Last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (aka the Waxman-Markey bill), which sets up a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83% by 2050. It also includes other provisions to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green jobs.

As Paul Krugman noted in a recent NYT column, this isn’t the legislation we’d ideally want, but it’s the best we’re going to get right now – and this isn’t a problem that can wait. A bill with more ambitious targets and fewer giveaways to polluting industries just isn’t possible with the current Congressional makeup.

In the Washington Monthly, Charles Homans provides some interesting context for the bill with a profile of Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman. Since his election to the House in 1974, Waxman has been mastering the mechanisms of influence and waging multi-year campaigns to achieve progress on health and environmental issues. Homans explains Waxman’s approach:

His legislative campaigns unfold over spans of time beyond the patience of most lawmakers, and sometimes defy political gravity—in the 1980s, when anything smacking of Great Society liberalism was on the chopping block, Waxman managed to expand the Medicaid program twenty-four times. It is not unusual for him to spend a decade or longer advancing a single policy goal in tiny pieces, forging unusual alliances as he needs them, or simply outlasting his opponents. “It’s the Ho Chi Minh approach,” a despairing Republican staffer on Waxman’s committee once told National Review. “If [victory’s] not in the first year, it’s in the fifth.”

That Waxman-Markey managed to make it this far is a testament to Waxman’s negotiating skills. Homans notes, however, that Waxman’s approach may not be the best one when it comes to the issue of climate change:

In many respects, where climate change is now looks a lot like where tobacco was in the early ’90s. Public opinion was cautiously on Waxman’s side then, narrowly favoring limits on smoking and regulation of the industry. Waxman spent the next fifteen years patiently battling to shift the political consensus, leveraging broad but shallow popular support against a small but determined opposition. But if the fight over climate change looks too much like the fight over tobacco, we’re in trouble, because here are the brutal facts: The 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the gold standard of conservative risk assessment—advises that governments start curbing emissions no later than three years from now. Delaying any further will undermine what may be the final chance to stabilize temperatures below a level that will otherwise become catastrophic within the next century. Most climatologists believe that if moderately ambitious targets on the order of Waxman’s bill are not met by 2020, we will be helpless to stop warming trends before they hit a tipping point, beyond which there is nothing we can do. Officials and staffers close to the negotiating process admit that digging in and fighting for fifteen years is not an option this time around.

If we are lucky—and it’s a frighteningly large “if”—Waxman’s fight on climate change is nearing its endgame, requiring not a decade of low-boil persistence but, rather, a couple of years of tenacious negotiating. Passing his energy bill into law will be harder than getting pollution legislation on the books twenty years ago, but it will also be similar—and a chance for Waxman to prove that, even after fifteen years in the wilderness, he still knows not only how to make a deal, but how to make the right one.

Waxman-Markey needs to work – and work soon.