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SCIENCE, CULTURED

Turning the Knobs of 2009 Climate Policy

The Obama Administration and Congress Can Still Pull This Off.

Amp knobs SOURCE: flickr.com/clovermountain Three key "knobs" that our leaders can use to fine tune their climate policies—the role of EPA, the payment of dividends, and the auctioning of permits—will make it easier to achieve legislative or policy victory. And if they get the bass, volume, and tone just right, they can still win.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

We’ve been hearing a lot of pessimism lately about whether the administration and Congress will be able to achieve meaningful global warming legislation this year—something that’s very necessary not only because of the climate system’s vulnerability but due to the United Nations’ timeline, with the all-important Copenhagen meeting set for this December. In this context, climate policy watchers seem to have developed a kind of winter blues, even though spring is nearly here. Perhaps they should renew their sense of determination, and just keep pushing. Again and again, I come to the conclusion that if the Obama administration and its congressional allies are determined and crafty enough, there’s no reason they can’t achieve still this overwhelmingly important goal.

The pessimist argument goes like this: “economy, economy, economy.” Despite the significant economic benefits that will accrue from dealing with climate change—and the way in which new energy policies will boost the economy by creating domestic jobs and weaning us off foreign oil—regulations on greenhouse gas emissions are still too easily painted as a tax on the energy habits of ordinary Americans. Conservatives, in particular, can be expected to beat the hell out of any climate policy that they can spin as an unnecessary drag on the economy. Meanwhile, centrists are easily cowed by this same argument: After all, many Democratic Senators recently joined the GOP in voting to block the use of the budget reconciliation process to get a global warming bill through Congress without the threat of filibuster.

If matters really were so simple—and the “don’t wreck the economy” argument unbeatable—the political hurdles to passing meaningful climate legislation this year might indeed be insurmountable. Fortunately, that’s simply not the case.

Contrary to the pessimists, I prefer to view matters like this. While it will be an extremely difficult battle, there are nevertheless at least three key “knobs” that our leaders can turn, in fine tuning their climate policies, that will help them achieve legislative or policy victory. And if they get the bass, volume, and tone just right, they can still win.

The first “knob”—let’s label it “EPA”—regulates the extent to which administrative action will be employed to control global warming, either to achieve a non-legislative cap on emissions or simply to prompt congressional action. The more the Obama Environmental Protection Agency indicates that it’s simply going to regulate greenhouse gases on its own if Congress doesn’t move, the more Congress will feel pressured: After all, many fossil fuel companies won’t simply want to be left at EPA’s mercy. And thus far, EPA has moved rapidly indeed. It has already submitted an “endangerment finding”—the determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act—to the White House, the first step toward regulatory action.

Yet there are multiple kinds of leverage available to the administration and to congressional policymakers. The second knob—let’s call it “auction”—would regulate the percentage of emissions permits that would initially be sold off under a cap and trade bill. Industry tends to complain about the economic disruptiveness of going immediately to a 100 percent auction, the Obama administration’s official goal. Centrist politicians inclined to sympathize with these companies could therefore be mollified by a tuning down of the initial auction percentage. Are there problems with this strategy? Definitely. We should get to a full auction as soon as possible. On the other hand, I’m convinced that political dynamics will change dramatically once we have an actual climate bill in place and there is no need to fight over it any more in the congressional arena. So there’s nothing wrong with using the “auction” knob to smooth the transition to a cap, provided the new law turns that knob up to the max with some rapidity (say, within 5 years).

And there’s one final knob, arguably the most powerful of all—labeled “dividend.” For the administration and congressional lawmakers can also “tune” the extent to which auction revenues go back to members of the public to help them cope with projections of higher energy costs. The more money average Americans receive back from the government under a new cap and trade bill, the more popular that bill will be, and the less possible it will be to paint it as an economic attack on the middle class. People simply won’t buy that argument as they go to the bank to cash their government checks.

Personally, then, I think the administration ought to turn the EPA knob to full throttle, tune down the auction knob as far as strategically possible, and crank up the dividend meter. And then, let’s all wait for the weather to change.

Summer is coming, the economy may (possibly) be improving, and you never know what the disrupted climate system itself could bring during the warmest time of the year. With events, politics can change very fast—and I still see the possibility, through the return of significant auction revenues to the public, of achieving a politically popular piece of legislation that will also set us on a path to saving the climate system.

Keep the faith.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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