Is Cap and Trade To Blame for the Death of the Climate Bill?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:29 PM EDT

Last week, longtime environmental researcher/campaigner Charles Komanoff published a piece in The Nation called "Senate Climate Bill Dies—Does the Environment Win?" I took issue with the piece on Twitter—I may have used the word "loony"—and it caught the eye of Nation editors. They arranged for Komanoff and I to do a brief debate on Grit.tv with Laura Sanders. (Why I agreed to do a video when I was working at home, had just rolled out of bed, and could not look more like a dirty f'ing hippie, I do not know.)

I seem to have gotten a reputation as someone who defends cap-and-trade at all costs—a running dog lackey of Big Green and Corporate Dems and Wall Street and so on. Naturally I dispute this! I think my position has been misconstrued, in part due to some category errors.

To my mind, Komanoff has fallen prey to what Matt Yglesias calls the Pundit's Fallacy: the notion that what politicians really ought to do, or ought to have done, to achieve political success is what the pundit favors on substantive grounds. It's one thing to argue your policy will reduce greenhouse gases more efficiently; it's another entirely to argue that it can overcome the substantial political barriers to enactment. C&T's policy competitors haven't told a plausible story about that yet.

Just to stake out a specific spot in all this:

1. Cap-and-trade was the only federal climate policy that had any chance of passing in 2010. In 2008, both presidential candidates backed it. It had the support of a wide range of stakeholders, including large corporations, military groups, religious groups, green groups, and swing-state legislators. It had been put before the Senate before and analyzed to death by relevant congressional staffs and executive agencies. Even so, it was, obviously, a long shot.

That is why I spent so much time defending cap-and-trade from attacks: because it was at hand and good enough. The progressive punditosphere is beset with pony hunters whose alternative policy would supposedly vault over all the work that's been done on cap-and-trade with the Power of Sheer Logic if only Big Green would permit it. In the end, though, all the alternative policy scuffles, including the one over the Cantwell/Collins CLEAR Act, had little effect except to sap momentum from the actual bill by turning its supporters against one another. Oh, and give concern trolls like Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) places to hide.

2. The climate bill failed for primarily structural rather than policy-related reasons. The antidemocratic 60-vote supermajority requirement in the Senate, the Republican strategy of total obstruction, and the crappy economy together basically doomed the bill. The idea that pushing a different form of carbon pricing would have made the difference is fantastical. Any policy that threatened status quo energy interests—nay, any policy at all that came from Democrats—would face the same nihilistic obstruction from Republicans and a handful of coal-state Dems. The numbers just don't add up to 60 on this issue.

3. Quasi-religious debates over how to penalize carbon (C&T; no, F&D; no, EPA!) eclipsed discussion of how to support clean energy. There was never sufficient support rallied around the policies that would drive adoption of renewables and efficiency—"the energy stuff." Those policies are more popular with the public and have more bipartisan support, but they were relegated to the role of "complementary" while all attention focused on the carbon price (read: jobkillingenergytax), which was the least popular policy in the bill.

Thus, when cap-and-trade went down, the renewable energy standard went with it.

4. CapFee-and-dividend is unlikely to spark a mass movement that will obviate the need to strike deals with energy incumbents. C&D proponents argue for something like the following: advance an ambitious policy, unsullied by compromises and side deals with special interest groups, commensurate with the scale of the problem; you lose the support of utilities and oil companies and ag groups and financial institutions and 95 percent of the lobbying muscle on Capitol Hill, but it won't matter, because you'll get The People. The masses will rally around the alternative policy because it's so logical. It just makes sense! Then we'll have a movement like the civil rights movement and bring down The Man.

I don't see it. Average citizens know almost nothing about politics and even less about policy; they don't care very deeply about climate change; they are highly cynical and suspicious of government and policy elites; the mechanisms that served to drive public discontent on civil rights (and other '60s victories) are not available to climate campaigners due to the nature of the issue -- the harms are mostly far away in time and space and the costs are immediate. And we're not just talking about persuading "the people" to get active, we're talking about creating a credible electoral threat in Nebraska and West Virginia. They're receptive to policy arguments from left intellectuals there, right?

If there is movement among The People on climate change, it will almost certainly come from something exogenous to the U.S. federal policy debate.

5. I, David Roberts, am, for the most part, policy agnostic. I have no deep philosophical attachment to cap-and-trade. The barriers to taking action on climate are so high that getting anything passed is a miracle. If a refunded carbon tax, fee-and-dividend, cap-and-invest, massive investment strategy, carbon wing-dang-doodle, or whatever else could pass, fine! I'd support them. If it's cap-and-trade, fine. If it's EPA and a patchwork of subsidies and regulations, fine. The differences among these policy alternatives are less significant in the near term than the imperative to get f'ing moving. Once we're moving, lots of stuff will shake itself out and our choices will be greatly clarified.

Of course I have my own policy preferences. If I could design my own pony it would look vastly different from the bills I've spent the past two years defending. But you can't just bypass power politics on the strength of an argument. Some folks have put so much personal investment in policy disputes that they end up thinking the defeat of competing policies is a "win" for the environment. No. Failure to act is a disaster, period.

6a. Cap-and-trade is a messaging and organizing disaster. On this, I think, almost everyone agrees. Green groups got all jazzed at the bipartisan potential of cap-and-trade after the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and they made a classic technocrat's mistake: they put mechanisms at the heart of the message. The American electorate does not understand or care about policy mechanisms. They don't particularly care how greenhouse gases are reduced. They don't even care about greenhouse gases at all! They care about their jobs, their families, and their identities. Until climate action is discussed in ways that resonate with those concerns, it won't seriously engage the public.

6b. A shift in messaging does not (necessarily) require a shift in policy. These are the days of post-truth politics. The people battling climate action are not doing so on the basis of reasoned policy objections. They are acting out of fear and tribalism. As the (d)evolution of the bill over the last two years should demonstrate, policy compromises do not yield any reduction in the hysteria of opponents' rhetoric. Tea Party protesters aren't interested in whether carbon fees are rebated to taxpayers directly or through local distribution companies. They just don't want socialism on their energy.

If policy compromises have no effect on the political battle, then greens should pick whichever policies will work and think about the political battle as something separate, to be fought with its own strategies and weapons. Neither policy compromise nor reasoned argumentation—God bless the many folks who strive so valiantly to do those well -- is the only or even the most powerful such strategy.

Of course, all this leaves unanswered the question that animates Komanoff's post in the first place: What is the best strategy? What's the best way forward for climate campaigners? It can't be doing the same thing over again, can it? I'm sure we'll all be talking about that quite a bit in the months to come, but I'll leave it here for now.

This post was produced by Grist as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.