George Voinovich
George Voinovich.

There’s an important story in yesterday’s edition of E&E (as always, $ub. req’d) about two alternatives to Lieberman-Warner that have recently been floated in the Senate. One comes from Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and the other — not so much a bill as a “set of principles” — from a coalition of the nation’s biggest and dirtiest coal companies. Together they serve as an excellent primer on the conservative movement’s latest approach to climate change.

What do they want?

  1. No mandatory caps or a safety valve. Voinovich’s bill ditches cap-and-trade entirely, at least for a three-year evaluation period. He and the coal companies would both institute a “safety valve,” which would prevent the price of carbon from exceeding a specific threshold. (Policy-wise, that’s about as bad as no cap at all.)
  2. Incentives. When conservatives don’t like incentives, they call them “pork.” When they don’t like the recipients of the incentives, they call them “welfare.” On global warming, though, fossil interests see an historical chance to attach themselves more securely to the public teat, so “incentives” it is. Voinovich’s bill is called the “Incentives-Based Alternative Climate Policy Act,” and it amounts to a laundry list of handouts and tax breaks for individual industries and technologies (think nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration). This is “green conservatism” of the Gingrich variety: all carrots, no sticks.
  3. Preemption of state efforts. Many state governments are not as sclerotic, polarized, and compromised as the feds. They present the real danger to Republicans’ corporate sponsors. Remember states as “laboratories of democracy”? That’s a notion conservative federalists love when they aren’t in power. In power, they need control consolidated at the federal level, so fossil interests can do more targeted lobbying. If passed this would, at a stroke, eliminate the majority of good climate policy that’s been passed in the U.S., in deference to much weaker policy.
  4. Inaction pending Chinese and Indian policies. Conservatives claim that carbon caps in the U.S. will drive jobs and capital to developing countries unless those countries also implement caps. The practical effect of this would be to deprive us of our one truly powerful means of persuading China and India to act.

What’s wrong with it?

  1. It’s horrendously inefficient. A system in which carbon pollution is free, while government regulators pass out public money to favored industries until carbon-free alternatives come down in price below the carbon-subsidized status quo … I hardly think you could consciously devise a more inefficient way of reducing GHG emissions. It’s probably literally worse than nothing.
  2. The industry tail wags the policy dog. Government climate policy should take as its aim a level of atmospheric GHG concentrations that reasonably vouchsafe public safety and welfare. The targets should be based on the best science. But conservative policy does the reverse. Voinovich’s bill is explicit about it, in the “findings”: “greenhouse gas reduction policies must be linked to the actual pace of technological development.” Or if that wasn’t clear enough: “the timing of innovation must be the basis for any timetable regarding the implementation of regulatory policies designed to address global greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words: GHG reduction targets must be based on the ability of particular industries to provide those reductions with technologies that are cost-effective based on current business models. We reduce emissions when Big Coal is ready.

It appears that the fossil industry and the legislators it employs believe there’s still time to alter the course of climate policy debate — if nothing else, that Lieberman-Warner can be moved backwards.

It’s incumbent on the forces of Good & Right to get in this game — to give Boxer and other good actors alternatives that move Lieberman-Warner further forward. If the acceptable boundaries of the debate are still being set, now’s the time to define those boundaries as boldly as possible.