Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Reply to the Union of Concerned Scientists

I have to begin by saying that I appreciate the very civil tone adopted by Rachel Cleetus and UCS. It almost doesn’t feel like the internet.

Now on to the disagreements.

1. I stand by my claim that the least significant part of any climate bill is what it says it will do in 2020 or 2050. In a few more days, 2020 will still be a decade away. A decade ago Alan Greenspan was getting nervous that federal government would retire its bonds, become a net creditor and start buying up financial assets. OK, he gets credit for one out of three. Seriously, we will change our targets for carbon reduction over the next ten years, probably several times. If Rachel wants to put more stress on immediate action, that would make sense, but 2020? As for a science review process, fine, but it’s naive to think that any such mechanism will generate automatic revisions in such a crucial policy variable as cuts in carbon consumption. It will be political every time.

2. The statement that “tropical forests....are a source of 15% of global emissions” is simply wrong. Climate change is not a carbon emissions problem, it’s a carbon cycle problem. We are better off with more forests than less because they buy us some precious time, but in the end it’s about the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. This is an important distinction to make because there are powerful financial interests that want to convince us we can get to a stable climate by shelling out money for forests rather than cutting deeply into our fuel consumption. No.

3. At the risk of dragging the tone of this discussion into the gutter, I will say that Rachel is being disingenuous when she writes that support for tropical forests, clean development in low-income countries etc. is “not about offsets”, when clearly it is. The bill she prefers, Kerry-Boxer, is loaded with them. She is right to say that this falls within the current UN framework, but if you think, as I do, that offsets are the wrong way to go, you have a problem with that framework as well. The Copenhagen fiasco tells me the time is right to change it.

4. As I’ve written on several other occasions in this blog, it is delusional for environmental groups to allocate in their imaginations the billions and billions from carbon offsets to all their favorite causes, from energy conservation to R&D to generous support for the victims of climate change around the world. It’s not that we don’t need all those things. There are just two problems: (1) If there are to be such massive auctions, the income they generate will be taken out of the hide of consumers—it will be a mega sales tax. Such taxes are very regressive. It is very bad social justice to advocate a radical shift in public finance from moderately progressive income taxes to radically regressive sales taxes. And, no, Kerry-Boxer will not protect consumers from these price hikes. If they did we would have paralyzing energy shortages, worse than we had in the 1970s when oil prices were capped. (2) But we won’t have these lovely auction revenues to allocate in the first place. No government that has to face democratic elections will enact carbon restrictions that eviscerate the household budgets of its citizens. Despite all the rhetoric it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t happen, ever. The only way to get the tight carbon caps we need is to give the money back, and to hard wire that promise into the legislation itself. If the commitment isn’t credible, the politicians will always run for cover when the chips are down. There’s no guarantee that rebating carbon revenues will be sufficient, but it’s a sine qua non. If the Europeans, who are much better informed and more supportive of action on carbon mitigation than we are, won’t tax themselves sufficiently for the cause, why do you expect this of Americans?

5. I agree that in a perfect world we would start by investing in energy efficiency and green R&D. I will support any bill that UCS writes that allocates money from the general budget for this purpose. Sign me up. But: (1) if the money comes at the expense of rebating skyrocketing energy costs it will render politically unattainable the overall cap that has to be the centerpiece of our policy, and (2) as a practical matter, the public will not support a big shift in spending toward these programs until after they see their energy costs go way up. I have put my name on every petition for mass transit and similar causes for 40 years and have seen almost every struggle go down to defeat. In a world of cheap gas, people don’t have to invest in alternatives, so they don’t. I’m afraid that, to quote someone who is not supposed to be quoted any more, when it comes to this topic, it is not people’s consciousness that governs their material conditions, but their material conditions that govern their consciousness.

6. To briefly reprise my previous post: one of the mistakes of the Kyoto-Copenhagen framework was to tie together mitigation and adaptation—to hold joint action on minimizing climate change hostage to arrangements to compensate the victims. I’m certainly for compensating the victims—and more—but not if it leads to gridlock. Fortunately, there is a gathering international consensus that the time has come for global financial mechanisms to address global concerns, like massive, extreme poverty, illiteracy, disease—and adaptation to climate change. Every other developed country except this one has joined the Leading Group and is discussing which financing mechanisms to put in place. The first of these, an airline ticket tax that pays for life-saving pharmaceuticals in the poorest countries, has already been implemented by eleven countries. If UCS wants the US to stand up to its international obligations, a good place to start would be getting the US into the Leading Group and supporting the fundamental reform of international finance. Crippling essential action on climate change by threatening to bleed households and then earmarking a fraction for Good Works Far Away is not a wise alternative.


Sandwichman said...

Here is the direct link to the comment by Rachel Cleetus.

TheTrucker said...

I know it is probably off topic, but have you seen this deal from Senator Cantwell of Washington state? It is a Senate bill to replace the bill from the House.

This looks a lot like what I say Peter Dorman talking about last year at Kings Books in Tacoma. I was very supportive then and am now. Tax and rebate systems are the way to go.

TheTrucker said...

How much tax do we need to impose on the goods from China in order to assess a tax on the carbon blown into the air from the manufacturing of the goods?

I will readily accept your estimate so long as I get my rebate check.

Politics is the art of the possible.

If I had followed Walker's link I would have realized the Cantwell connection was not OT.