By BILL McKIBBEN
October 21, 2007
The next time you feel like being cynical about politicians, count yourself lucky for living in Vermont. Wednesday — under intense pressure to buckle — Sen. Bernie Sanders made one of those calls that might in the long run help save the planet.
Here's the back story. The Senate is, finally, writing the very first piece of legislation that would address global warming. Long after the Nobel-winning reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, long after Hurricane Katrina, long after "An Inconvenient Truth," they're finally taking up the single biggest question that the planet faces.
But instead of delivering the kind of law that the science now demands, the legislation, offered by Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and Virginia's John Warner, is a half-measure. By the standards of two decades of complete congressional inaction, it is bold, far-reaching, etc. etc. But by the standard of what scientists say is now necessary, it is limp.
Instead of sharp initial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, like the 30 percent by 2020 proposed by the Europeans, the bill offers at best half that. It's filled with loopholes that protect various industries. And most egregiously, it simply gives away hundreds of billions of dollars worth of permits to the right to fill the air with carbon — one Washington think tank calculated last week that it might constitute the single biggest corporate giveaway in American history (which, when you think about it, is saying something).
Sanders is one of the five members of the subcommittee writing the bill. He's under intense pressure — from more conservative environmental groups looking for a deal, any deal, and from business interests that can see the handwriting on the wall and want to cut their best bargain now.
But he knows that this is a high-profile issue in Vermont — he knows that there were 60 demonstrations on a single day in Vermont last spring calling for 80 percent cuts in carbon by 2050. He knows, in part, because he went to four of them, more responsive to his constituents in that fashion than any other legislator in the country.
And so, on Wednesday afternoon, he joined with New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg to issue a set of "principles" that he said would guide his vote on any legislation. Sound science, first of all: "Targets must be set to ensure that the global concentration of greenhouse gases rises to no more than 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent." That's tough, realistic language, the kind you hear in labs, not the usual let's-make-a-deal Washington norm. Not only that, but they said polluters shouldn't get rewarded — instead they should have to pay, to the American people, the cost of the carbon they pour into the sky.
Sanders and Lautenberg didn't say they'd vote against the law — and if it can be improved in the fashion they recommend, they should vote for it. They just held out for the idea that you can't compromise with chemistry, that you can't dicker with physics, that the laws of nature can't be amended to meet our momentary needs. If a bad law passes, and the pressure to do something abates for a few crucial years, then we'll lose the last window we may have to actually slow climate change.
It's an act of real courage to stand up to that kind of pressure, much of it coming from Democratic leaders looking for a piece of legislation they can point to as an accomplishment. It's a tribute to Sanders that he made the stand — and to all the Vermonters in the last year who have let him know how much it matters.
Those people will be rallying again on Nov. 3, part of a second nationwide series of protests organized by Stepitup07.org. They'll be joined by people in the other 49 states, but none will be standing prouder than those of us here in Vermont.
Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and co-author of the new handbook, "Fight Global Warming Now."