Cap & Trade: No Time to Lose

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There are a thousand reasons Nancy Pelosi might have decided not to push for a greenhouse gas cap & trade scheme by July 4, her timeline for global warming legislation. None of those reasons are compelling.
I’ll be doing some fairly in-depth writing on climate change and energy policy on this site. Usually, I’ll be writing in greater depth about the links between our climate, energy, and foreign policy. Today I’m just venting.
Yesterday, on the same day that Great Britain published the world’s first blueprint for a low-carbon economy, Pelosi announced that her early-session push for global warming legislation would not include the cap & trade measures that could ultimately set us on a path toward climate security. Some reports say she wants to wait until after the 2008 elections.
For newcomers to the issue, cap & trade is a system under which targets are set for total emissions of a particular gas. Based on those targets, we create a finite amount of pollution rights that can be traded at a market value. The market then helpos us reach our emissions target in the most cost-effective way, rewarding approaches that work and weeding out those that don’t, helping companies that surpass the target and forcing companies that fall short to pay for their failure. The system was used to regulate SO2 and was tremendously successful in curbing acid rain. For a problem like climate change, which will cost $9 trillion and countless lives if the current inertia prevails, it’s our best hope. It’s the solution that makes the other solutions work.
The policy rationale is clear: it’s the right thing to do morally, economically, and internationally.
The political rationale makes sense too. The public supports cap & trade legislation by broad majorities and across partisan lines. Any losing vote is just more political ammunition for elections. Plus, given Congress’s embarrassing history on global warming policy, any vote – even a defeat – is bound to be a marked improvement over Congress’s assumed stance. If Senators McCain and Lieberman didn’t have the guts to lose a few successive times to demonstrate increasing public awareness, we certainly wouldn’t have the political space we have today. Besides – it might even result in a win.
I’ve been supportive of Speaker Pelosi’s cautious approach to this point, but backing off or looking for some supposed middle ground on climate change now is simply weak. Climate advocates have sacrificed a host of stricter regulatory measures and embraced a cap & trade scheme. This is the middle ground. Looking for it elsewhere shouldn’t be called bipartisanship, caution, comity, or inclusiveness. It should be called losing.
Update: Executives from Chrysler, Ford, GM, and Toyota testified today in the House that they could support a cap & trade scheme. When companies are asking for regulation, you know your legislators are playing catch-up. There is simply no excuse for stalling.
— Scott Paul

Comments

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    Reply

  5. Ottnott says:

    “When companies are asking for regulation, you know your legislators are playing catch-up.”
    Oh, please. Stop it. Just stop.
    There are multiple reasons that companies ask for legislation in a PUBLIC hearing. Your interpretation is far down on that list of reasons.

    Reply

  6. Ian Welsh says:

    I would suggest this, with respect to such agreements – they do need to be done right, and Pelosi may not have been able to get one that would be done right.
    http://agonist.org/stirling_newberry/20070315/atmospheric_arbitrage

    Reply

  7. Pissed Off American says:

    “Who cares if the world gets a little warmer? So what? Move to higher ground.”
    Posted by Robert Morrow
    Well, its only gonna rise a few feet, Morrow. I figure I can survive if I just stand on your head.

    Reply

  8. mikolo says:

    I quit sweating the energy shortage long ago. It had to happen. Now how are we going to make up the energy shortfall?
    regards

    Reply

  9. Zathras says:

    To Scott Paul’s response upthread, for which I thank him: actually, cap-and-trade can, as he says, “fit within the system.” Carbon trading does I think have a definite though limited future utility. Right now, though, taxation is in fact the only policy tool that will work to reduce energy use; it is “the only way to go.”
    A system founded on the principle that creative ways can be found to persuade people to use less of an inexpensive commodity like energy isn’t going to get us anywhere. Once the commodity becomes more expensive, and consumers are persuaded that it will stay that way, energy usage will decline and alternatives to fossil fuels will get the attention and financial backing they need, without a lot of regultion or a bushel of new government programs.
    I wonder of people who choose highly moralistic language as they urge that climate change be confronted and then propose only measures they are sure will not be unpopular, why they bother. If global warming is really the menace they claim, then it demands action that will have some impact very soon. And if it isn’t, why are we discussing this whole subject?

    Reply

  10. Jon Gelbard says:

    As a conservation biologist who’s been following the science of global warming for a long time, I can tell you it’s high time to get our act together on reducing carbon emissions. The range of possible economic and security consequences of inaction (e.g., from more Katrinas, to rising sea levels threatening our coastal cities, to the potential for any range of climatic surprises that could impact the stability of our food supply), make the costs of action seem paltry in comparison.
    What is heartening is that so many climate change solutions – involving the use of more energy and fuel efficient technologies and practices – not only reduce emissions, but also confer big-time savings of $$$.

    Reply

  11. Robert Morrow says:

    Who cares if the world gets a little warmer? So what? Move to higher ground.

    Reply

  12. pauline says:

    JohnH wrote:
    “I’d love to hear Scott Paul opine on oilman Bush’s reasons for promoting Brazilian ethanol”
    For starters, how ’bout GW was told to say it because polling showed it was what we sheeple want to hear. Hey, GW said he was going to simply the IRS code during the State-of-Union two years ago, sounded good to most Americans, but the result?? — zero on following through. It sure adds lots of confusion to the already heavy-layered disinfo campaign DC constantly promotes.
    Getting the price of corn to go up with a big demand for ethanol in the US gives the Ag Dept more reason to stop paying farmers a subsidy for growing corn while keeping the use and demand for oil high.
    Or, maybe with GW’s big fear and hatred of Chavez, just maybe he thinks he can convince ANY South Americans into thinking he’s on their side.

    Reply

  13. Ben says:

    1 gallon of usable corn ethanol requires at least 3 gallons of refined oil to produce. Yay!
    When corporations are asking for regulation, they can see what is coming better than the legislators. Worrying.

    Reply

  14. JohnH says:

    POA–I read Bush’s endorsement of Brazilian ethanol another way. I think he tacitly admitted that we have a oil problem, Houston, and need ethanol to fill the gap left by his failure to ramp up Iraqi and Iranian production. He held the gun to their heads and it didn’t work. Resulting high prices will let American corn farmers prosper even in the face of eventual Brazilian ethanol imports. Big oil will be happy because prices will remain high. Plus, there are a lot of other big guys, like Monsanto, who are eager to dominate Brazilian ethanol.
    I’d love to hear Scott Paul opine on oilman Bush’s reasons for promoting Brazilian ethanol and on the effect of the administration’s ME machinations on energy security.

    Reply

  15. Pissed Off American says:

    It is obvious that the current scam that we are being led into is the marketing of corn ethanol. Trouble is, the oil companies LOVE corn ethanol, because it takes LOTS of oil to produce a gallon of corn ethanol, AND they are paid a subsidy for every gallon they produce.
    Brazil’s ethanol is sugar cane ethanol. It does not use the same refining process, and does not require the amount of oil to produce that corn ethanol does.
    Try to find THAT in the MSM, or coming out of the mouth of this lying sack of shit in the White House.
    Of course, we do not import the clean ethanol, we have tariffed it past the point of feasible importation.
    Guess what folks? We will reduce global warming when our actions cause a severe reduction in the world population. It is inevitable, and it is the only event that can possibly overpower mankind’s greed and gluttany. If you think these self-serving bastards in Washington are going to ride to the rescue, then you simply aren’t paying attention.

    Reply

  16. Scott Paul says:

    To be clear, cap & trade isn’t the be-all end-all. It provides the carrots and sticks that bring other solutions to market and force person and company to be accountable for his/her share of the problem. Taxes could fit within the system but they’re not the only way to go. More important than taxes are price ceilings for oil that guarantee investments in alternatives.
    As for Dingell, he’s made himself a peripheral player and Pelosi has successfully put him on the defensive. His wavering is a lousy excuse for Pelosi to slow down. Rick Boucher’s hearing yesterday with the auto execs should be all the ammo she needs – should she decide to show some courage and use it.
    Finally, McCain and Lieberman are authentic leaders on climate change. They carried the banner when no one else would and have never backed down. They deserve their props on this.

    Reply

  17. Marcia says:

    I do hope you will be able to give us facts concerning this question.
    As with most other problems the spin is so multi-layered, stemming from such various sources and the solution proposals drawn up by the polluters
    themselves it is difficult to take it seriously.
    As you say there is no excuse for stalling.

    Reply

  18. Zathras says:

    To reduce carbon emissions, the use of energy generated by the burning of fossil fuels must be reduced. This can be accomplished by increases in energy prices, which we know will happen sooner or later — especially in the transportation sector. They can happen by choice — through taxation — or by the force of increasing demand in a world market no longer able to increase supply.
    Everyone knows the problem with taxation. Taxes are unpopular. Unpopular proposals lose votes. Lost votes, for politicians without other means of support, mean the end of everything. For the rest of us this logic seems less compelling, but great efforts are nevertheless expended by people who will never have to face voters, all to avoid the reality that sometimes unpopular measures are necessary, and indeed are the only ones that will work.
    Cap-and-trade advocates rely now on the assumption that all the technical and market uncertainties confronting those who would construct a world market for carbon credits are bound to disappear. What they are not honest with themselves about is the question of how long this will take. Domestic SO2 trading, so often cited as a model for carbon markets, had in reality so many fewer unknowns (and fewer sources) as to resemble carbon trading in the same way tic-tac-toe resembles chess.
    Of course businesses and the public support cap-and-trade. The businesses think whatever costs it might have for them will be far in the future; the public doesn’t think it will mean any costs for them at all. In fact, at some point in the future cap-and-trade might play a useful role in reducing GHG emissions from large sources. But right now, increased taxation of energy use is required. Cap-and-trade is not a real-world substitute for taxes; it is only a political substitute for taxes. It will allow politicians to claim they are doing somethng about climate change without risking the loss of votes or, God forbid, elections.
    In Washington today, the bold embrace of costless remedies, the clarity to recognize that they are in fact costless and will make it look as if government is doing something about a public concern without inconveniencing anyone, is called courage.

    Reply

  19. Jon Stopa says:

    The only sure fire way to reduce golbal warming is to end airline travel. The experiment that proves this is the halting of jet (except military) flights immediately after 9/11. There was a drop of one degree C over the whole US during that event. The cause was the lack of contrails which create low clouds which retain heat. Remember, that was during September, when nights are relatively short. (Nights are when the effect really counts. Imagine the effect during the winter when nights are long and radiation cooling normaly is very effective.)

    Reply

  20. Brigitte N. says:

    Shame on Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats if they cannot distinguish themselves from Republicans and push hard for environmental protection and regulation we need. There is no longer time to waste. Waiting around for the 2008 election results will not do–keep environmentalist from voting.

    Reply

  21. rich says:

    JohnH:
    Agreed that cap & trade is only one component of what has to be a comprehensive set of solutions–that address the root of the problem.
    Any ‘energy & security’ and/or ‘energy & economics’ policy wonks would do well to consult
    Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
    Those guys have been doing this for 35+ years. Anyone professing expertise on that triad of issues, really has to go through their work to speak credibly.
    Lovins & friends can do more for our security and economic prospects in one month than a handful of Manhattan Projects could do in a decade. (Sure, it’s a rather ambiguous measure, sorry for going all furlongs-per-fortnight on ya, but you get the idea.)

    Reply

  22. Matt Stoller says:

    Not a mention of Dingell here at all, is there? You don’t get Democratic or progressive politics I suppose, as your pathetic praise of Lieberman and McCain suggests.

    Reply

  23. Ajaz Haque says:

    I am not surprised at Pelosi’s backtracking. The problem with politicians is that they make tall claims when they are not in majority and soon as they control of the house or senate, the doublespeak starts.

    Reply

  24. paa says:

    Another option is a carbon tax, based on the amount of carbon present in a given fuel and paid either at the mine or well or at the point of import. A tax probably won’t fly because everyone hates taxes. Note that the automakers favor cap-and-trade, but no new fuel economy standards. Why do you suppose that is? Answer: because they make money on cap-and-trade, and are likely to lose money if they make cars more efficient. Cap-and-trade will be so jury-rigged by the time it’s implemented that I’ll be surprised if carbon emissions are cut at all.
    /paa

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  25. DonJ says:

    Cap and Trade is supportable so long as any one — individual or organization — is allowed to participate through purchase. That allows for some ‘certificates’ to be bought out of the trading market and retired.

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  26. JohnH says:

    Since discussion of the nexus between foreign policy and energy security has been totally avoided by politicians, chattering classes, and the foreign policy and national security mafia, I certainly welcome your commentary. From my perspective, however, cap & trade consists of an elegant dance around the problem. It may yield some marginal benefits but won’t fundamentally change anything.
    The real issue is the industrialized world’s enormous–and often wasteful–consumption of fossil fuels. That is what is causing global warming. That is what’s behind the invasion of Iraq and the impending one in Iran, the two countries with the largest remaining pools of cheap oil.
    Only when we admit the problem and name it–excess energy consumption–can we devise real solutions. Cap & trade may have a role. My personal favorite is to fund defense spending exclusively by taxing fossil fuels. Since our defense budget now consists almost entirely of protecting the liberalized oil trading system, it should be paid at the pump, not by borrowing from China. If the true cost of oil were reflected in its price, people could make better economic decisions on how much to use. And people would finally start to pay attention to how DOD spends its money. For example, how much more per gallon is an invasion of Iran worth?

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