In a 24/7 “breaking news” world, here’s a show stopper for those carrying the burden of informing their audiences about the climate change “fixes” now under consideration on Capitol Hill.

Go. But go slowly, prudently, carefully. But don’t dawdle. By Washington standards, the legislation is moving forward at breakneck speed.

To not coin a new phrase, now is indeed the time to come to the aid of your audience. But avoid the hit-and-run reporting that would paint the strategically named Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009,” approved by the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee, as simply a good, or a bad, bill.


Historical and fundamentally important, it unquestionably is. No previous bill designed to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change has gotten remotely close to this one in terms of making serious progress through the legislative maze. Not by miles.

In itself, a major legislative accomplishment? Sure. Democrats Henry Waxman (D-Ca) and Ed Markey (D-Mass) – regardless of whether one generally agrees or disagrees with their positions – are respected and veteran legislators and Hill operators. Particularly, it must be said, Waxman. It’s a tribute to him, and a fair commentary, that his well-honed sense of the Congress and the political climate may indicate that something along these very lines is about what might be expected to garner the necessary votes in the House … and perhaps in the Senate, too. It may not be precisely what Waxman thinks is needed, but rather what he thinks is needed to pass and be enacted.

It’s a long way from becoming law, for sure, and the House floor debate, the upcoming Senate action, and the reconciling of the inevitable differences between any Senate- and House-passed bills make passage this year or next no sure thing.

While acknowledging a wealth of legislative prowess, however, it’s one thing to pass a landmark bill, altogether a different thing to pass one that can successfully address challenges on a scale of those posed by a warming climate. Waxman and Markey are good enough to get the bill this far; the jury remains out on whether their bill will be good enough to lead to meaningful progress, and do so in time, on the wide-ranging climate change issue.

Good enough? Is that indeed the question reporters should be asking? Good enough for what? Good enough to send a serious signal to the world community, in advance of this December’s negotiations in Copenhagen, that the U.S. really is in the game and addressing its responsibilities? Good enough to keep the legislative option in play while the Obama EPA continues wending its own way through the “endangerment” ruling regulatory process?

Good enough to provide climate stability while at the same time tending to economic stability, competitiveness issues, equity concerns, and plain old feasibility?

And if not? Then what? Is this legislation, or something like it, worthy of passage simply because the option of doing nothing at all legislatively is even more fraught with problems? Is the cap-and-trade approach of this bill preferable to a carbon tax because it’s truly “better” … or rather because it’s what can muster the needed votes in a Congress without using the dreaded tax word?

Might those with legitimate questions and objections to the Waxman-Markey approach best hold their noses and say “Aye,” knowing that a bill, once passed, can always be subsequently amended and improved? And knowing too that passing something, in this case, is infinitely better than passing nothing at all, a likely kiss of death for climate change legislation for who-knows-how-long.

Given their combined decades of environmental leadership on Capitol Hill, it might be tempting for some in the media to blithely infer that if it’s good enough for Waxman and Markey, it’s good enough, by definition, for the environment. If respected organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, the Pew Center on Climate Change and “US CAP,” the pro-cap-and-trade industry/environmental coalition support it, it must be OK. Right?

Notwithstanding, you understand, the sniping from some groups traditionally further out on the spectrum, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who apparently would rather reject the bill and fight another day.

And if inveterate climate change foes, like Congressman Joe Barton (R-Tx), say it’s a disaster, then it must be good from the perspective of those wanting action on climate change. Right?

Again, go carefully. There are literally scores of responsible pro and con assessments and evaluations of this landmark bill online. As in covering the science of climate change, it’s most helpful to avoid the headline-grabbing rhetoric of the flamethrowers on both extremes.

Serious analysts – certainly including many who strongly support committed action to reduce carbon emissions – are expressing serious concerns about various aspects and details of the pending 932-page legislation. So too are some wanting to regulate carbon pointing to the strengths of the bill currently seen as the only horse in town.

Some places to start for serious analyses of the bill:

Expressing Support:

Environmental Defense Fund

Natural Resources Defense Council (also see CO2 Media Guide)

Pew Center on Global Climate Change

U.S. Climate Action Partnership

Environmentalists Expressing Opposition:

Friends of the Earth

Greenpeace USA

Conservatives Expressing Opposition:

Competitive Enterprise Institute

Economist Martin Feldstein

Liberals Expressing (Tempered) Support:

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman

Additional Voices:

The Breakthrough Institute

Brookings Institution

Climate Progress/Joe Romm

Former House staffer and columnist David Goldston (paid access only for full text)

Grist’s Kate Sheppard offers “all you wanted to know” bullet points breakdown of various groups’ positions

Harvard Professor Robert Stavins’ “Closer Look”

Washington Post Business Columnist Steven Pearlstein