As Hotflash has already reported, Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters was in St. Louis yesterday and took the time to meet with some local bloggers.  Mr. Karpinski, as you might expect, has a sophisticated understanding of environmental issues as well as their political ramifications, so it was especially enlightening to get his take on why the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) act that is now making its way through the congress is so important.

At first blush, the urgency of enacting ACES seems obvious.  Like …  duh … global warming equals catastrophe, and we have to do something.   Everyone knows this, with the exception of a few odd characters like our own Todd Akin (R-2nd  Dist.), who thinks climate is the same thing as weather.  However, all possible legislative solutions are not equal, and there has been lots of grumbling about ACES, claims that it is at best the pastiche that results when numerous competing interests are allowed at the negotiating table.  

While I still believe that we could do better with ACES, and I worry that, after the Senate gets its hands dirty on the bill, we may do worse, Karpinski’s summary of the legislation and its political context went a long way toward helping me understand that it may be our last, best chance. According to Karpinski, the provisions of the bill fall into three interrelated categories (a brief but more detailed summary can be found on the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) website if you are interested):

First, the component we have all heard the most about is the cap-and-trade provision that would put a price on carbon for the first time, permitting us to balance the economic benefits and the overt and hidden costs of energy consumption in a pragmatic way that is intended to result in a continuing, graduated  reduction of carbon emissions.

Second, the legislation would create an interrelated suite of federal energy standards and policies, enabling the coordinated, national approach to energy policy that is essential if we actually intend to reduce harmful emissions, and create economically viable alternative energy industries.

Finally, ACES will direct funds into alternative energy research.   It will also provide funds to consumers and industries to help position them to contribute to the changes this legislation will mandate as well as to ameliorate the transition costs as we move into a greener economy.

The real beauty of ACES, though, as Karpinski explained it, lies in the long-term perspective inherent in its organizing principles. It recognizes that a crisis of this magnitude cannot be resolved in one fell swoop, so it sets into motion a process that will develop in reach and complexity over time.

The simplest example of this long-term approach are the cap-and-trade provisions that will go into effect in 2012 and will mandate a reduction of emissions 3% lower than the 2005 base level — but in 40 years, by 2050, the mandated reduction will have increased so that it will be 83% lower than in 2005.  While cap-and-trade is gradually taking effect, the economic costs associated with this change may be lessened as new energy strategies are developed as a result of the R&D monies allocated by the bill, and as new energy industries arise.

A second, related principle affirms the importance of the economic impact of our policies that aim to mitigate climate change.  Conservatives are right that the solution to the climate/energy conundrum cannot be addressed in a vacuum; energy policy stands in direct relation to our economic well-being.  But if we do what we need to do, what this bill is trying to do, the solution to our energy issues can mean a transition to a stronger economy with lots of “green industry” jobs in the offing.  The situation is not “either/or” as far as economic growth, but rather that clean energy can equal economic growth if we do it even half-way right.

I have heard plenty of carping about the complexity of ACES (Kit Bond, for instance,  is really worried about the length of the document), and though it’s easy to understand the partisan source of most of  this niggling, it wasn’t until I thought about Karpinski’s perspective on the issues, that I understood that this complexity is a really, really good sign.  You can’t present a solution to one of the biggest dilemmas we face today without making provisions that reach into the future and that touch on a host of related economic issues.  All of which, I would be willing to bet, takes more than 20 pages.