chunksPresident Obama is going to address climate change and clean energy in “chunks” rather than in one comprehensive bill. Everyone seems to agree on that much. But what does it mean, exactly?

I was reminded to weigh in on this by Darren Samuelsohn’s new story, headlined, with old-school flavor, “Some predict energy compromises.” Turns out “some” is mostly conservative Dem and Republican Senate offices crowing that the White House is going to have to bend to their will. It shines a light on just which chunks might actually get through the coming Congress. Optimists about the chunks strategy (like NYT’s Andy Revkin) should read it closely.

Obviously Obama’s going to try the chunk strategy — he pitches it in his National Journal interview and, well, what alternative is there? — but I can’t shake the feeling that climate hawks are about to get screwed again and as usual they don’t even see it coming.

What exactly is the chunk strategy, anyway, and how does it differ from the comprehensive-bill strategy? There are two very different ways of interpreting it, and that crucial difference is being elided in media coverage.

One way to think of it: an effort to achieve the same goals through distributed means. Let’s call that the hawkish chunk strategy. Rather than getting to the needed greenhouse gas reductions, energy efficiency, and clean energy buildout through one big bill, it will be done through multiple discrete policies.

Another way to think of it: abandoning the goals of comprehensive policy and replacing them with weaker goals. Call this the dovish chunk strategy. On this view, Obama ought to focus on policies that are acceptable to conservatives and oil- and coal-patch Democrats, AKA “moderates.” He should abandon his lofty ambitions and be realistic, in that D.C. sense of “realistic” that means “nothing much ever happens.”

My worry is that pundits are going to spend their time spinning out hawkish chunk strategies they’d support (chunk ponies?) while in D.C., all but the most dovish efforts die on the vine. People will be talking about how much a chunk strategy could achieve without taking note of how little it’s likely to achieve in practice.

Exhibit A: Over on National Review, conservative Stephen Spruiell points to EPA’s new fuel efficiency regulations on heavy trucks and complains, “We’re Getting Cap, No Trade.” His accusation is that Obama is deviously attempting to achieve the goals of comprehensive policy through other means — he’s implementing hawkish chunk strategy through the EPA.

Jon Chait and Kevin Drum tacitly accept that interpretation. Their lament is that achieving those goals will cost more done piecemeal through regulation than they would have cost done comprehensively through legislation. But it’s a big mistake to accept the premise, that the pieces are going to add up to a “cap with no trade.” They aren’t. We aren’t getting the cap.

Folks in the EPA told Ryan Lizza that EPA regulations could achieve at best a 5 percent cut in GHGs from 2005 levels by 2020. Compare that to the 17 percent Obama promised in Copenhagen. Even the congenital optimists at the Word Resources Institute found that the use of existing federal authorities can get to just 12 percent by 2020 — and that’s assuming Congressional Republicans don’t thwart or defund such efforts.

The whole reason climate hawks pushed so hard for a cap is that it insures greenhouse gas reductions, something no other policy or set of policies does. Without a cap in statute, there’s going to be pressure to trim back every single policy and no large constituency watching out for shenanigans.

I can hear the chorus now, “it’s not about climate any more, you crotchety old dinosaur, these days it’s all about sexy innovation and clean energy!” Well, look at what’s being discussed in Samuelsohn’s story. Conservative Dems and Republicans are signaling quite clearly that they’ll support what’s already on their wish list and nothing else. That will mean pork for nuclear, ethanol, and “clean coal,” a whole mess of new oil and gas drilling, a continuation of the existing regime of dirty energy subsidies, (maybe) a Clean Energy Standard that allows for nukes and natural gas, (maybe) continuation of tax credits for renewables, and (maybe) an increase in energy R&D. Together those policies are unlikely to substantially accelerate the business-as-usual expansion of clean energy in the U.S. — certainly nothing like the WWII-scale buildout climate hawks want.

Some of the left’s Desperately Seeking Center types will convince themselves that perhaps when Republicans take over a house of Congress, they will have to be good-faith partners on this subject. One wonders just how strenuously Republicans have to reject bipartisanship and responsible governance before centrists stop thinking it will work the next time around if they ask nicely enough.

Want to see what “chunks” look like in practice? Read around about the 2005 Energy Bill. Read this or this. When there are no objective benchmarks against which to judge policy, it rapidly descends into a special interest free-for-all. Whatever the theoretical merits of the chunk strategy, whatever it could achieve, everyone should keep their focus on D.C. and watch what actually happens under that banner. At least for now, the likely outcome is energy policy much like the energy policy of the last 30 years: a mild nudge to our incumbent-friendly status quo.