Blue Marble - August 2010

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

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 5:29 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.

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Reid Punts Spill Bill to September

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:11 PM EDT

It looks like we won't even get to see some nasty partisan bickering on the floor of the Senate over the spill bill on Wednesday. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that he won't bring the package up for a vote before senators head home this week.

At a press conference Tuesday, Reid told reporters he would not bring the bill up for a procedural vote tomorrow. He blamed Republicans for the delay, calling it "a sad day when you can’t find a handful of Republicans to support a bill" dealing with the Gulf oil disaster. "We had planned a vote tomorrow on our energy plan," Reid said. "But it’s clear that Republicans remain determined to stand in the way of everything."

But Republicans were also quick to point out that his own party wasn't lined up behind the bill. "The truth is Republicans offered a better alternative that was attracting Democratic support, so the majority leader pulled his bill rather than be embarrassed by a vote in favor of the Republican bill," said Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, in an email to reporters.

"You can't blame Republicans when you refuse to even have a vote," Dillon continued.

Reid said "several key Republicans have said they need more time to consider our bill and its merits," and that the deal would give them that time. The measure is expected to be brought up again in September.

The Filibuster Is Giving Enviros Unwarranted Self-Esteem Issues

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 4:06 PM EDT

In the US Senate, it requires 60 votes out of 100 to do anything—to proceed to debate, to pass a bill, to amend a bill, to confirm a political appointee or a judge—anything. This is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned and it's not in the Constitution; it's a result of unprincipled abuse of informal practices by an increasingly nihilistic Republican Party.

The dysfunctional state of the Senate has damaging consequences that extend into virtually every corner of American politics. There's just one in particular I want to focus on today: It gives progressives a complex!

Take environmentalists. Just last week, the climate bill, into which they'd poured countless hours of effort, lobbying, campaigning, arguing, and advocating, died an unceremonious death. Not surprisingly, this set off a round of self-recrimination and mutual recrimination. "Why did we fail?" they cried in anguish. Was it the messaging? Too much climate, not enough jobs? The reverse? Was the strategy too focused on Congress and not enough on the grassroots? Too many compromises? Too few? Could Obama have saved it? And on and on.

But step back for a moment and think about it. Climate and clean energy are incredibly difficult issues for any number of reasons. Yet environmentalists pulled together a huge coalition of businesses, religious groups, military groups, unions, and social justice groups. They got a majority of U.S. citizens on their side, as polls repeatedly showed. And—here's the kicker—on the back of all that work, they got a majority of legislators in both houses of Congress on their side.

In a sane world—and in other developed democracies—that's what success looks like. Environmentalists did what they were supposed to do, and they did it well! They should be proud of themselves. It's not their fault Republicans are abusing idiosyncratic features of Senate governance to make reform prohibitively difficult.

The fact is, on a consequential, far-reaching, forward-looking, regionally charged set of issues like climate and energy, getting 60 percent of the country on your side is difficult enough. But getting 60 votes in the already-unrepresentative Senate is just an absurdly high bar. Theoretically, 40 senators representing under 10 percent of the population can block the will of the other 90 percent!

At least for the time being, it seems unlikely any combination of messaging, mobilizing, and lobbying can put a substantive climate bill over the top in the Senate. But that's just because the Senate is broken.

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

Spill Bill Duel, Nobody Wins

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 1:04 PM EDT

The clock is running down for the Senate to pass its oil-spill-and-energy package before the August recess. The House passed their bill on Friday, but the Senate has been caught up in bickering over legislation to address what is by far the worst oil spill in US history. It seems very likely that the Senate won't pass even this much-scaled back version of the legislation.

Senate Democrats have a package that includes spill-response measures with some energy provisions. Senate Republicans have offered their own suite of measures, which includes lifting the moratorium on new deepwater drilling.

The biggest flash point is the liability cap for oil spills, which is currently set at just $75 million. The Democrats' bill would eliminate it entirely. Republicans support raising it, but not too much; their bill give the administration prerogative to adjust the limit in light of specific incidents. The liability cap is also an issue for moderate Democrats, who have been working on a compromise package that likely to be ready in time for consideration this week.

Both the Republican and Democratic bills will get a procedural vote on Wednesday, though neither is expected to pass. In all likelihood, the Senate will adjourn this week with nothing accomplished on the subject.

But that doesn't mean both sides will go home empty handed; both will use the issue to bash the other party heading into the November elections. Robert Dillon, spokesman for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, has already given us a taste of what's to come. Here's his email blast to reporters today:

We've gone from the majority leader scheduling two weeks to do energy legislation to one week to two days to one day to a couple of hours—for a process that can take months to do properly... This is further evidence that the majority leader does not expect the energy bill to move forward and that this is simply an exercise in political messaging. It also calls into question who really wrote the bill introduced by Majority Leader Reid.

He continues:

Instead of turning a tragic disaster into a messaging strategy, the majority leader should be focusing on passing a bill to help restore balance to the Gulf and the offshore drilling industry. He, however, has chosen to once again play partisan games and not allow a full debate and open amendment process on either of the proposed bills.

Just a taste of the partisan back and forth we can expect on the floor tomorrow as senators manage to do absolutely nothing meaningful on the Gulf disaster before checking out for the month. Just another day in the most august elected body in our land!

What's BP's Spill Tab?

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 10:19 AM EDT

At last, an official estimate of how much oil has been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, though it isn't pretty: 4.9 million barrels, or 205.8 million gallons. That makes the spill almost twenty times the size of the Exxon Valdez, according to a new total released last night.

New figures from the government flow rate team estimate that 62,000 barrels of oil gushed from the hole daily in the initial weeks of the spill, eventually slowing to 53,000 in later weeks. A portion of that flow—800,000 barrels—was captured via capping and siphoning. Some of it was also burned off or skimmed, but the vast majority ended up in the Gulf. (Even if you can't see it because of all that dispersant the company also dumped in the water).

The 53,000 barrel figure toward the end of the spill lines up with BP's own internal estimates, despite the fact that the company was publicly offering a much, much lower figure. At first the company said just 1,000 barrels a day was leaking from the well; BP later adopted the federal government's initial (and woefully low) 5,000 barrel estimate.

Of course, BP had every reason to low-ball the figure. The updated estimate means that, at up to $4,300 per barrel, the company could now owe the federal government $21 billion fines for Clean Water Act violations alone. Factor in the fines for damage to natural resources and all the compensation to injured individuals and businesses in the region and you're talking serious amounts of cash that BP can expect to shell out in the coming years.

BP "Carpet Bombed" Gulf With Dispersants

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 9:12 AM EDT

Congressional investigators want to know why the Coast Guard consistently greenlighted BP's requests to apply more dispersant chemicals to the Gulf spill than the company had been authorized to use; they are also raising queestions about whether the company used far more of these chemicals (whose health and environmental effects are largely unknown) than either BP or the Coast Guard have reported publicly.

It's a question we asked several weeks ago, after Coast Guard logs indicated that BP had routinely sought and received approval to exceed the maximum daily amount of disperstants allowed under a May 26 joint directive from the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House energy and environment subcommittee, wants answers from the Coast Guard on why BP's applications to exceed the dispersant limits "appeared to be rubber stamped," even though the EPA stated that such exceptions should be granted only in "rare cases." Further, subcommittee staff found discrepancies between dispersant figures BP reported to Congress and those it asked the Coast Guard approve, suggesting the firm used the chemicals in larger quantities than were authorized for use even under special circumstances.

In one example, the subcommittee staff found that Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer, stated in a June 12 letter to the Coast Guard that the maximum daily application of dispersants on the surface in the days before June 16, 2010 was 3,360 gallons. But according to the dispersant totals BP provided to Markey's committee, the company applied 14,305 gallons of dispersant on June 11 alone. The company reported using another 36,000 gallons on June 13 and 10,706 gallons June 14.

Not only does this raise questions about whether BP was playing straight with the government, but also about whether the Coast Guard was following through on its responsibility to monitor the company's use of the chemicals. According to the official totals from BP and the Coast Guard, 1.8 million gallons of the chemicals have been applied. Now, it's beginning to look like the real total may be much higher.

"BP carpet bombed the ocean with these chemicals, and the Coast Guard allowed them to do it," said Markey in a statement. "After we discovered how toxic these chemicals really are, they had no business being spread across the Gulf in this manner."

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Chamber of Commerce Goes After Climate Dissenters In Its Ranks

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 7:30 AM EDT

A new split over climate policy is brewing within the ranks of the US Chamber of Commerce as a breakaway group of local chambers is getting ready to publicly split with the business lobby's hardline stance against climate legislation. The new climate coalition, known as the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE), will press Congress to take stronger action on climate and energy issues. It has already signed up about a dozen chambers and will officially launch later this year.

The US Chamber is already working behind the scenes to discredit the new group. After it caught wind of the effort last month, it fired off a letter to local chamber leaders, discouraging them from joining CICE, which it claimed was "established by the Natural Resources Defense Council." The letter, written by US Chamber board member Winthrop Hallett, the president of Alabama's Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, states that the new group's "indirect purpose appears to be undermining the U.S. Chamber's and the business community's leadership on" climate issues. 

The claim that CICE is little more than a front group for the NRDC is "outrageous" and "really just pissed me off," says Steve Falk, the president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which has been organizing the independent climate coalition. Hallett's letter, which has not been posted publicly but which Mother Jones has seen, does not explain the alleged connection between CICE and the NRDC. Hallett and a spokesman for the US Chamber did not respond to requests for comment.

Is Coconut Water Really Better Than Sports Drinks?

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

As a runner, I always considered sports drinks a necessary evil: While I never loved the taste, I held my nose and downed my Gatorade for the sake of proper hydration. But last year, a friend handed me a little box of coconut water, which, she told me, had just as many electrolytes as Gatorade. I took a sip, loved the mild taste, and found myself regularly shelling out as much as $3 for 11 oz. of the stuff. That is, until it disappeared from my local supermarket earlier this summer.

Turns out I'm not the only one with a new coconut water addiction. Although the beverage has been popular for centuries in countries where coconuts grow, it has only recently been marketed in the US. Vita Coco, currently the country's biggest coconut water company, was founded in 2004, and according to spokesperson Arthur Gallego, sales skyrocketed from $4 million in 2007 to $20 million in 2009. The past 6 months have been Vita Coco's busiest yet. "Typically Vita Coco would keep 45 days of inventory, but that has all been blown through," says Gallego. "People used to buy by the unit, now they are buying in bulk by the box."