Grading a Climate Bill, Part 3

If there is any doubt that Washington D.C. is where hyperbole, distortions and silly arguments come home to roost, that doubt disappears as we listen to congressional debate on climate and energy policy. Even some of the statements coming from the Obama team lately inspire a loud “Huh?”

Jon Stewart would win a Nobel Prize for Truth if one were awarded for diligence in revealing how some members of Congress , not to mention the conservative chattering classes, regularly insult the American people’s intelligence. Unfortunately, he’s only on the air 30 minutes each day.

Also unfortunately – and here’s an inconvenient truth -- not all of the American people are intelligent enough about climate change to know their intelligence has been insulted. It’s a complicated topic made even more complicated by bogus arguments.

So, in the spirit of improving the quality of the debate and with unapologetic imitation of another political satirist on night-time TV, here are today’s Top 10 Bogus Statements in the climate debate (hereafter labeled “BS”), each followed by a reality check.

No. 10 BS: The United States can’t make a firm commitment to reduce greenhouse gases until China and India do.

Reality check: With this statement, international climate negotiations assume the stature of an Alphonse and Gaston routine. The modern version – “I’m not going to do the right thing until you do the right thing” – would be comical if it weren’t so childish and potentially tragic.

Why shouldn’t the United States make a hard commitment to cut carbon before China, India and other developing nations do? As I noted in Part 1 of this post, we’re responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. We have been emitting them with abandon for generations.

On the other hand, many developing nations such as China and India are attempting to pull millions of their people from poverty. I don’t believe they deny their obligation to help solve the climate problem. In fact, many of China’s clean energy goals are more aggressive than ours. But they want the leeway to help their people approach the standard of living we enjoy in the U.S.

What the hell: Let’s be big about this and agree to go first. If we’re worried about a trade disadvantage with countries that don’t have carbon regulation, then let’s institute a “border adjustment” – the price those countries should pay for not agreeing to hard targets.

No. 9 BS: Coal will be with us for a long time to come. In a recent interview with Grist, the chief White House environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley of the Council on Environmental Quality, said: “[C]learly coal is a part of our energy mix now and it’s likely to be so in the future... [E]ven if we were to stop using coal tomorrow, it’s used around the world and we have to deal with its environmental impacts.”

Reality check: Of course we must deal with coal’s environmental problems, but the best way to do that is to stop using it. Accepting that coal is part of our future is not the policy that motivates us to find substitutes. And whether we can deal with its environmental impacts is open to question. We don’t yet have and may never find a cost-effective and safe way to permanently sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide from coal. If the technology ever is perfected, it will significantly increase the price of electric power from coal, while the price of power from renewable resources is coming down.

Then there’s mountain top removal and all the other environmental damages and carbon emissions associated with extraction and production (See No. 7 below). Let’s shoot for an international climate agreement that sets specific near-term targets for phasing out coal power, along with an aggressive program to replace it worldwide first with natural gas, then with renewable low-carbon fuels.

No. 8 BS: The answer to energy security is to produce more oil, coal and gas here at home. We have ample supplies. The “drill baby drill” policy was a prominent plank at the Republican National Convention and it’s still being used, most recently by Wyoming Republican John Barrasso in a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Reality check: The real question today isn’t how much carbon we have left in the ground; it’s how much we can put into the sky. The answer is: No more. As the former Arab oil minister said, “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” It ended because we found a better way to do things. There is no mandate that we must extract all the fossil fuels we find and burn all the fossil fuels we can extract. However, there is definitely a limit on how much we can burn – and we have reached it.

No. 7 BS: We are powerless to stop mountain top removal. This was EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s comment in an interview with Grist. Asked about the environmental terrorism being inflicted on the people of Appalachia as coal companies blow up mountains, Jackson responded: “[T]he current state of the law and regs (regulations) doesn’t allow us to just change the law and the regs to say that this process will no longer be allowable. There’s no way to do that under current law.”

Reality check: As those who have been in government know, there’s more than one way to save a mountain. A creative administration can always find a way to lead when it wants to.

Consider the two Roosevelts. According to an
analysis of executive authority commissioned by the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), President Teddy Roosevelt believed that “as a steward of the people he had the power to do whatever was necessary to promote the public interest so long as it had not been forbidden by the Constitution or Congress.” In other words, when it came to doing the right thing, he was willing to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

President Franklin Roosevelt had an even more expansive philosophy of executive authority when the public interest was at stake: “In the event that Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility, and I will act.” In other words, if there is a leadership void he was willing to fill it.

As of a year ago, there were 96 statutory provisions in the U.S. Code that explicitly address climate change, global warming or greenhouse gases. They spanned 11 titles of the U.S. Code including agriculture, commerce, labor, public health, conservation and transportation. In addition, executive authority to protect the environment can be found in wide range of legislation, including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

With all of those laws in place, surely the Administration can find a way to ban mountain top removal. If it can’t, it should ask Congress for explicit authority. If the Administration is reluctant to anger the coal industry while trying to get a climate bill through Congress, then some harder bargaining is in order. The federal government already gives huge handouts to the coal industry, including large public subsidies to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology. That assistance should come at a price: an immediate ban on mountaintop removal.

No. 6 BS: Putting a price on carbon is a “national energy tax”. Conservatives make this argument ad nauseam.

Reality check: As much as some conservatives enjoy applying the t-word to every idea they don’t like, carbon pricing is not a tax. It is a policy that brings the price of fossil fuels closer to their true costs to society. That’s called “correcting market signals”. It makes energy markets work better. It puts the magic back into the “magic of the marketplace”. When was it that conservatives became enemies of an efficient market?

If fiscal conservatives would like to make the marketplace even more efficient, they should repeal all subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy (subsidizing mature industries is corporate welfare) and give the money back to consumers to help them adjust to carbon pricing.

No. 5 BS: By increasing energy prices, cap and trade will hurt consumers in the depths of a recession.

Reality check: The cap-and-trade regime in Waxman-Markey would not take effect until 2012. If we are still in the depths of a recession three years from now, our problems are much bigger than a few-cent increase in the cost of oil and coal. Besides, the bill contains ample protection for consumers, including those least able to afford higher energy prices.

No. 4 BS: Consumers will pay thousands of dollars more for energy every year. This reprises an argument that worked beautifully for the oil industry a few years ago in California, where it used the false threat of higher gasoline prices to turn public opinion against a proposed surcharge on oil companies (the referendum specifically prohibited oil companies from passing the surcharge on to consumers).

Reality check: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Congressional Budget Office have concluded that the average increase in energy prices would be no more than 48 cents a day per household.

Even that estimate probably is too high. With or without carbon pricing, the real cost of fossil fuels will increase in the years ahead as easy supplies disappear, global competition increases, health problems increase and environmental regulations are properly enforced.

A good climate bill will help consumers avoid these costs by shifting to greater energy efficiency and clean energy technologies. We haven’t yet begun to tap the potential of energy efficiency in our homes, factories, vehicles and power systems. We haven’t begun to take advantage of the renewable energy technologies and designs that already are cost-effective, ranging from ground-source heat pumps to passive solar buildings. And the more we develop and use solar power, wind power and other emerging renewable energy technologies around the world, the cheaper they will become.

No. 3 BS: All of this spending on a “new energy economy” is placing a terrible debt on our children.

Reality check: The far more serious burden we are leaving our children is carbon debt. We can repay public debt, particularly if we have a national economy that isn’t made bankrupt by natural disasters, drought, disease and the other predicted consequences of climate change. We cannot repay the carbon debt. The negative impact of carbon debt goes far beyond money, to the core of our security and quality of life. Our children will suffer from its burdens for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

No 2 BS: Climate action is a “growth-killing millstone”. A Republican used this phrase in the House debate over Waxman-Markey.

Reality check: Let’s take a close look at what’s really killing growth. Consider General Motors. It refused to plan for the future. It sought short-term profits by pushing inefficient vehicles that contribute to air pollution, climate change, oil addiction and, ultimately, higher oil prices.

There is a lesson here. The real “growth-killing millstone” is greed and short-sightedness. Our economy faces the same fate as GM if we don’t respond to the new realities of the new century.

The modern engine of business and jobs is a green engine. Clean energy technologies will soon offer the largest market the world has ever seen. The longer we deny that reality, the more we will fall behind in the international competition for industries and jobs.

And the
No. 1 bogus statement in the climate debate today: Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a choice between “liberty or tyranny”. This came from another House Republican during floor debate.

Reality check: The Constitution of the United States does not guarantee freedom to pollute or to endanger public health and safety or to threatened humankind with greater disease, disaster and dislocation due to global warming. The Declaration of Independence does not tell us that our unalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of Hummers. Clean energy is no more a threat to our freedom than clean air or clean water.

If we want to end tyranny, then let’s liberate ourselves from extortion by oil producing nations, the prospect of losing our children in more resource wars, and the fate that awaits us if we continue sacrificing our security and long-term well-being to prolong an obsolete carbon economy. The tyranny that threatens our freedom is the effort by Big Oil and King Coal , and all those who carry water for them, to delay our inevitable transition to a clean energy economy.

As I noted in Part 1 of this post, President Obama showed empathy in a recent New York Times interview for those Democrats in the House who voted against Waxman-Markey to protect their reelection prospects. But in the same interview, he
also said:

(I)f you want to avoid potential political liabilities then you just do nothing around here in Washington. That seems to be the working theory. That's what's happened over the last several decades when it comes to energy. And my approach has been to say that rather than stand pat with a status quo that we know isn't working, that we need to reach out and shape our future.

Reality check: Right on, Mr. President. Now you’re onto it. As David Hawkins said at the conclusion of his Senate testimony on Waxman-Markey:

There is a story about the advice a Chinese gardener gave to his employer. When the landowner asked, “what is the best time to plant an oak tree,” the gardener replied, “100 years ago but the second best time is today.” For climate protection perhaps the best time to enact a comprehensive program to fight global warming was thirty years ago but the second best time is this year.


William S. Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Plan (PCAP), a project of the University of Colorado, Wirth Chair, charged with producing a 100 day action plan on climate change for the next President of the United States, and the author of THE 100 DAY ACTION PLAN TO SAVE THE PLANET, available in eBook format from St. Martins Griffin.

Articles by Bill Becker: Link

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