I’ve heard quite a bit of protest about the fact that the Lieberman-Warner climate bill’s long-term target — 70 percent emissions reductions by 2050 — is too weak. In particular, there was much outcry that Sanders’ amendment No. 4, which would have raised it from 70 percent to 80 percent, was rejected (and cries that Sanders was a sellout for voting the bill through anyway).

This comes in the context of a larger debate about which of the four elements of climate policy are most important. They are:

  1. Short-term emissions targets
  2. Long-term emissions targets
  3. Allocation of pollution permits, which is, among other things, an issue of social justice
  4. Lookbacks (built-in mechanisms to periodically re-assess and adjust targets based on the latest scientific results)

To me, the intense focus on L-W’s 2050 target seems misplaced. The short-term target is much more important (and is, for the record, quite good, as good as the one in the much-heralded Sanders-Boxer bill).

To see why, imagine two bills that could be passed today, both with the same 2020 target but with different 2050 targets. (Say they share the L-W 2020 target of 15 percent reductions from 2005 levels by 2020, but one has a 2050 target of 70 percent reductions [like L-W] and one 80 percent [like S-B].)

Now imagine, if you will, the U.S. in 2020.

Three presidential administrations will have passed. Oil prices will probably be much higher, but they could have stabilized, or even fallen. There will probably be a new international climate agreement in place. The mortgage crisis could have caused a deep recession, or it could have passed by with no substantial harm. The Middle East could have spiraled into wider regional conflict, or calmed down; we could be in Iraq or out of it. We could have suffered another high-profile terrorist strike, or several, or none. Technology could have rendered renewables cheaper than coal, or made sequestration cheap, or perfected fission. Climate science could be predicting much worse and faster impacts from global warming, or not. The 2008 elections could have ushered in a generational political shift, keeping New Green Deal Democrats in office for 12 years running; Giuliani could have won in 2008 and remained dictator through 2020.

In short, nobody has the faintest clue what’s going to be happening in 2020. There are only more or less wild, more or less informed guesses, all of them just this side of throwing darts.

Nowhere are things changing faster than around climate and energy (recall, if you will, the energy discussion in 1995). Imagine our collective decisions in 2020 regarding what to do about climate and energy. Do you think a bill passed in early 2008 is going to meaningfully constrain our options? Will we accept that we’re locked in to the 70 percent or 80 percent target, despite what we’ve learned and been through since it was passed?

I really don’t think so. For the most part, the long-term target is a problem statement: this is how bad things are. It’s a marker, an expression of consensus intention. We’re saying we ought to start acting now as if our emissions will be reduced by x amount by 2050. Small differences in that target won’t ultimately make much pragmatic difference in what gets done in 15, 20, 30 years.

For similar reasons, while I view mandated scientific lookbacks as more important than long-term targets, ultimately, if success came down to it, I’d let them go. We will be having social and political lookbacks frequently. They’re called elections. Science will play the role it plays; I doubt we’ll be more influenced by a mandated scientific assessment than we would by a voluntary one. It will be public sentiment and politics that determines how the target gets adjusted.

To me, then, it comes down to the short-term target and permit allocations. The former determines how fast we plan to scramble, and the latter expresses how much we value fairness.

Me, I think we need to scramble quickly, so L-W’s 2020 target is encouraging. I also think we need to establish early and firmly that we plan on going though the coming energy transition in a way that spreads both the costs and the benefits equitably, so I favor 100 percent auction, with the revenue used in part to reduce regressive taxes, finance job training programs for the working class, and finance substantial international aid.

On the latter score, L-W is disappointing. It’s an enormous initial giveaway to Big Coal, the number of auctioned permits rises to 100 percent much too slowly, and there’s too little in the bill explicitly devoted to equity. If you’re going to ding the bill for something, ding it for that, not for the precise number placed on a far-off target.

To summarize, short-term targets and permit auctions are the biggies. Both are ultimately focused on the same thing: picking the right trajectory and getting the f*ck moving.