In the will they, won’t they, those fighting for climate change mitigation wait to see what Kerry-Graham-Lieberman (oops, Kerry-Lieberman) will contain.

There are many ways to judge what comes out but the simplest and, for me, most important is to consider basic principles. At their core, just six words:

  • Scientifically Sound
  • Polluters Pay
  • Social Equity

If climate legislation meets the standards implied by these six words, expect strong support from across the environmental, environmental justice, and clean energy communities.

If not …

In brief, what do these six words mean?

Scientifically Sound:

The IPCC benchmark, which is quite likely far too conservative (e.g., is not nearly aggressive enough), calls for the developed world to cut emissions by 2020 by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels.

Now, many people like speaking from 2005 levels as a benchmark because they are about 14 percent higher than 1990. In other words, a 25% reduction from 1990 means about a 35% reduction from 2005. (Note, we are already roughly 9 percent below 2005 levels due to (a) recession, (b) increased use of natural gas, and (c) increasing renewable (mainly wind) energy (along with some increased energy efficiency.)

(Please note that it is very clear that achieving the IPCC-type targets is not just achievable, but would strengthen the economy. The Center for Climate Strategies recently released a report showing significant economic benefits from enacting just 23 climate mitigation strategies that are already in use in states and regions across the country. These would boost the economy (2.5 million net new jobs and a $134.3 billion expansion in GDP in 2020; with a cumulative expansion in GDP of $342 billion from 2010 to 2020). Just those 23 would lead to a 27 reduction from 1990 levels by 2020. (By the way, the CCS report almost certainly understated the true benefits of action due to the limitations of the analytical approach.) Moving beyond these 23 would enable even more significant reductions in Co2 emissions with even greater economic, security, and societal benefits.))

Now, by the way, the IPCC targets are almost certainly inadequate — we should be working to finding our way toward 350 ppm ASAP, rather than looking toward stabilization at 450 ppm or 550 ppm, but we can start with the 25-40 percent reduction from 1990 levels as a reasonable basis for judging legislative action.

Polluters Pay:

A very basic element of any sensible climate policy is actually establishing a price for "carbon" (actually, any GHG) that will create economic incentives to reduce polluting. Extensive permit giveaways (especially in the near term) would simply violate what is a basic core principle. (Note: Revenues from making polluters pay certainly could be plowed back to help polluters cut their pollution (whether energy efficiency, new processes, renewables, etc). There could even be a discounted price (e.g., have "allowances" given at the "lowest" fee level) for some specific groups, but with placing some degree of costs. At the end of the day, it is fundamentally wrong to be handing over pollution permits … it is not just immoral, but it is counterproductive to the very desires to help drive down pollution levels, ASAP. While that price doesn’t have to start high, it should be building toward a reasonable definition of the social cost of carbon. (Perhaps, today, in the range of $83 per ton of emissions — even starting at $10 today and building up would give serious incentive for industry to be driving wasteful emissions out of their business practices.) (Note that President Obama’s full 2020 budget submission to Congress, last May, called for 100% auction of permits and no giveaways.)

"Polluters Pay" can be done via Cap & Trade … via a Carbon Fee (better word than "tax") … upstream or end-user … there are many paths but, at the end of the day, Polluters should start Paying for the damage that their emissions cause and Polluters should help Pay for reducing societal emissions and for the costs of adapting toward the damage that climate change is causing and will create.

NOTE: We can do many things with the Polluters’ Pay-ments: dividends; paying for climate mitigation (energy efficiency and renewable energy, biochar programs, protecting rainforests, etc …) and adaptation (building more resilient infrastructure, etc …); dividend programs; reducing payroll tax; deficit reduction (after EE/RE investments, please …); etc …

Socially Equitable:

The United States has been, for too long, on a path toward increased social inequity — with the rich getting richer and the vast majority of society stagnating if not, in fact, getting poorer. And, our pollution patterns have been most damaging on the least powerful in society (whether economic, racial, or the youngest). At a minimum, any climate legislation should not worsen either the economic or environmental inequities. More appropriately, it should reduce those inequities (one of the benefits of, at least, a partial dividend is to help address financial inequities) via ‘Green Jobs’ in and targeting assistance for addressing the pollution issues in our poorest / weakest communities as early as possible.

Told you what I’m going to tell you, tell you it, and tell you what I told you …

Very simply, here are the six words of principle that provide the basis for judging any climate legislation:

  • Scientifically Sound
  • Polluters Pay
  • Social Equity

An important NOTE: To me, the ‘structure’ might be the most critical thing. It would be acceptable (albeit it not great) if there were weak initial targets, relatively low social cost of carbon numbers, and minimal improvement in social equity terms if (IF) the structure is basically right and that the structure doesn’t inhibit relatively straightforward strengthening and improvement across all these three areas. In my (educated? informed?) opinion, once we start the ball rolling on climate mitigation, we are going to astound ourselves with how much progress we can make with high benefits (e.g., benefits are going to overwhelm costs) in no small part because the society is so inefficient in its energy use. If the structure is right, we can reinforce success.