Duelling Banjos Or Duelling New York Times Columnists

Ross Douthat at NYT:

Cap-and-trade’s backers are correct to point the finger rightward. If their bill is dead, it was the American conservative movement that ultimately killed it. Climate legislation wasn’t like health care, with Democrats voting “yes” in lockstep. There was no way to get a bill through without some support from conservative lawmakers. And in the global warming debate, there’s a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the conservative movement and the environmentalist cause.

To understand why, it’s worth going back to the 1970s, the crucible in which modern right-wing politics was forged.

The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists, the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.

It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.

Social conservatives and libertarians, the two wings of the American right, found common ground resisting these prescriptions. And time was unkind to the alarmists. The catastrophes never materialized, and global living standards soared. By the turn of the millennium, the developed world was worrying about a birth dearth.

This is the lens through which most conservatives view the global warming debate. Again, a doomsday scenario has generated a crisis atmosphere, which is being invoked to justify taxes and regulations that many left-wingers would support anyway. (Some of the players have even been recycled. John Holdren, Barack Obama’s science adviser, was a friend and ally of Paul Ehrlich, whose tract “The Population Bomb” helped kick off the overpopulation panic.)

History, however, rarely repeats itself exactly — and conservatives who treat global warming as just another scare story are almost certainly mistaken.

Rising temperatures won’t “destroy” the planet, as fearmongers and celebrities like to say. But the evidence that carbon emissions are altering the planet’s ecology is too convincing to ignore. Conservatives who dismiss climate change as a hoax are making a spectacle of their ignorance.

But this doesn’t mean that we should mourn the death of cap-and-trade. It’s possible that the best thing to do about a warming earth — for now, at least — is relatively little. This is the view advanced by famous global-warming heretics like Bjorn Lomborg and Freeman Dyson; in recent online debates, it has been championed by Jim Manzi, the American right’s most persuasive critic of climate-change legislation.

Their perspective is grounded, in part, on the assumption that a warmer world will also be a richer world — and that economic development is likely to do more for the wretched of the earth than a growth-slowing regulatory regime.

But it’s also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.

Jim Manzi at The American Scene:

Ross Douthat has a column in today’s New York Times in which he kindly mentions me, but far more important, manages to make a multi-layered argument for why an informed rational observer should oppose cap-and-trade legislation within the length restrictions of an op-ed. In my view, the position that Ross presents – basically, that the cure is worse than the disease – is the rationally persuasive argument that won the day in recent legislative debates in the Congress.

I believe the debate and politics of this issue have, so far, played out along lines I set forth a couple of years ago. That doesn’t mean, however, that the debate is permanently settled. Nothing in American politics ever is, and the attempt to introduce cap-and-trade through legislation, regulation and/or judicial rulings is likely to continue for many years.

David Leonhardt at NYT:

Mr. Douthat mentions Mr. Ehrlich in his column today, to explain why Republicans have blocked action on global warming:

The Seventies were a great decade for apocalyptic enthusiasms, and none was more potent than the fear that human population growth had outstripped the earth’s carrying capacity. According to a chorus of credentialed alarmists [including Paul Ehrlich], the world was entering an age of sweeping famines, crippling energy shortages, and looming civilizational collapse.

It was not lost on conservatives that this analysis led inexorably to left-wing policy prescriptions — a government-run energy sector at home, and population control for the teeming masses overseas.

The analogy to global warming is obvious. Just as ingenuity came to the rescue in the past, allowing people to use resources more efficiently than they ever had before, it could do so again — providing us with ways to emit far less carbon for every dollar of gross domestic product.

And I — like many others, I imagine — would be thrilled if that were what the future held. But I think there are two big reasons to doubt that we’re on another Ehrlich-Simon path when it comes to global warming.

The first is basic economics. When the problem is resource scarcity, companies and individuals have a powerful incentive to become more efficient. It keeps their costs down. Mr. Simon understood this, and it’s the fundamental reason he won the bet.

But global warming is different. The fact that carbon emissions are warming the planet doesn’t make it more expensive to produce those emissions. So companies do not have an ever-increasing incentive to emit less — the way they would if the problem were, say, a lack of oil. Global warming doesn’t solve itself the way that resource scarcity does.

The second reason is the accumulation of evidence. Almost as soon as Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Simon made their bet in 1980, Mr. Simon’s prediction started looking good. In 1981, as Mr. Tierney wrote, “grain prices promptly fell and reached historic lows during the 1980s, continuing a long-term decline.” (Mr. Tierney noted that an ally of Mr. Ehrlich ignored this trend at the time and focused instead on “blips in the graph.”)

In recent years, though, anyone who had bet against global warming would look as wrong as Mr. Ehrlich did. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are shrinking at an accelerating rate. Scientists have recently revised upwards their predictions of sea-level rises. The planet’s 10 hottest years on record, according to NASA, are: 2005, 2007, 2009, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2001 and 2008. This year is on pace to displace 2005 as No. 1.

Matthew Yglesias:

[...] I’ll have a go at this one:

[Conservative opposition to carbon pricing legislation] is also grounded in skepticism that such a regime is possible. Any attempt to legislate our way to a cooler earth, the argument goes, will inevitably resemble the package of cap-and-trade emission restrictions that passed the House last year: a Rube Goldberg contraption whose buy-offs and giveaways swamped its original purpose.

Two objections. One—ACES certainly had its Rube Goldberg qualities, but it hardly “swamped its original purpose” of reducing the risk of climate catastrophe at small economic cost.

Two—if Republican members of congress looked at ACES and thought “nice try, but too many side deals” they were, of course, free at any time to introduce an alternative piece of legislation. They did not. And you can tell by the rhetoric of the broader conservative movement (”cap and tax,” “job-killing energy tax,” etc.) that there was no openness to this kind of effort to find more optimal ways of pursuing environmental goals. On the contrary, every move congressional Republicans have made—from adopting a House posture that made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats to adopting a Senate posture that ensures carbon regulation will be left primarily to the EPA—has tended to simultaneously undermine the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also making the economic impact of the regulations more costly.

The reality is that I don’t think American conservatives need a reason, as such, to oppose effective policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Siding with the Chamber of Commerce against proposed new environmental regulation is just what the conservative movement does. Insofar as any particular person wants to dissent from that judgment in a vocal and persistent way, that person would simply be read out of the movement. The extent to which the conservative movement has its grip on any particular politician (or, indeed, newspaper columnist) can change from year-to-year or day-to-day but there’s no real opening for a conservative person or institution to make a genuine effort to help environmentalists without turning apostate. Things are different in Denmark, but that’s true of many subjects.

Brad DeLong

Douthat responds to Leonhardt and Yglesias:

There are important lessons to be drawn from the doomsday scenarios of the 1970s, but conservatives who expect the warming trend to suddenly reverse itself have almost certainly overlearned them. I would offer two caveats, though. One is that while the economics of resource scarcity did militate in favor of conservation in a way they don’t with carbon emissions, the same wasn’t obviously true of population growth, where many serious people were convinced that the economic incentives were leading the whole world straight into a disastrous Malthusian trap. In hindsight, what we know about demographic transitions suggests otherwise — but that was much less clear in, say, 1969 or so than it is today. (Which explains, in turn, why that era was marked by various proposals and policies that effectively treated “excess” children the way cap-and-trade treats carbon emissions: As something to be regulated or taxed or otherwise coerced out out of existence.)

The second is that the Simon-Ehrlich bet that Leonhardt references took place in 1980, after more than two decades of exponential population growth and population alarmism (and, of course, various disastrous and inhumane policy experiments). So Paul Ehrlich probably thought he had a fair amount of historical evidence on his side when he made it. And if there were an equivalent bet on climate — which, to be clear, I wouldn’t make, since I expect temperatures to continue to rise — it would be taking place now, or a couple of years ago, rather than in 2000 or 1990.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, Matt Yglesias criticizes me for saying that the cap-and-trade bill’s various buy-offs and giveaways “swamp its original purpose.” It’s a good point: I should have said threaten to swamp its original purpose. We know that the buy-offs and giveaways ended up swamping the bill’s secondary purpose (raising revenue, that is), but we don’t know how they’ll effect the primary purpose of reducing emissions: That depends, among other things, on just how imperfect (or corrupt, or easily gamed) the system of “carbon offsets” ends up being. (After several years of implementation, it’s still unclear how well Europe’s emission-trading system works.) In theory, though, Yglesias is right: The legislation as passed by the House could achieve reductions in American emissions in spite of all the side deals and horse-trading. These projected reductions are woefully small in the global scheme of things (if there’s a more optimistic estimate than the one Jim Manzi cites here, please let me know), but they’re substantial in the domestic context.

Yglesias goes on to argue that Republicans are to blame for the giveaways and buy-offs anyway, because it was their intransigence that “made it necessary to forge costly side-deals with coal belt Democrats.” I’m not sure I agree with this: A world where a bloc of Republicans had come on board would probably have been a world where even more Democrats jumped ship (this was not an obviously popular piece of legislation), and you might have just ended up with a slightly different set of side-deals.

Paul Krugman at NYT:

Never say that the gods lack a sense of humor. I bet they’re still chuckling on Olympus over the decision to make the first half of 2010 — the year in which all hope of action to limit climate change died — the hottest such stretch on record.

Of course, you can’t infer trends in global temperatures from one year’s experience. But ignoring that fact has long been one of the favorite tricks of climate-change deniers: they point to an unusually warm year in the past, and say “See, the planet has been cooling, not warming, since 1998!” Actually, 2005, not 1998, was the warmest year to date — but the point is that the record-breaking temperatures we’re currently experiencing have made a nonsense argument even more nonsensical; at this point it doesn’t work even on its own terms.

But will any of the deniers say “O.K., I guess I was wrong,” and support climate action? No. And the planet will continue to cook.

So why didn’t climate-change legislation get through the Senate? Let’s talk first about what didn’t cause the failure, because there have been many attempts to blame the wrong people.

First of all, we didn’t fail to act because of legitimate doubts about the science. Every piece of valid evidence — long-term temperature averages that smooth out year-to-year fluctuations, Arctic sea ice volume, melting of glaciers, the ratio of record highs to record lows — points to a continuing, and quite possibly accelerating, rise in global temperatures.

Nor is this evidence tainted by scientific misbehavior. You’ve probably heard about the accusations leveled against climate researchers — allegations of fabricated data, the supposedly damning e-mail messages of “Climategate,” and so on. What you may not have heard, because it has received much less publicity, is that every one of these supposed scandals was eventually unmasked as a fraud concocted by opponents of climate action, then bought into by many in the news media. You don’t believe such things can happen? Think Shirley Sherrod.

Did reasonable concerns about the economic impact of climate legislation block action? No. It has always been funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch conservatives who laud the limitless power and flexibility of markets turn around and insist that the economy would collapse if we were to put a price on carbon. All serious estimates suggest that we could phase in limits on greenhouse gas emissions with at most a small impact on the economy’s growth rate.

So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it?

The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

But the truth is that public opinion played a major role as well. It’s not that Americans oppose action on greenhouse gas emissions — most polls show they favor it. It’s that they lack strong enough convictions to support the dislocations that any meaningful bill would impose. An AP poll, for instance, found that 59% of Americans would oppose any climate bill if it would cause their electricity bill to rise by even $10 a month. In an environment like this, opponents have a huge advantage in the battle for public opinion.

None of this is to say that a climate bill would be impossible without stronger public support. It’s the kind of issue that requires responsible elites. You would need Republicans to decide that the issue was vital and work with Democrats to craft a mutually-acceptable solution. Instead they positioned themselves to fan the flames of public opposition to any sacrifice or dislocation. The combination of a public with soft views on the issue and an opportunistic GOP made a bill impossible.

My other difference with Krugman is that I don’t think the failure of a bill means the planet will burn. I think it means that the Environmental Protection Agency will take over the issue. This isn’t ideal from an economic point of view. But it is ideal from Congress’s point of view — or, at least, the conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who hold the deciding votes in Congress. Decreasing economic efficiency by limiting carbon emissions through regulation, rather then a more efficient cap and trade bill, in order to let the Senate avoid voting on the issue is a win for Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe.

If Obama can hang tough on carbon emissions, he can force the energy industry to put real pressure on Congress to pass a climate bill. Obviously the threat is too abstract right now. But liberals need to get used to the idea that the EPA is the short-term solution and start figuring out how to make that work. the death of legislation in 2010 is not the death of a solution.

David Roberts at Grist:

With the climate bill officially dead, there’s already a trickle of “who’s to blame and what they should have done differently” pieces. I expect it will soon become a flood.

Most of these pieces will focus in the wrong places. Take Lee Wasserman’s new op-ed, “Four Ways to Kill a Climate Bill,” an instant classic of the genre. Wasserman doesn’t like the way Dems talked about the issue and he doesn’t like the policy framework they put forward, which is of course his right. But the implication of the piece is that if Dems had talked the way he wanted them to talk, and put forward the bill he wanted them to put forward, the outcome would have been different. There’s just no reason at all to think that’s true.

Expect to see all sorts of pieces arguing that better “messaging” could have saved the day, e.g., this piece on Daily Kos. Others will argue that their particular policy pony — carbon tax, or cap-and-dividend, or massive R&D money — would have been victorious. Others will argue that demonizing energy incumbents to fire up the base would have worked. Others will blame Obama for not riding to the rescue (Randy’s got a roundup of these).

All this is well-meaning, but it misses the biggest impediments. I don’t think messaging, policy design, or base mobilization are irrelevant — I’ve written plenty about all of them — but their effects were marginal relative to other structural factors. Were I doing an autopsy on the death of the bill, here are the causal factors I’d single out, listed in order of significance:

1. The broken Senate

The U.S. Senate is already an unrepresentative institution: Wyoming’s two senators each represent 272,000 people; California’s two senators each represent 18,481,000 people. On top of this undemocratic structure is a series of rules that have been abused with increasing frequency.

The main one, of course, is the default supermajority requirement that’s been imposed by abuse of the filibuster. I’ll have much more to say on this soon, but suffice to say, the supermajority requirement has perverse, deleterious consequences that extend much farther than most progressives seem to understand.

For a complex, contentious, and regionally charged issue like climate change, the supermajority requirement presents a virtually insuperable barrier to action. I don’t think we would have the climate bill of our dreams if only 51 votes were required, but I’m fairly sure something along the lines of Waxman-Markey or stronger could have made it over the finish line.

2. The economy

You may have noticed that Americans aren’t in a very good mood right now. Unemployment is high and people are suffering. Given that most people don’t follow politics very closely, or at all, that translates to anger and suspicion toward whoever’s in power (despite the fact that, yes, it’s Bush and the Republicans who are responsible for both the economic downturn and the deficit).

Yes, the left could have done a better job of framing a climate/energy bill as an economic boost — mainly by starting earlier and being much more consistent — but the fact is, the environment-vs.-economy frame has been established by a well-funded 40-year campaign on the right. It can’t be overturned in two years. The American people were just bound to be indifferent and/or suspicious of grand environmental initiatives during a time of economic pain.

Those two are the biggies

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