Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Our System Can't Do
I haven't been following the particulars of the Waxman-Markey bill that recently passed the House of Representatives very closely, certainly not closely enough to have a clear opinion on whether or not it would be effective in its stated goals of curtailing emissions. But even without knowing the particulars, I'm nearly certain that it won't be enacted--certainly not in anything like its current form, which no small number of environmentalists already deplore as insufficient and possibly more harmful than helpful. The reason why is that our political system provides no incentives for elected officials to take action on a problem like global warming, but furnishes many reasons for them to punt on it.

Some of those reasons are logically valid as well as politically relevant. One argument against an emissions cap is that if the U.S. passes such a measure while rapidly industrializing nations like China do not, we're harming our economy without necessarily helping the environment; at best, we're allowing ourselves to be victims of a free-rider problem, shedding jobs for the good of the planet without altering China's behavior in the slightest. Without meaning to sound like Dick Cheney, while such an act of national self-sacrifice might be admirable, it's not the sort of thing that helps a Representative or Senator stay in office. Add in that the timing is particularly unfortunate--adding costs to businesses and households while the economy is mired in a recession (even though those costs will be phased in, likely not taking full effect until sometime well after recovery takes hold), and it's hard to see how this goes through.

Perhaps the highest-profile part of the bill is its cap-and-trade provisions, in which businesses in regulated industries would be given or could purchase through auctions government-issued permits to emit pollutants, which they could then use or sell as their circumstances determined. Revenue from the sale of permits would go into a pool to assist less well-off households in meeting the higher energy costs that would result from the emissions cap, as well as toward other sustainability purposes. My layman's sense is that cap and trade is a clunkier mechanism for changing behavior than a straightforward carbon tax would be, but it does represent a thoughtful effort to address a problem that, if unaddressed, could pose an existential threat to life on the planet.

It is, however, very easily demagogued. Soon to be ex-Governor Sarah Palin--in a Washington Post (where else?) column from a couple days back that fully lives up to every expectation you might have for it, from the wince-inducing syntax to nasty swipes at Democrats (President Obama especially, and at multiple points) to the extraneous God and Alaska references and, amazingly, the total lack of reference to emissions, pollution, climate change or any possible reason for Congress to consider this action other than, by implication, because they hate Americans and want to wreck our economy--sneeringly dismisses "cap and tax" as a "dead end."

That Palin's screed is as brain-dead as you'd expect isn't the main point; that's how easy it is for equally invested (but probably more coherent) political opponents to scare-monger against any measure intended to mitigate the consequences of global warming. For one thing, any action in this regard will be expensive and require sacrifice--something we don't seem willing to hear in America anymore (nor were we thirty years ago, when action would have been much less painful). Political leaders grasp that any beneficial consequences will appear long after they've likely left the stage, and even then, they'll manifest as a negative: "life as we know it goes on, with relatively small, relatively painless temperature increases."

It's very easy for knowledgeable people to knock down (proudly) uninformed and bad-faith arguments such as those Palin makes. But the likes of Conor Clarke (who wrote the blog item in the last link, and of whom I don't think I'd heard before this week) have a much smaller megaphone than the likes of Sarah Palin, and even if they were as widely heard, they would fail to make a politically compelling case to take strong action. In our system, such a case likely does not exist.

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