Cap-and-trade hits Capitol Hill

By Michelle Chen Jun 24, 2009

Congress is moving on major climate change legislation, but some environmental advocates worry that the government will pursue emissions reductions at the expense of marginalized communities. From a social equity standpoint, the market-based cap-and-trade framework presented in the Waxman-Markey bill (ACES) could be regressive for those hardest hit by climate change. Without stringent government regulation, activists argue, communities of color and poor households could remain unfairly saddled with polluting facilities while the country as a whole moves toward lower emissions. Progressive scientists are dismayed by the bill’s emissions-reduction goals, which progressive scientists say fall far short of reductions needed to adequately protect the environment. The bill offers polluters a generous pool of carbon "offsets," which allow companies to buy more permission to pollute. But the bill does incorporate one key environmentalist proposal: culling public revenue from the sale of some carbon permits, to help fund measures like reimbursing consumers for high energy costs. The bill would preempt much of the EPA’s authority to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act. Critics see this as an attempt to replace conventional government oversight with a more business-friendly cap-and-trade framework. In their analysis of the bill, California Environmental Rights Alliance argues:

ACES is worse than doing nothing and will be further weakened as it goes through other House committees and the Senate. As proponents of the bill actively ignore the weight of evidence showing that pollution trading simply does not work, and insist that emissions trading „is the only thing on the table,? they are actively pushing more effective policy approaches off of the table.

Many groups, including Green for All, are still pushing to make the legislation harder on polluters and more protective of marginalized populations. The debate on cap-and-trade dovetails with a new report on the “climate gap" from the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. Researchers found deep socioeconomic and racial disparities in the impacts of climate change, from disproportionate health risks in extreme weather events to the burden of rising energy costs. The report concludes:

Ignoring the climate gap could reinforce and amplify current as well as future socioeconomic and racial disparities. On the other hand, policymakers can work to close the climate gap through strategies that address the regressive economic and health impacts of climate change, and that lift all boats by ensuring that everyone shares equally in the benefits of climate solutions, and no one is left bearing more than their fair share of the burdens.

While the Waxman-Markey bill will invite plenty of criticism from the environmental justice community, it does at least set up a sounding board for these concerns in Congress. The grassroots push for climate justice might finally be loud enough to reach Washington. Image: National Institutes of Health