Recently the green blogosphere has been engaged in an oddly vigorous defense of command and control style legislation. I’m not sure whether this trendlet grows out of environmentalists’ unfortunate habit of ranking and re-ranking and arguing over the ranking of various solutions to climate change; or out of pique that odious people like Charles Krauthammer are pretending to be proponents of carbon pricing; or, as I suspect, out of something else entirely, but I have some good news for supporters of mandates: Both the public and public officials love command and control style legislation.

To be sure, the term “command and control” is pejorative, but no congressperson ever introduced the 2008 Command and Control Environmental Protection Act. Nevertheless, virtually every single piece of environmental legislation ever enacted takes the form of a mandate. From renewable portfolio standards to CAFE to wilderness protection to the quality of our air and water to species protection to waste management to an endless stream of subsidies and tax credits (good, bad, and ugly) — they don’t call it environmental regulation for nothing.

Our new administration wasted no time in announcing a series of sweeping — and, make no mistake, welcome — environmental fiats. A coal plant in South Dakota quickly got whacked. California and 13 other states were finally let off their leash to impose stricter fuel economy standards on cars. And, in possibly the most dramatic new mandate, the House passed a stimulus bill that puts significant funds toward the goal of doubling U.S. production of clean energy in three years.

Command and control is so popular that Californians put not one but two environmental mandates on the ballot this year, one setting an aggressive new renewable portfolio standard and another promoting alternative fuel vehicles, solar energy, and energy efficiency. That both went down in resounding defeat illustrates an unfortunate aspect of command and control style legislation: the ballot measures were so badly drafted and skewed toward special interests that even environmental groups opposed them. But that’s a subject for another time.

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Even in the realm of carbon legislation, command and control takes pride of place. In the scoping plan for AB 32, the most far-reaching piece of greenhouse gas legislation in the United States, cap-and-trade is just one of 18 proposed categories of emissions reduction measures. The other 17 are all good old command and control, ranging from building standards to high-speed rail to forest preservation. Carbon pricing may be the single biggest source of emissions reductions in the plan, but it still only accounts for about 20 percent of the total. (In fairness to the cap, though, it’s impossible to say how many of the mandated actions would have been brought about anyway by carbon pricing.)

Mind you, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this situation. Many environmental problems don’t lend themselves to price-based solutions, and regardless every style of legislation has its strengths and weaknesses. But the fierce defense of a style of legislation that clearly needs no defending is a bit dissonant, and even more so when this defense is couched as a criticism of carbon pricing. We’re simply not in an either-or situation. Given both the critic nature of carbon pricing to address climate change and the massively uphill political battle it still faces, perhaps now isn’t the best time to lose interest?

More thoughts on this topic to come.

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