Media coverage has been predictably confused about the compromises loaded onto the Waxman-Markey climate change bill. The headlines obsess on targets for 2020 (relaxed) and 2050 (maintained), as if decisions made today somehow preempt our choices over the next 10 or 40 years. They don't, of course, and reasonable people should pay no attention to them. Targets for the first year or two matter; beyond that it’s all rhetoric.
So forget the targets. What really matters is the architecture. If we put the wrong system into place, our job will only get harder, since it is much more difficult to dismantle and rebuild a regulatory structure than to set one up from scratch — sort of like the difference between brownfield and greenfield. To see this truth in action, just look at the struggle of the EU to get out from under their disastrous European Trading System.
So how does Waxman-Markey rate on architecture? It’s a loser. The single biggest flaw, one which is fundamentally not fixable, is the decision to issue permits on an industry-by-industry basis — to cap the uses of carbon fuels rather than their sources. This is an invitation to never-ending bickering over who is allowed to emit how much. Every little tweak of the system — whether to include freight transportation or agriculture (which crops!) — has to be hammered out separately. Reductions are calculated from a baseline, but there are acres of wriggle room about how to measure who emitted how much in the base year and therefore how much should be reduced tomorrow. Enforcement is complex, expensive and full of loopholes. Only lawyers (and politicians with extortionary campaign finance strategies) could love this.
There needs to be a single comprehensive cap on the sources, not the uses, of carbon fuels. Require permits for the extraction of these fuels from the ground or importing them from abroad. Limit the number of permits to achieve an emissions target, then leave it to the normal workings of the market to determine which industries will get which share of the stuff.
Auctioning the permits is also extremely important, but this is fixable in future iterations if the architecture is right. It is not fixable under Waxman-Markey, because the percentage has to be set for each industry separately, and cranking each one up to 100 is an impossible political task.
Mainstream environmental groups are not blind to these problems, but they see them as second-order. Above all, they are soooooo happy that climate deniers are not in command of politics any more. They are fighting yesterday’s battle, to get general agreement on the principle that climate change is caused by people, and people need to do something about it. They like the nice feeling that comes from all of us raising our hands and pledging, scout’s honor, to achieve sustainability by 2050. But they are losing today’s battle to put into place a viable means to get from here to there, and judging from their public statements they don’t even know it.