Congress and Climate: The Long View

By / 7.28.2010

As you know by now, no climate bill will emerge from this Congress. Most have picked up Lindsey Graham’s metaphor — “cap and trade is dead” — though I prefer to think of a bill as “mathematically eliminated”. In other words, the right reaction is not permanent loss of hope but “wait til next year.” That hope is faint, however, given the likely makeup of the next Congress.

It has not taken long for the process of taking stock and assigning blame to begin. Will Marshall here at Progressive Fix has written on Congress’ failure (and I agree with everything he writes). The New York Times op-ed page has been dominated by pieces on why the bill failed, and who is to blame. Grist  summarizes reactions. I don’t have much to add to what has already been said. I’m disappointed, but not surprised, and I think there is plenty of blame to go around. That said, I’m still very optimistic about the prospects for action on climate – and by that I mean specifically a national, comprehensive carbon price – in the relatively near future. I think failure in 2010 is a setback, but will be viewed in retrospect as a minor one. This is little different from the way I felt weeks or months ago, but events of last week seem to have suddenly made me a contrarian. Climate pessimism is the new zeitgeist. So why the optimism? Because changes are coming that make climate action inevitable. The world is moving, with or without the Senate.

Some of these changes are structural. Above all, climate policy has to face physical reality, not just social and political preferences. The science of climate change is clear on the big issues, is constantly improving its predictions, and is deepening our understanding of the climate system. The longer we wait, the more we will know — and the warmer the planet will get. Those skeptical of climate science have played almost no role in the failure of climate legislation this year; they were marginal from the beginning. Better knowledge, and tangible evidence of the consequences of climate change, will make the case for action steadily stronger. Physics, as much as politics, will move the “centrist” position on climate towards action. I hope this will be by way of clear but remote physical evidence, such as melting icecaps, rather than by way of weather disasters or droughts. Demographics point in the right direction as well. Young people tend to be more strongly in favor of limiting carbon emissions (though not all polls agree). As today’s youth start to vote and gain power and influence, legislators will have to respond or choose another career.

Another more or less structural change on the way is pressing need for deficit reduction. As both Tyler Cowen and Nate Silver have pointed out in the last couple of days, this, too, will increase the chances of a price on carbon. Higher taxes are almost a certainty given our debt burden and the plausible range of spending cuts. As Cowen puts it, a price on carbon is the “least bad tax” in the sense that it discourages harmful actions (emitting carbon) rather than productive activity.

Other changes come from policies already in the pipeline. Existing state and federal laws provide some authority for regulating carbon emissions, though results will be more modest and costs higher than they would be with a uniform national carbon price. This is my area of expertise, and we’ve written a lot on the issue at Resources for the Future. The summary is this – the EPA can get modest but meaningful carbon reductions with the tools it has, likely at modest cost. EPA regulations on “traditional” pollutants like sulfur dioxide, which are emitted primarily by fossil fuel (and above all coal) plants will also have co-benefits for carbon emissions. These incidental reductions in carbon emissions will make the goals we need to reach with an eventual carbon price more modest. In the past, health benefits from reduction in pollution from coal has been cited as a secondary reason to price carbon. Now, the tables are turned – moves to reduce these pollutants using existing Clean Air Act authority will have climate benefits. Put it this way – in the long or even medium-term, climate action isn’t dead, but coal is, at least unless carbon capture and storage technology becomes available at modest cost. David Roberts at Grist makes this point, with the added irony that coal will likely be begging for cap-and-trade before long, since it would probably give the industry a handout in the form of allowances that could be sold as plants are shut down.

Finally, there’s the economy. Whether out of opportunism or genuine fear, concerns over the economic impact of climate policy fueled opposition this year. If 2010 politics could be matched with the 2007 economy, I have no doubt that a climate bill (of some kind) would have passed the Senate. The politics will get rosier for climate action, for the reasons I explained above. The economy will strengthen as well, and “jobs” will not dominate politics to the extent that they are the only acceptable justification for policy, and the rhetorical foundation of all opposition to policy. Those that agree with Ross Douthat that “sometimes it makes sense to wait, get richer, and then try to muddle through” will be more prepared to muddle through as we get richer. If the economy does not improve, we have bigger problems – though the one small benefit of our economic troubles is that it has likely bought us a little time on climate. Carbon emissions are down sharply over the last few years. In fact it will be an interesting question to look back once we have some perspective and ask whether the economic crisis was beneficial or harmful in climate terms.

These changes are all inevitable or at least very likely. Together, they will make a carbon price ever more politically possible, and eventually politically necessary. As most people who have considered the climate problem seriously have known for a long time, pricing carbon is the only workable solution. Eventually, it will come.

Of course, whether climate action will happen is easier to predict than how long it will take. I don’t have an solid answer for the latter question. Some of the shifts I mention will take longer than others. Structural changes, like global warming itself and demographic shifts, may take a long time to affect politics. Policies in the pipeline are more well-understood, but many are in the planning stage and could be held up, possibly by litigation. Meaningful EPA regulations on carbon could be in place by late 2011, or might not be effective until near the end of the decade. Economic improvement should, I hope, come more quickly – but there are of course no guarantees, and the “joblessness” of the recovery to date may mean the economy will dominate politics for longer than growth figures would indicate. So I don’t  know when we’ll have real climate legislation. My best guess would be 2013 –  another presidential & congressional election, presumably a stronger economy, fossil industries under pressure from the EPA and states, and, plausibly, palpable evidence of climate change could all converge to make a comprehensive climate bill politically possible. But that’s only a guess.

A critical look at last week’s events and, indeed, the last few years of congressional inertia is warranted. Pushing for action on climate – whether at the grassroots or in the Capitol – is still desperately needed. The longer we wait, the greater the risk and the higher the cost. But these events are just minor scenes in a story whose end we already know. Climate action may come sooner, or it may come later, but it will come.

Photo Credit: Casino Jones’ Photostream