NYT Takes the Wrong Angle on Senate Climate Debate

For the first time since 2005, the full Senate chamber is debating climate legislation: the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, or CSA. Although the chances of this legislation becoming law this year are slim, it could lay important groundwork for the next Congress and Administration.

If you want to know the key details about what the CSA proposes and what the remaining sticking points are, go read this excellent Gristmill post by Kate Sheppard â and donât seek your information from todayâs New York Times. As the title suggests, John M. Broderâs NYT article âSenate Opens Debate on Politically Risky Bill Addressing Global Warmingâ focuses not on the measures Senators propose to address this crucial-to-human-survival issue, but on how theyâre spinning the situation. Hereâs the opening paragraph:

The Senate on Monday opened a raucous debate over climate change legislation even though it will put supporters of the bill, including all three presidential candidates, on the spot â essentially forcing them to come out in favor of high energy costs at a time when American consumers are paying record fuel prices.

Record-high fuel prices are certainly an important factor in this debate, but Broder doesnât really explain how the legislation is likely to affect these prices. He dutifully reports the party lines predicting the legislationâs effects â opponents say itâll hurt families by raising the costs of gas and energy, proponents say carbon permit sales would raise money that could be distributed to affected industries and consumers and help create millions of new jobs â but doesnât say much about how the bill might or might not lead to such outcomes. In an article of nearly 1,400 words, he (and/or his editor) decides that the actual provisions of the bill merit approximately 250.

This isnât to say that the rest of the article is excess verbiage; it does tell us about the vote that got the bill to the Senate floor, a proposed string of poisoned pill amendments, the billâs likely fate in Congress and the White House, and how this legislation might prove to be important even if it doesnât pass this Congress. But it also includes an awful lot of the exact same quotes we hear from politicians in just about every story on climate change. My gripe is that the ratio of useful details to empty political sound bits is skewed too much towards the sound bites.  

Lucky for us, we can turn to Kate Sheppard for a bigger helping of useful details. (I should note that blogs donât operate under the same space constraints that newspapers do, so Sheppardâs in-depth coverage probably isnât feasible for a newspaper.) Hereâs her explanation of the billâs key provisions:

The bill calls for a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions starting in 2012, with electric utilities, refineries, and the industrial and transportation sectors required to cut their emissions 19 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and a 71 percent by 2050. Other provisions of the bill are expected to reduce greenhouse gases from additional emitters 66 percent by 2050.

For the primary industries covered, emissions cuts would be achieved through a cap-and-trade system that would let polluting entities buy and sell the right to emit carbon. About 20 percent of emissions credits would be auctioned initially; the rest would be given out free to emitters and states. The percentage of credits auctioned instead of given away would increase gradually over time. (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both advocated for auctioning 100% of credits from the beginning, a position widely supported by enviros.)

Some new provisions in the bill are intended to help consumers deal with any increases in energy prices. There's an $800 billion consumer tax relief package and a $911 billion allowance to local electricity and gas utilities to help them cushion consumers from price swings, invest in renewables, and promote efficiency. This would all be paid for by the revenue from auctioning emissions credits, expected to total $3.3 trillion over the life of the bill. Funds from the auction would also go to worker transition programs, block grants to local governments for energy-efficiency programs, international adaptation programs, and deficit reduction. ...

The biggest change in the new version of the bill is a cost-containment mechanism, or "emergency off-ramp," which would automatically release additional emission credits onto the market if the price of credits hit $22 to $30 by 2012, adjusted for inflation after that. The additional credits would be borrowed from future allowances and auctioned off, with the proceeds used for direct emissions reductions. This falls short of the "safety valve" provision so anathema to enviros, but not short enough for comfort. Critics of the off-ramp argue that the price cap is too low and that it would remove the predictability that drives long-term investment.

Then she profiles the issues likely to prove most contentious as the bill is debated: cost containment, nuclear subsidies, distribution of carbon credits, and what to do about states that have already imposed emissions standards.

This is potentially landmark legislation on what might be the single most important issue facing our country and our planet right now â so go read about it on Gristmill, for a clear and thorough explanation of whatâs being debated. And maybe tomorrow the New York Times will publish something about the legislation thatâs more in line with its paper-of-record reputation.

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