Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Aside into Domestic US Politics

I have spent very little time on this blog delving into the US political debate about climate policy.  Frankly, in the short to medium term, it doesn't matter very much for security policy what any nation does.  Most scientists say that we're locked-in for the next 30 years or so with an escalating concentration of carbon and the warming that will accompany it, no matter what any of us do.  Of course, it is very important for the long-term that the world comes together and figures out a way to reduce our emissions before we boil ourselves. 

All of that is a long introduction to say that today, the US Senate is going to vote on Senator Murkowski's proposal to block the EPA from regulating carbon.  This looks to be the kick-off of the long-awaited debate about climate legistion.  However, with Senator Graham pulling away from the climate bill (which he and his staff helped write), it looks like there's little chance of real legislation this year to put on a price on carbon

One of the frustrating things about working on climate policy in the US is the creeping feeling that the American public doesn't really believe that what you're doing is important.  Last October, for instance, we saw a Pew poll that said that only 57% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, and only 36% believed that it was "because of human activity".  So, it was encouraging for me to see Jon Krosnik's Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times "The Climate Majority".  His contention is that polls on climate change have asked questions that are needlessly complicated, and that skews results. 

The results of his poll showed that 74% of Americans believe that the planet has warmed over the past century, and 75% said that "human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred."  This is backed-up by a Washington Post-ABC News Poll that says that 71% of Americans say that the federal government should "regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to reduce global warming". 
However, Americans are not as excited to do anything that means that they will have to pay for it.  I'll quote directly from Krosnik's article:
"Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent.

Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power.

And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent)."
All of this says that Americans want action on climate change, they just don't want to pay for it.  This goes along with the continuing line of polls I've seen that says that Americans want fiscal discipline and to reduce the deficit, but they strongly oppose reductions in any specific spending programs or any tax increase. 

More after the jump --

I have long supported a cap-and-trade program, and I still do. I buy into Tom Friedman's argument that you need to put some sort of price on carbon, and that will spur vast new investments into clean technologies.  However, apparently when Americans hear 'price on carbon' they think 'tax on me'.  So, though market-methods, like a carbon tax or a cap and trade might be the most effective way to change behavior and reduce emissions, politically its much easier to have the federal government (the EPA in this case) simply tell buisnesses what they can and can't do. 

EPA regulation also has the political virtue that it does not require a vote in the Senate.  The thing is politicians love to have the opportunity to have an issue that they don't actually have to take a difficult position on.  That way they can tell different audiences different things about their position, without anyone actually yelling at them.  A Senator hates to be put on the spot with a 'yes or no' question: he is happiest when he can sound smart to his constituents in a 10 minute speech, but no one can tell which side he acutally supports.

Luckily, I think you can go a long way towards reducing emissions from power plants, deterring new construction of coal power, and promoting energy efficiency through EPA regulation alone.  Businesses will continue to hate it, and command and control regulations, by their very nature, won't be as economically efficient as a price on carbon would be.  However, it will be a step.  Once the public grows accustomed to it (and the consequences of a warming planet continue to become clearer), then we can revisit it in a few Congresses and put a price on carbon.  In the meantime, we may even have continued our reductions in emissions. 

We all have been talking about not losing out to China on making a green economy, but their governments 'green' policies have been the definition of command and control. 

So, today, the Senate will vote on Murkowski's bill.  It will fail, then some sort of 'energy bill' will pass later this year.  However, it will be mostly toothless, because there's no money available: Congress has now forsworn deficit spending, but - as we saw above - the public hates new taxes, so there's not much money available to subsidize anything.  Climate change is the first long-term challenge of the 21st Century.  We weren't going to fix it and be done with it this year anyway, so we will just have to make sure we come back to it every year.

[UPDATE: the Economist's Democracy in America Blog has two very good posts on the incoherence of recent polls: we want action on deficits or climate change, but we don't want to pay for it.]

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