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The Climate Clock

There are many reasons why the United States Senate needs urgently to debate and vote on a climate and energy bill before the fall election campaign begins in earnest. Persistent dependency on carbon-based fuels is driving the planet toward disaster. This nation’s inability to focus on developing alternative energy sources is driving us toward ever-more destructive methods of extracting oil, which only worsen the environmental damage.

Urgent or not, effective climate legislation appeared only days ago to be a lost cause. Now, in a welcome surprise, it seems that the right thing may yet be done: Majority Leader Harry Reid intends to bring an energy bill to the floor before the end of July.

Here are some of the reasons why action is urgent: The effects of climate change — including polar ice melt, desertification, distorted ocean currents, disrupted food chains and more — are appearing more rapidly than even the most pessimistic scientific predictions of just a decade ago. Sooner or later, carbon accumulation will pass a tipping point, and some of these changes will become irreversible. No one knows when that moment will arrive.

Part of the political difficulty is that some of the changes will not become visible until long after the carbon has exceeded the tipping point. Politicians and the public must trust the science to guide them, and that trust is in short supply. At the moment, a rare window of political opportunity may have been opened by public outrage over the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But the window should not be overestimated. It will not last long.

More reasons: The House of Representatives passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill a year ago, but the Senate has dithered. The November elections are likely to produce a sharply reduced Democratic majority in both houses. If a bill is not passed, reconciled and passed again by both houses before the next Congress convenes in January, it may not happen for another decade.

President Obama entered the White House in the midst of an economic crisis deeper than any since the Roosevelt era. His response to the crisis has left much of the country sorely disappointed and his supporters in a funk over a presidency seemingly wasted. That’s a serious misperception. The health care measure enacted in March and the financial services bill now nearing passage address two critical problems that have plagued America for decades and defied resolution. If a climate bill can be enacted by January, it will complete a trifecta of American structural reform that surpasses the accomplishments of any legislative period since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

None of the reforms is perfect, and any climate change legislation that is adopted won’t be either. But, like Social Security, they introduce new structures that can be improved and expanded in the future. The important thing is to build the structure. We have five months to get it done.

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