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Taking the long view on Waxman Markey

I haven’t really had the energy to try to say anything clever about the American Clean Energy and Security Act — better known as Waxman Markey — primarily because of this: it makes little sense to view Waxman Markey as anything other than a single, big step in a multinational negotiation that is unfolding over a period of at least twenty years. Roughly ten of those years have already gone by, leaving us with about ten more to go.

Take a moment to stroll through the New York Times archive of articles on the Kyoto Protocol, beginning in 1997, when 170 countries came together to pose binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions. An historic event!

But those countries punted on all the contentious details, and what follows is a grindingly incremental series of setbacks and advancements. Three years later, parties to the treaty are still arguing about basic obligations. A few months after that, the U.S. formally walks away from the pact. Eventually, the international trading system at the heart of the pact launches — and is immediately beset by problems, both real and perceived.

Bureaucrats continue to tinker with the system, and by 2008 it actually appears that it might be working. Europe is poised to meet its Kyoto targets! Then the world plunges into a financial crisis, and the ensuing economic contraction obscures whatever good effects the treaty might be having.

Now, in 2009, the U.S. is internally negotiating a climate bill while simultaneously trying to reach some kind of detente with China over greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is furiously positioning itself in advance of the talks in Copenhagen six months from now that will determine the fate of Kyoto’s successor treaty.

(About those China talks: “As a senior American team arrived in Beijing on Sunday for climate talks, the standoff was taking on the trappings of cold-war arms control negotiations…’This is going to be one of the most complex diplomatic negotiations in the history of the world,’ said Representative Edward J. Markey.”)

Of course, even in the context of this grand sweep, little details like permit allocations still matter, and it’s perfectly appropriate for partisans to sweat the small stuff. It does surprise me, though, how little remarked the big picture seems to be. Given the insane complexity of this problem, it still seems to me that the most important thing is to get things moving rather than to get things exactly right. As we all know, the climate system doesn’t care about diplomatic niceties, and the clock is ticking.

Take the first step.

Start small. Be conscious of the impact your actions have on the environment and figure out what you can do to lessen the blow. Calculate, conserve, and offset.

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