Reframing the Climate Debate One Flawed Hearing at a Time

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 10:40 AM EDT

Yesterday afternoon the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee met to discuss the costs of the increasingly endangered cap-and-trade legislation. It was unclear why the committee, which has already advanced its own much-derided portion of the Senate climate effort, was even meeting to discuss cap-and-trade. That is, until the senators went off script—but never off message.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.) missed the preceding hour of testimony from the assembled experts, but that did not stop him from lambasting the proposed "cap-and-tax scheme" that he claimed would only benefit the "Wall Street elite" and went on to predict an onslaught of ill-defined "green collar crime." For evidence, he cited a report from London's Sunday Times about the UN suspending the largest auditor of the Kyoto Protocol's offsets program for impropriety. Instead of interpreting this as a strike against cap-and-trade, however, the experts found the action to be an altogether positive development. (In short, stronger standards for emissions auditors mean more effective offsets.)

The next late arrival to seize the bully pulpit was Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), one of four centrist Democrats who've proposed shelving greenhouse gas regulation. He made sure to remind his colleagues how "very complicated and very difficult" it is to create effective cap-and-trade regulation. He also promoted the concept of a "carbon fee." The fee, a carbon tax by another name, is a fiscally elegant solution to climate change that is a political nonstarter—just ask French President Nicolas Sarkozy. But then Dorgan isn't interested in starting to address the climate crisis: "I think there's more to talk about, frankly," he concluded.

The most compelling points of the afternoon were made—no doubt inadvertently—by Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), who during 17 years in office has supported environmental legislation a mere 12 percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters. "What do we get in terms of actual economic benefit from controlling greenhouse gas emissions?" he asked the beleaguered witnesses. Professor Michael Wara of Stanford informed Bennett that recent studies show that even the widely criticized House climate bill would more than pay for itself.

Sen. Bennett countered by repeating a bit of advice he'd received from carbon traders in the UK. "Go slow and go small," they allegedly told him. The overflow crowd of energy company lobbyists packed into the cramped hearing room let out a murmur of knowing chuckles as Senator Bingaman both responded to Bennett's anecdote and acknowledged the reason for the afternoon's hearing: "So far we're following that advice."

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