Do enviros need to reassess their big-picture climate strategy?
Yesterday, I asked seven of Grist’s favorite journos and wonks what policies reformers should focus on this year now that chances for a cap-and-trade bill appear dim. Read their answers. Today, they grapple with a broader question.
- Michael Levi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations
- Amanda Little, Grist alumnus and author of Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells — Our Ride to the Renewable Future
- Terry Tamminen, former environmental advisor to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, now lecturer and consultant
- Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy at the Breakthrough Institute
- Josh Freed, director of the clean energy program at Third Way
- Ezra Klein, political and policy blogger at The Washington Post
- Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center
Given that the pursuit of cap-and-trade has fallen short yet again, is there reason for energy reformers to reassess their broad legislative strategy?
Michael Levi: If carbon pricing doesn’t happen this year, I don’t think that means it’s time to abandon it. Most seriously politically plugged-in analysts that I know, when we would chat a year and a half ago, the call was, [a bill] after the midterms. People got very excited and now they’ve gotten very depressed — that’s probably a bad reason to abandon carbon pricing. I understand there’s a storyline right now that says, “If you can’t pass it now, then how can you pass it when you have fewer Democrats and more Republicans?” But this is not a traditional bipartisan issue. It’s a regional issue, and we’re still going to have the same number of senators from the states we have now after the election.
In the long term, we need to be able to do this in a way that is fiscally sustainable. That points to another possible opening for carbon pricing: If we get serious about closing the gap between spending and revenues, a carbon tax may be one of the more attractive revenue sources. If the choice at some point becomes between a carbon-tax hike and an income-tax hike, that becomes a carbon tax or nothing. We can only do significantly big things with public pressure, and the public actually cares about the deficit.
Amanda Little: Enviros have got to respond to the political moment. Global warming was ailing as an issue long before April 20 [when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded], but it has now been totally eclipsed. Behind the scenes, green groups need to be thinking about how to rebound from “Climategate,” the IPCC errors, and declining political support for federal action on climate change. But the public focus of the movement right now needs to be on oil — solutions to the spill and ways to preempt further disasters. It’s hard to accept this, given that the environmental threats posed by the spill are negligible compared to those of global warming, but enviros would be foolish not to adjust their strategy to address America’s concerns about the spill. Even in my hometown of Nashville, Tenn., my conservative neighbors routinely ask what they can do to help. They feel helpless. I think Americans are ready to be asked to sacrifice, ready to be told that we can participate in a solution to the oil-spill crisis by paying a little bit more for gas.
Terry Tamminen: Ultimately, the best way to get a good, comprehensive federal bill is to get to the tipping point in the states, when more than half the economy is actually participating in a cap-and-trade program. There’s proof of concept, so it’s practically easier for the federal government then to take steps. That’s one of the reasons Obama was able to federalize California’s tailpipe standards. Same thing with renewable portfolio standards: 33 states now have them, so it’s easier for the federal government to tackle.
We haven’t really been focused on the price of carbon; we’ve been focused on reducing carbon. And if that’s really our goal, as opposed to being in love with any one policy at any one level of government, then there’s a lot of work going on, which has been successful and continues to be successful, that we need to defend and strengthen. That’s where our time is better spent, rather than spitting into the wind in Washington, D.C.
Jesse Jenkins: The policy approach of the last five years — McCain-Lieberman through McCain-Warner through Lieberman-Warner through Waxman-Markey and the American Power Act — has run its course. We should rethink a strategy that can be more politically and substantively effective in 2011. The broad contours are: We should try much less to make dirty energy more expensive and focus much more on making clean energy cheaper in unsubsidized terms in the long term. That doesn’t mean that there’s no role for carbon pricing, but it’s a different role than it has under Waxman-Markey. First, it’s a mechanism to provide the long-term, stable funding we need to make public investments in clean energy technology innovation, demonstration, and deployment. Second, price plays an important role in helping close off some externalities, helping make the market work more efficiently, and providing a synergistic demand pull for more mature clean energy technologies.
If you look at what Americans support in poll after poll, it is clean energy technology. There’s very little support for clean energy technology in the current approach, because the money in cap-and-trade has been used as the bargaining chip for efforts to get an increasingly weaker carbon cap in place. Put investment in clean technology front and center — and oh, by the way, we’re going to pay for this with a modest fee on carbon.
Ezra Klein: There are many 30-year, 50-year, 80-year quests in American life. The answer is not that you should rethink an accurate policy. It wasn’t rejected because anybody decided it wouldn’t work.
We all like to try to change the variables that are in our control, so everything becomes about messaging. Everything becomes about political campaigns and frames, because it’s easy to see how you change a political campaign or frame or message. It’s easy to see how you demand Barack Obama give a better speech, or that Democrats stop being such wimps, or that Republicans stop being such hard-hearted villains. What’s more difficult for people — and so they try to ignore it — is how do we change the institutional structures that provide context for our government and craft something that works a bit better? That’s tougher, because it’s not in anyone’s direct control. But the progressive movement and, over time, the conservative movement will need to think hard about whether a certain amount of energy and investment needs to go into creating a system of government in which things can be done. You can always say there needs to be rethinking done, but frankly, in a polarized country, with a legislature where you need a 60-vote supermajority to get things passed, it isn’t clear that you can get anything through at this point that does what needs to get done. I don’t think there’s any combination of words that would have worked here.
Josh Freed: We don’t know what the Senate’s going to pass and we don’t know yet what the Congress is going to look like in January 2011. That’s certainly going to have an impact on what kind of strategy needs to be pursued. We’re going to have to take a hard look over the next six months or so and figure out: Is it building on the work that [Sens. John] Kerry and [Joe] Lieberman and [Reps. Ed] Markey and [Henry] Waxman have done with cap-and-trade systems? Is it time to revisit the carbon tax? I don’t think anyone can claim they have the answers yet.
We do need to keep in mind that the EPA continues to move toward regulation of greenhouse gases. As the date for implementing those regulations gets closer, it is going to provide significant incentive for Congress to act.
Vicki Arroyo: It’s not unusual for a major environmental statue to take a decade or more to get enacted, implemented, or reauthorized via comprehensive amendments like with the Clean Air Act. I don’t think people are giving up hope yet, even if it doesn’t happen this year.
In terms of Plan B, the states are where a lot of the action is. In addition to RGGI, which is the only cap-and-trade system up and running in this country, those states — plus Pennsylvania and D.C. — have signed onto the new transportation and climate initiative we announced a week and a half ago. The WCI [Western Climate Initiative] is still moving forward with reductions, working toward the 2012 cap-and-trade program. Realistically, one Plan B is that the states continue to fill up the gaps as they have up until now. And of course the EPA, if they’re allowed to continue their work with Clean Air Act authority.