Senator Lindsey Graham has threatened to walk away from the climate legislation he had fashioned over many months with Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.
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The Founding Fathers consciously designed the U.S. Senate to slow down hasty action and to defend the rights of the poorer, less populated states.

Over time, the Senate evolved into the chamber that forged the necessary compromises to keep the union intact.

Even today, Senator Henry Clay, dubbed the "Great Compromiser," is revered for authoring the Missouri Compromise and the much later Compromise of 1850. Clay kept the South from seceding, mostly by finding ways to halt change. His compromises also kept slavery legal in the South and in some newly formed states.

In the end, of course, a bloody Civil War proved inevitable, as did the end of slavery. Some issues do not lend themselves to perpetual compromise. Sometimes fundamental change is necessary.

These thoughts sprang to mind over the weekend as Senator Lindsey Graham threatened to walk away from the climate legislation he had fashioned over many months with Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman. This was of some import because Senator Graham was the only Republican senator to favor the legislation. His endorsement was needed to provide the magic label, "a bipartisan compromise." But, of course, it isn't one. If Graham stays on the sidelines, the bill is dead.

Although few of my friends and colleagues in the national environmental community are prepared to acknowledge it yet, this is incredibly good news. (In politics, wild overreaching by your opponent almost always is.)

In recent weeks, the rich assortment of tax incentives, federal guarantees and loans, and pure pork in the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill had begun to tempt so much of corporate America to the trough that they might have whipped the reluctant Republicans into passing it. It would actually have made things worse.

It would have eliminated the regulatory backstop the EPA can exercise under existing law.

It would have eliminated the ability of states, cities and regions to continue to experiment with the innovative programs that to date have been the source of all climate progress in the United States.

It would have permitted a tradeable derivatives market vastly more complicated than the mortgage scams that nearly brought down western civilization two years ago.

Worse, it would have transferred vast federal wealth to companies that -- like the American South in 1850 -- have a vested interest in ensuring change does not happen.

Senator Graham's snit provides an opportunity to actually launch a transition to a new era of green, climate neutral prosperity. Although from the popular press coverage one would never know it, there is another bipartisan climate bill in the US Senate. Drafted by two women, Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, it could be a winner.

The Cantwell-Collins bill is not unflawed but has the basic structure right. It caps carbon "upstream" at the 2,000 places--ports, pipelines, mine mouths, etc. -- where it enters the economy. It auctions carbon permits each year up to the limits of the cap -- so, unlike with KGL, we will know precisely how much carbon will be emitted to the atmosphere each year from all fossil fuels.

Cantwell-Collins returns 75 percent of the revenue collected to the public on a pro rata basis. Because the rich spend more (directly and indirectly) on energy than the poor, more than 80 percent of the public will be made richer by this progressive revenue measure.

All the money will be returned to taxpayers and invested in technologies designed to reduce carbon -- not to enrich coal companies and oil companies and pay for their lobbyists.

Finally, it prohibits the derivative trading that, under KGL, threatens to turn the nation's energy system into a giant lottery.

The major national environmental organizations, which climbed into bed prematurely with the so-called cap-and-trade approach that has failed so miserably in Europe, have stuck resolutely to Kerry-Graham-Lieberman as the only vehicle that might pass. They have compromised and compromised and compromised, one small slice at a time, until they didn't recognize when they capitulated. Kerry-Graham-Lieberman is now more popular with the Edison Electric Institute than with grassroots environmentalists.

A billion-dollar push for clear might have produced an energy revolution. (America didn't lead the information revolution by trying to placate the interests of IBM, Control Data, and AT&T, but that's what Kerry-Graham-Lieberman does for the National Coal Association, the American Petroleum Institute, and EEI.)

Let's not let ourselves get compromised into capitulation by 2,000 pages of KGL loopholes. Cantwell-Collins is 39 pages long and is a lobbyist's nightmare: anyone can understand it. This is one of those Civil War moments, except the future of the planet--not just the Union--is at stake. What we need is not Henry Clay but Abraham Lincoln.

This time, Honest Abe has arrived in the form of two brave women. Those of us outside the Beltway must put a massive effort into electing a Congress that will support them.

Denis Hayes, national coordinator of Earth Day in 1970, is an environmental activist.

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