Boxing clever

The Senate is gearing up to consider the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, which would introduce a carbon-trading system and slash America’s greenhouse emissions. But don’t get too excited: Barbara Boxer, the Democratic chair of the Senate’s environment committee, says she’ll probably shoot down the bill rather than allowing it to come to a vote.

Why would Boxer, a staunch green advocate, do such a thing? Her threat is an acknowledgment that Democrats can’t force the bill through Congress in its current form: In a floor vote they’d struggle to keep their own troops in line, let alone muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. In order to pass the bill, Democrats would have to throw a bone to the Senate’s swing voters – people like Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln and Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski – many of whom are convinced that a carbon cap has the potential to wreck the US economy.

Luring this rag-bag assembly of carbon cap skeptics into the fold would probably require a “safety valve” amendment, guaranteeing that carbon prices would not rise above a certain level. That would reduce the bill’s economic impact on big polluters – but it would also sharply reduce the legislation’s climate impact. Many companies would simply keep polluting, secure in the knowledge that government price controls would limit their financial exposure.

Rightly, that’s a point on which Boxer is unwilling to bend. She’s got science on her side, too: last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – usually a skeptic in such matters – forecast that the current version of the climate bill would reduce US economic growth by just a single percentage point over the next two decades. And that’s a worst-case scenario: The EPA’s estimate included neither the economic cost of unchecked climate change, nor the potential gains from new green collar jobs.

Instead of buckling under pressure from scaremongers who say a carbon cap would cost millions of jobs, Boxer is betting that come November, voters will give Democrats an even heftier majority on the Hill. Congressional greens would then be able to take another stab at the Lieberman-Warner proposals – and with more muscle on the Senate floor, they’d have a better chance of pushing the legislation through without having it torn to shreds.

There’s a risk, of course, that Boxer’s gamble will backfire: If the Democrats don’t make gains this November it could prove harder than ever to pass meaningful climate reforms. Still, her delaying tactics are probably the right move. Given the high stakes, compromises and half-measures simply aren’t good enough.