Months after the Waxman-Markey/Kerry-Lieberman bill died, Harry Reid and environmentalists have finally admitted it is dead, and may even be ready to remove its rotting corpse from the living room and give it a decent burial.

Though the death was clearly murder by Republicans and “centrist” Democrats, malpractice from mainstream environmental groups helped kill a chance for the climate that a different treatment might have saved. The fundamental error was to try and pass a bill via deal-making rather than grass-roots pressure, partially on the assumption that the Obama administration shared environmentalist priorities, and would spend political capital to pressure reluctant Senators and Congress members to support the bill. This fundamental error led to pre-compromising the legislation, making concession after concession in hopes of attracting support. Note that no promises were obtained in return for these concessions. The bill was weakened in hopes of reciprocation, appeasement rather than compromise. In turn, this led to a bill about which supporters said things like “it could be worse,” “it is a start”. There was no way to generate grassroots enthusiasm for such a bill, and not much chance of generating enthusiasm even among most elites — a few insiders and wannabe insiders being the exception.

That deal-making approach in turn centered the bill around putting a price on carbon. Even a low price on carbon, riddled with loopholes, would set up a framework that could be built upon and improved — or so many environmentalists assumed.

From a policy standpoint this is nonsense. Reducing emissions requires an infrastructure transformation. We need to insulate and weather strip buildings, lay track for trains, fund sidewalks and bike paths, install wind and solar electricity generators, and make hundreds of other types of infrastructure improvements. Historically this kind of infrastructure came about through grants of public right of way, and often of public money. Canals, railroads, the telegraph, auto roads, water and sewer lines, electricity lines, communication spectra including broadband spectra all came about through this type of public investment.

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Further, when we discuss “putting a price on carbon” think of all the carbon promoting physical and social infrastructure that cap-and-trade or an emission fee is trying to compensate for. For example, the Victoria institute estimates that the U.S spends $4,400 dollars per year per car subsidizing parking [PDF][1]. It would take a heck of carbon tax just to zero out that one subsidy before actually pricing health or climate effects.

More critical is the difference between the treatment of coal and oil corporate managers or officers whose violations of safety regulations kill people and the way an ordinary citizen, such as a drunk driver, is treated. Today, nobody at Massey coal, where 29 miners died, faces criminal prosecution. Neither does anybody at BP. This is in spite of the fact that it can be documented that top management at both companies knew their organization violated safety regulations, and that those violations directly led to deaths and economic damage. Yet if you or I drove drunk and killed somebody, we would be deservedly criminally prosecuted. The cases are pretty closely analogous, yet at the moment nobody in BP or Massey even faces personal civil liability. This is not just a matter of a “subsidy”. When managers and executives can recklessly or negligently kill somebody for profit and not face personal criminal or civil liability, that has to affect behavior in a manner the term “subsidy” does not begin to capture.

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A serious policy to end global warming would not focus on an emissions price. It would focus on both physical and social infrastructure transformations, funding rail and solar and wind and efficiency improvements, repealing subsidies and liability limits, putting in place renewable and efficiency requirements. Emissions pricing could follow down the road, as alternatives to dirty processes were put in place.

This would be more popular as well. Decades of polling show that public investment and so called “command & control” regulation have solid and strong public support, far greater than any that can be found for cap-and-trade or a carbon tax[2].

What should happen in the short run? It seems that mainstream environmental groups are currently contemplating  putting maximum effort into pushing for the strongest Renewable Energy Standard, and the strongest efficiency requirements they can get between now and November. This shows that when all other options are exhausted, mainstream environmental groups sometimes do the right thing. But they should also consider putting their long term efforts into pushing for public investment and regulation on close to a WWII scale. That really could turn around the problem, maybe in time to prevent the disaster from reaching a civilization destroying scale.  And it is a heck of a better basis on which to organize grass roots pressure than cap-and-trade. The deal making strategy has conclusively failed. It is past time to build a popular movement on this issue.


[1] Todd Alexander Litman and Eric Doherty, “Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis II – Parking Costs”(pdf) in Transportation Cost and Benefit Analysis Techniques, Estimates and Implications [Second Edition], (Victoria BC, Victoria Transport Policy Institute, Jan-2009), Page 5.4-11 (accessed 27-Apr-2010)

[2] One of many surveys showing around 80 percent support for renewable energy standards:

Barry Rabe and Christopher Borric, Climate Change and American Public Opinion: The National and State Perspective [PDF] , (Charlottesville, Va.: Miller Center of Public Affairs of the University of Virginia, 10-Dec-2008): p14 – Table 19, (accessed 29-Jan-2010).

In the same study, p17 Table 23 shows 77 percent support for auto efficiency standards. Toward the end of the 2008 Presidential election, surveys showed that over 60 percent of both Obama and McCain supporters favored renewable energy and business efficiency standards even if they raised the prices of energy prices and consumer products.

Knowledge Networks of Menlo Park California,McCain and Obama Supporters Largely Agree on Approaches to Energy, Climate Change [PDF]. WorldPublicOpinion.Org. 23/Sep 2008, (DC: International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 23-Sep-2008): 4-5,(accessed 29-Jan-2010).

71 percent of the U.S. population supports tighter efficiency rules for automobiles, even if that costs them money:

The World Bank and The Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, “4.3 Willingness to Support National Steps with Economic Costs,”(pdf) in World Development Report 2010: Public Attitudes Toward Climate Change: Findings from a Multi-Country Poll, (D.C.: International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 3-Dec-2009):16,(accessed 30-Jan-2010).

Public support for public investment is harder to measure because polls on the subject are conducted less often. However, there have been some polls on rail. Back in 2006 a Harris poll showed that about 70 percent of the U.S. would like to see rail get the largest share of transportation growth co
mpared to car and airplanes, and the 70 percent of the population also thought this should be funded by local, state and the federal government rather than private enterprise:

Harris Interactive, Americans Would Like to See a Larger Share of Passengers and Freight Going By Rail in Future, (Harris Interactive Inc.,8-Feb-2006), (accessed 30-Jan-2010). [No longer online, or at least not that I can find.]

In November 2008, rail won a very important poll — actually voter initiatives and bond issues. 70 percent of transit initiatives on the ballot won, for a total of 75 billion in spending:

Christopher Conkey and Paul Glader, “Mass-Transit Projects Fared Well at Polls,” Wall Street Journal, 12-Nov-2008, A6.

An example of a poll that found a carbon tax favored over a cap-and-trade system:

Ben Geman, “Is a Carbon Tax Dead?”, The Hill, E2Wire – The Hill’s Energy and Environment Blog, (Dow Jones, 1-Dec-2009), (accessed 30-Jan-2010).

An example of a poll that found a cap-and-trade system is favored over a carbon tax:

Paul Steinhauser, CNN Poll: 6 in 10 Back ‘Cap and Trade.’, PoliticalTicker, Cable News Network (CNN), (CNN, 27-Oct-2009), (accessed 30-Jan-2010).

The truth is: the public knows very little about either cap-and-trade or a carbon tax. When both are explained, the U.S. public supports neither:

Barry Rabe and Christopher Borric, “The Climate of Belief: American Public Opinion on Climate Change: Market Based Policy Options: Public Attitudes Toward Cap-and-Trade v. Carbon Taxes” [PDF], Issues in Governance Studies, no. 31 (The Brookings Institution, Jan-2010):12,(accessed 30-Jan-2010).