The climate bill is about more than shaking the money tree
While Tom Philpott has been following the cage match between the House Ag Committee and its chairman Rep Collin Peterson, and Rep. Henry Waxman, author of the Waxman/Markey climate bill currently before Congress, the latest doings seem to have broken through to the broader blogosphere. Maybe it’s because the prospect that a handful of farm state representatives might really be able to kill our chance to address climate change. Or maybe it was because Peterson declared today that global warming is, all things considered, fine by him. After all, as he told the WSJ, all that warm weather will let farmers grow a whole lot more corn! He’s not exactly sounding like a guy about to cut a deal.
Brad Plumer at TNR’s the Vine detailed some of the Ag Committee’s demands (which Natasha Chart has referred to as simple bribery). All of which is useful analysis. But what this is really about is that a good chunk of congressmen and women are fundamentally unserious about addressing climate change.
And why shouldn’t they be? A good chunk of the media, of Americans, of everybody really (perhaps excepting Pacific Islanders) is fundamentally unserious about it. The Obama adminstration released a horrifying new climate change report yesterday and it had the impact on the newscycle of a wet noodle. Obama’s science team all but announced the world as we know it was scheduled to end by 2090. Shrug. The tree fell. Nobody heard it. Moving on.
This is the part where some might be tempted to use the boiled frog metaphor. Sadly, it’s patently false. Apparently, frogs are smarter than we are. Unlike us, they will act when presented with a slowly warming environment. The term I’m supposed to use (or so Wikipedia tells me) is “creeping normalcy” which:
refers to the way a major change can be accepted as normality if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments, when it would be regarded as objectionable if it took place in a single step or short period.
Yeah, that’s Collin Peterson all over. He doesn’t really think farmers will grow more corn — he’s just tweaking enviros’ noses with that comment. Collin Peterson simply doesn’t believe in global warming — or doesn’t notice it anyway, which ends up being the same thing. Nor does anyone who calls Waxman/Markey an overblown “energy tax” or complains about how it’s going to hurt coal-using regions. Let’s face it, if you look at climate change legislation as just another regulatory reform then the big picture implications simply aren’t scaring you.
Here’s a counter example: If NASA announced that the planet-killer asteroid was on its way and we had less than 5 years to do something before it hit, I guarantee you that our response would be pretty energetic (with or without Bruce Willis in charge). But climate change isn’t like that — and it’s certainly not like that in the developed West, so we feel free to treat Waxman/Markey the way we treat health care reform. There will be winners and losers and the trick will be how to make sure you’re in the right spot under the money tree when Congress starts shaking it.
But I’m not despairing. Not yet. While cap-and-trade doesn’t need to pass this year, if we can get it passed in any form, frankly, before Obama leaves office, we’ll have the framework we need to start reducing carbon emissions. It can be sucky and remain a solid basis for reform. If we have a cap, we can make it lower. If we need to pay people to shut up and stop mining coal, we can. Let Collin and friends screw around with it a bit more. It’s worth remembering that the “nuclear option” of the EPA’s unilaterally capping carbon emissions is still on the table. Collin may not be thinking about that, but I guarantee you that Obama and Waxman are.
And as for that Henry Waxman — the legislative architect of the climate bill, he is, as the Washington Monthly put it in their recent cover story on him, “the right man for the job.” This is the guy whose opening acts involved taking down the tobacco companies, single-handedly stopping Ronald Reagan from gutting the Clean Air Act and then managing to expand the act to address smog and acid rain (read the WM piece for more details). As the article summarizes it:
If we are lucky–and it’s a frighteningly large “if”–Waxman’s fight on climate change is nearing its endgame, requiring not a decade of low-boil persistence but, rather, a couple of years of tenacious negotiating. Passing his energy bill into law will be harder than getting pollution legislation on the books twenty years ago, but it will also be similar–and a chance for Waxman to prove that, even after fifteen years in the wilderness, he still knows not only how to make a deal, but how to make the right one. “Waxman is a very skilled legislator,” a former Dingell committee staffer says. “Ultimately, I don’t think he would sacrifice his fundamental principles just for the sake of getting a bill. I think he would prefer no bill to a bad bill.”
So if Waxman hasn’t given up yet — and he hasn’t — then neither have I. And note that we may be in for “a couple of years of tenacious negotiating.” It will be excruciating but, with Congress and corporate America full of Collin Petersons — not skeptics exactly, but certainly nonchalant about the whole climate change thing, it will be necessary. Creeping normalcy may yet do us in. The term pretty much defines the Senate, especially the creep part. But given that we don’t seem inclined to put the frogs in charge, we better figure out soon when to jump.