A Deafening Silence on Pricing Carbon

By / 6.16.2010

The president had a gilt-edged opportunity last night to show leadership on energy and climate policy. Most everyone who has written about the speech agrees that he let it slip through his fingers.

The president started, of course, with a discussion of the Deepwater Horizon spill and cleanup efforts, only linking the spill to larger questions of energy, energy security and climate towards the end of the speech:

When I was a candidate for this office, I laid out a set of principles that would move our country towards energy independence.  Last year, the House of Representatives acted on these principles by passing a strong and comprehensive energy and climate bill—a bill that finally makes clean energy the profitable kind of energy for America’s businesses.

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy—because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater.

Great so far.  The president then added:

This is why I’m confirming the commitment I made as a candidate to securing America’s future by putting a price on carbon. Doing so would end our dependence on foreign oil, reduce the environmental risks of oil drilling, protect our children from the risk of climate change, and reduce the burden of debt we will pass on to them. Nothing else we can do as a nation would address so many critical problems. For too long we have allowed this policy to be written off because it is politically risky. That must end today. I am calling on the Senate to follow me, the House, and the American people in demanding action. Expedient half-measures will no longer do.

Except he didn’t actually say that, of course. Instead of ending his speech with the call to action it was crying out for, he punted, promising to look at “other ideas and approaches from either party” like new building efficiency and renewable energy standards.

Listening to ideas is a good thing, of course, but disregarding far and away the best one — pricing carbon — is not. The most striking difference between this speech and Obama’s “energy speech” before the 2008 election is the failure to mention a price mechanism for carbon. None of the measures Obama mentioned will do much to address any of the problems he raised, and to the extent they do anything, it will be more costly than achieving the same results with a carbon price. As Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) said before the speech, trying to achieve climate and energy security results without a carbon price “would be the equivalent of President Kennedy launching our national effort to put a man on the moon without building a rocket.” (Side note: Whatever those on the left think about Lieberman, he deserves credit for the grunt work and political stand he has taken this year on climate).

I’m unsympathetic to the meme that the president’s reaction to the oil spill itself has been somehow weak — there is only so much he or anyone can do about the unfolding disaster. I do think, however, that he has shown a lack of political courage in passing up the opportunity to call for meaningful action on climate and energy. It’s likely that Rahm Emanuel, ever mindful of votes, simply does not think that there is enough support in the Senate for a real climate bill. He’s probably right, but the president’s failure to go out on a political limb for a carbon price ensures that support won’t materialize, since there’s a climate/energy leadership deficit in the Senate as well (looking at you, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)). The bully pulpit is a powerful tool to move and shape debate. Emanuel should listen to his own advice here and not waste a crisis that presents such a resonant illustration of the value of reducing carbon emissions. This kind of opportunity may not come again.

However cynical it may appear, Emanuel is right that politics only really changes in response to crises. Climate is a slow problem that will generate obvious crises only when it is too late. The only crises we are going to get while there is still an opportunity to act are those that are indirectly related to climate change (like the oil spill) or illustrate its dangers (like Katrina). If even disasters of this scale are not enough to get us to move — and if even leaders of President Obama’s caliber are unwilling to use them as an opportunity to lead — then maybe we have already lost.

Photo credit: Roberthuffstutter’s Photostream