knows what it will actually contain? But there is already another alternative out there that could be a clear (pardon the pun) game changer.

In the months since ACES stalled, slow but steady momentum has built for an alternative approach called cap and dividend. In late 2009, two Senators, Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins—from opposite ends of the country and opposite sides of the aisle—introduced the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act.

In contrast to ACES, wherein a large number of permits would be given away to polluters, CLEAR would auction off 100 percent of the carbon permits. And rather than create a complex market for trading these permits, CLEAR would send 75 percent of revenues to the American people in the form of monthly checks (the other 25 percent would be invested in clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation programs). That’s right—actual checks that Americans can put in their savings accounts or use as they see fit. And it’s not like this is a new idea or would bankrupt the energy industry. Just ask Alaskans how they like their Permanent Fund, which has been sending them checks since 1976.

In this economic climate, cap and dividend makes a lot more political sense than cap and trade (cue images of Wall St. fat cats getting fatter) or a carbon tax, however more substantive the latter may be.

Which is why cap and dividend could actually work if positioned right. Positioned as a climate bill, it will fail. Positioned as a means of putting money in every American taxpayer’s pocket while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs, it may just succeed.

Here’s hoping it does. The stakes of this game couldn’t be higher.

Photo shows The Boston Red Sox bat boy holding baseballs for the home plate umpire before the MLB Inter-League baseball game between the Red Sox and the New York Mets at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts May 22, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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