In May of 2010, the U.S. Senate unveiled a new climate bill. It aims to lower planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Science journalist Andrew Revkin who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times told EarthSky his thoughts about the U.S. climate bill.
Andrew Revkin: What I try to do is to look at a piece of legislation or any other initiative from the standpoint of the atmosphere. Is there a way to look with confidence and see if these mechanisms that are proposed, which ones would actually, really, concretely give you the best chance at making changes in emissions trajectories?
The U.S. climate bill, called the American Power Act, has a long way to go and will most likely change as it works its way through the Senate in the remaining months of 2010. One of the main parts of the bill so far is to establish a system of cap and trade. In theory it restricts the amount of greenhouse gases generated by utilities and allows them to trade on the market credits for carbon emissions.
Andrew Revkin: So one of the criticisms of this kind of system is that it can be pretty opaque, kind of like other financial trading that went on. And that got a lot of people suspicious of the whole enterprise. For the moment, it looks like if it’s in the bill, it will be restricted to the power generation sector, the utilities, initially, which greatly weakens the environmental potential of it.
The climate bill’s initial goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S. 17 percent below the levels of 2005 by 2020.
Andrew Revkin: As I wrote on Dot Earth recently, right now we’ve got declining emissions, although so far it’s been significantly because of the economy going into the tank. The question is now, how do you sustain reductions in emissions, while you try to grow an economy? That’s more challenging.
The Gulf oil spill of May 2010 could influence the decisions made by U.S. in support of renewable energy, said Revkin.
Andrew Revkin: I think there’s a teachable moment here, right now, an actionable moment, for President Obama. I think Americans basically want to have a clean environment. They know what excess is when they see it. And I think we’re at a moment when a leader could say, now is our time to engage this country in an energy quest. An effort, right from the gas tank in your car to the socket in your home to the laboratory in your classroom, to find ways to keep ourselves prosperous and build a sustainable world, without overloading the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and without the complexities and conflicts that can come with reliance on fossil fuels. Just look at the Gulf. Here you can see the issues we get into when we have unabated appetite for oil. We have to get it deeper and farther, and that comes with risks that can create things like the nightmare that we’re seeing.
The world is moving slowly on action to reduce its emission of planet-warning greenhouse gases, said Revkin.
Andrew Revkin: I think it’s taken ages for the world to even integrate, meaningfully, the reality that scientists have shown clearly – that humans are a building influence on the climate system. There’s a lot of variability along the way. And there will remain variability – unusually hot periods, wicked storms, more droughts, and some of that can confuse and confound the issue. There are plenty of people who I call ‘stasists,’ who are dead set on not having a shift from today’s energy policies. And that’s not going to change. Overall, I think we’re on the slow path toward integrating into our consciousness that humans are, and will remain for generations, a rising influence on the global environment and the climate system. And that comes with risks. We need to be invested, in a sustained and aggressive way, in priming the innovation pipeline, so we have new energy technologies and great improvements coming, that can make them cheaper, and finding ways to disseminate those where they’re needed, mainly in China and India. If we don’t get more engaged on putting this awareness to work, we’ll see a period of potential turmoil. It’s not just because of the climate influence. We’re also ‘peaking’ everything. In the next two generations, we’re heading toward adding the equivalent of two more China’s to the human population by 2050 or so. All nine billion people will be seeking a decent life. How we make that work out is the great challenge of our time.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.