It’s time to call the Lieberman-Warner love train back to the station. This is not to say that we don’t urgently need to immediately start reducing atmospheric GHG concentrations and get policies in place that price carbon. It is instead simply the observation that as L-W morphs into ever greater complexity, it becomes an ever-worse way to meet that goal. Like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, I rather doubt that L-W will go anywhere close to far enough to cure AGW. But I am quite certain that the side effects of this purported cure are worse than the disease.

Herewith, a few rather simple distinctions to prove the point. Consider each of the following either/or propositions, and ask yourself which would be a hallmark of good GHG policy.

(Hint 1: the right answer is always A. Hint 2: the Lieberman-Warner answer is always B.)

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Should GHG policy:

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A. Auction emissions allowances? or …
B. Make a big stinkin’ Christmas grab-bag Allocate emissions allowances?

A. Put a price on carbon emissions, establish and oversee a carbon trading market, and let individual actors agree on pricing and terms? or …
B. Have carbon-emitters pay the government for the right to pollute, then have the government distribute proceeds amongst government-picked-winners?

A. Be simple and flexible in order to allow maximum adjustment to address any initial oversights in the regulation? or …
B. Be big, complicated, and politically exhausting, such that by the time it is passed, politicians will have a great soundbite but no appetite for further reform?

A. Induce an immediate wealth-transfer from GHG-emitters to GHG-reducers to transform the way society uses energy? or …
B. Give the majority of GHG proceeds to existing special interests and preserve the status quo?

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Greenpeace is opposing L-W because they don’t think it goes far enough. Friends of the Earth is opposing on the more nuanced ground that not only does it move too slowly, but it also doesn’t send the proceeds back to the right people.

But the biggest problem is more nuanced yet. Directionally, it’s a good thing, to the degree that some GHG policy is better than no GHG policy. But it is so big, so complicated, and gets the important details so wrong that it will make it extremely politically difficult to unpack.

Worse, it will give green cover to politicians who don’t want to take hard actions on GHG reduction but were able to get some pork thrown back to their district. (And make no mistake: with over $1 trillion of GHG revenue that has to go back to the Beltway before it can get distributed, there is one heck of a lot of pork-centive in this bill.)

My fear? That GHG policy has been a holy grail of the environmental community for so long that we may well be throwing support behind a bill with a great headline but lousy details. We deserve better … but only if we demand better.