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Former congressman says demise of cap-and-trade bill offers lessons for Build Back Better

In 2010, then-Rep. Henry Waxman​​​​​​ (​D-Calif.) watched as the biggest climate bill in U.S. history died an unceremonious death in the Senate, despite months of round-the-clock negotiations in both chambers of Congress and the White House.

It's beginning to look a lot like 2010 again, and instead of a cap-and-trade bill, Democrats are scrambling to resuscitate the stalled Build Back Better Act, which contains a historic $555 billion investment in reducing the emissions that are heating the planet.

Waxman, who served as a lead author of the cap-and-trade bill when chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is hoping BBB does not meet the same fate.

“We had difficulties which tended to be fatal,” Waxman told The Climate 202. “Build Back Better is having difficulties which I hope will not be fatal.”

The cap-and-trade bill was known as Waxman-Markey after then-Rep. Edward J. Markey, the other lead author in the House. It proposed establishing a cap-and-trade system in which the federal government would set a limit (cap) on the total quantity of greenhouse gases that could be emitted nationwide. Companies would need to buy and sell (trade) permits to emit those gases, and the cap would get lower and lower over time.

If passed, Waxman-Markey would have been the most significant piece of climate legislation ever enacted in the United States. But many factors converged to spell the bill's demise, including the Great Recession and opposition from industry interests.

Build Back Better would similarly represent the biggest investment in clean energy in the nation's history. But Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said in late December that he could not support the bill, citing rising consumer prices, a growing federal debt and the arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Back in 2010, of course, Manchin was mounting his first run for the Senate by firing — literally — at his own party's climate policy. Manchin released a campaign ad in which he shouldered a rifle and shot a hole in a copy of the cap-and-trade legislation, saying, “I’ll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill because it’s bad for West Virginia.”

Troubles with timing, filibuster

Waxman, who now runs a public relations and lobbying firm called Waxman Strategies, said he learned several lessons from his experience with cap-and-trade that Democrats could heed today. One was the importance of timing.

Waxman noted that President Barack Obama ​​​​​​took office pledging to address two pressing issues: climate change and health care. But after the Senate spent so much time debating the Affordable Care Act, there were precious few days left on the legislative calendar for cap-and-trade.

“There is a myth going around that is often repeated that President Obama didn't care that much about the cap-and-trade bill. That wasn't true. His efforts were essential to get it through the House,” Waxman said.

“[Obama] once said to me, 'I've got two babies here — two children here — and I love them both equally. But I do want the Affordable Care Act through. That's my more important goal,'" he said. “And there's not much he could have done after we spent all that time on the Affordable Care Act.”

Democrats will also have to manage their time carefully in the coming months, as Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) targets a vote on changing the Senate rules by Jan. 17 — and as the party stares down the midterm elections in November.

Waxman said he enthusiastically supports changing the Senate rules requiring a 60-vote threshold, which would have ensured the passage of cap-and-trade in the chamber. 

“Had they broken the filibuster in the Senate, they would have passed it in the Senate because they had a majority vote ready to go for it,” he said. “So the lesson is we shouldn't have a filibuster in the Senate.”

The importance of executive action

After Waxman-Markey fizzled out in the Senate, Obama sought to cut emissions in ways that did not require congressional approval. In 2015, he unveiled the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

If BBB flounders in the Senate, President Biden's ambitious emissions reduction goals will depend on Environmental Protection Agency regulations and executive action.

“[Biden] is trying to do everything he can right now with executive action. There are some things you can do, and I've recommended it to them,” Waxman said, although he declined to offer specifics on his suggestions to the White House.

Markey, who is now a senator, is not ready to give up on BBB.

“More than a decade after we worked to get Waxman-Markey across the finish line but were stymied by Republican opposition and entrenched big money interests, Congress has the opportunity to pass life-saving climate action that would take steps to drastically reduce emissions, address environmental injustice and create millions of good-paying union jobs,” Markey said in a statement to The Climate 202.

“We must get this done,” he added. “While the best time to act on climate was decades ago, the next best time is now.”

The power grid

Texas's gas industry is still not ready for the cold

It’s been nearly a year since a deep freeze killed hundreds and knocked out power across Texas. But the state’s natural gas industry was still caught unprepared for a cold front last weekend, Bloomberg’s Gerson Freitas Jr, Francesca Maglione, and Sergio Chapa report. Although the latest chill was nowhere near as severe as the storm last February, it still caused instruments to freeze, production to plunge and natural gas companies to spew pollutants into the air. 

Nearly 1 billion cubic feet of gas was burned or wasted in weather-related shutdowns in Texas on Sunday. It’s a testament to the fact that the industry remains vulnerable to extreme weather despite calls for natural gas producers to make their infrastructure more resilient.

Climate solutions

One roofing company hopes ‘solar shingles’ will increase solar uptake

Installing solar energy systems on a home has usually meant mounting solar panels on racks. But that could change: One of the largest roofing companies in the United States, GAF Energy, started selling a solar shingle product yesterday, The Washington Post's Tik Root reports

By combining roofing and solar installation, the company is hoping to make going solar more accessible and affordable. While solar shingles have been around in some form for decades, GAF Energy’s offering is notable because of the company’s expansive installer network and the fact that the shingles can be nailed onto a roof.

Ask a climate reporter

The Washington Post's Tik Root talks climate solutions around the world

Over the past year, our colleagues have told the stories of a dozen people around the world who are working to find solutions to climate change. Tik Root, a climate solutions reporter at The Post, spoke with The Climate 202 about the project. 

Climate 202: Is there any particular person or moment that stands out to you from the climate visionary series? 

Root: There was this moment when I was in the Yukon and Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm was bouncing his then-3-week-old baby on his lap and talking about the future that she would live in. It was a theme that came up over and over again, not just with him, but with the other visionaries: how much future generations motivated them.  

Climate 202: When you were looking for people to profile for the series, what drew you to certain stories? 

Root: The main bar that we had was that their contribution had to be relatively tangible. It wasn’t theoretical or unbuilt or unplanned. It was in progress, in action, whether that was someone installing solar in Brooklyn or finding gas leaks in Boston or building fruit ethylene sensors out West. And then, we made sure we had a diversity of visionaries, both in their demographics, but also in their geographic location and what they were doing.   

Climate 202: Did this series change your own thinking in any way? 

Root: I think it made me excited more than anything. It was a great look at what is possible. Each of these people was so passionate and energetic. All of them would text or email at crazy hours. This is what they had devoted their lives to doing, and it was inspiring. 

Climate 202: When experts predict that the United States is on a path to catastrophic climate change, how do you view positive climate stories? How do you highlight moments of hope without sounding like a Pollyanna? 

Root: I would say I don’t necessarily see them as positive stories. I just see them as stories. I see solutions journalism generally — but particularly in the climate space — as a new and different way of engaging with what is clearly a massive problem. The idea, at least as I see it, is to teach people through a solution about the problem, as a different way of engaging. Some people might feel more inspired by the doom and gloom, but I think a lot of people like to read about hope. This is in no way meant to ignore or minimize the massive challenge. It’s just another way into it. 

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