A coal-fired power plant in Kansas. (AP Photo.)
Nine climate questions for President Obama
ASK THIS | February 19, 2009
What's Obama's strategy for dealing with climate change? Former Shorenstein Fellow Eric Pooley writes that it is time for the president to make clear what sort of climate-change legislation he’s looking for -- not by wading into the all the minutiae, but by explaining to the American people why a climate bill is important and what basic principles he thinks should guide it.
(Part of a continuing series of questions for the new administration from a wide range of experts.)
By Eric Pooley
While the Obama Administration has been trying to cope with the crumbling economy, another global crisis — one that is slower to unfold but even more profoundly threatening — continues to build. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased by 2.28 parts per million in 2008, according to new preliminary data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The current concentration, 386 ppm, is the highest in at least 650,000 years, and is already higher than the 350 ppm level that NASA climatologist James Hansen and others have identified as our best hope for planetary climate stability. So far, the U.S. and the world have not displayed the political will necessary to stabilize at 450 ppm or even 550 ppm. With global industrial greenhouse gas emissions increasing more quickly than expected, the warming is already triggering feedback loops (such as the release of methane from melting permafrost) that are expected to accelerate the trend. Additional warming is already “in the pipeline” — baked into the planetary cake even if we could pull the plug on emissions tomorrow.
Of course, we cannot pull the plug tomorrow. Our industrial economy is based on fossil fuels. But the latest bad news — and each week brings more of the stuff — is a reminder that it’s time for President Obama to begin communicating his strategy for dealing with climate change. Obama has been effective at making the case that the transition to clean sources of energy can stimulate the economy while addressing climate change. But that optimistic message, while valid, ignores some hard questions.
Word has emanated from the White House that Obama plans a three-pronged approach to dealing with the climate-and-energy crisis. The first step is the newly-signed stimulus bill, with $80 billion for green jobs, energy efficiency, renewables, and a modern transmission grid. The second step will be a massive energy bill designed to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. And the third and most important step will be a climate bill that will put a price on carbon, probably through a mandatory, declining cap-and-trade system that harnesses market forces that are potentially more powerful than all the federal spending, tax credits, and mandates in the stimulus and energy bills combined. Since cap-and-trade is the foundation of the existing international system, it would be ideal for the Obama Administration to have a new climate bill in hand (even if not passed) when it attends the next round of global climate talks this December in Copenhagen.
So far, the Administration has been cagey about the timing and content of a climate bill. Why should the White House pin itself down now, one might ask, when there’s no bill in sight and an enormous amount of work to be done lining up support? The answer is that this hard work is beginning now, and presidential leadership could help sway wary lawmakers —especially ones who hail from the coal-dependent industrial Midwest, as Obama does, and who are most concerned about the economic impact of cap-and-trade. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman has vowed to move a bill by Memorial Day. Senate Environment and Public Works chairman Barbara Boxer has promised action before year’s end. Obama adviser David Axelrod recently said, “We think that it’s healthy that there’s so much momentum in Congress to address this problem. It’s long overdue.” But as we discovered last year, when the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act crashed and burned in the Senate, there’s no substitute for presidential leadership on this issue. And as Obama himself discovered with the stimulus bill, letting Congress drive legislation and then joining the fray late doesn’t necessarily lead to the bill the president wants.
So what does the president want? It is time for Obama to make that clear — not by wading into the all the minutiae, but by explaining to the American people why a climate bill is important and what basic principles he thinks should guide it. In November, Obama called for a cap-and-trade system leading to 1990 emission levels by 2020, and an 80% reduction below 1990 by 2050. But since then, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has raised doubts about that commitment, telling the New York Times in a recent interview that alternatives to cap-and-trade, such as a carbon tax, might still emerge, and that “in today’s economic climate,” a cap-and-trade regime for the U.S. “might not be completely politically sellable” because it would put American industries at a disadvantage to their counterparts in non-carbon-constrained economies such as India and China.
It’s hard to see how a carbon tax would be more politically sellable than cap-and-trade, but whether the administration decides to back a tax or a cap, neither will be sellable unless and until the president decides to start selling it. So reporters should invite him to do so every chance they get. With that, here are a number of specific questions that ought to be posed to President Obama.
Q. Mr. President, are you committed to enacting a mandatory, declining cap on carbon emissions? Some officials in your administration, including Steven Chu and Lawrence Summers, have spoken of the superiority of a carbon tax, leading some climate advocates to worry that a tax will gain just enough momentum to derail cap-and-trade, but not enough to pass — leaving nothing accomplished. Where do you stand?
Q. You have embraced an emissions reduction target of 1990 levels by 2020, leading to 80% cuts below those levels by 2050. Your long-term target may be laudable, but your short-term target — the one your administration will have the most say in achieving — falls short of what the experts say is necessary to put us on track to reaching the 2050 goal. Presumably, “1990 by 2020” is a reflection of what you consider politically and economically achievable now and in the next decade, so please explain how you arrived at it, and under what circumstances, if any, you would seek tougher cuts.
Q. Leading business associations, such as the National Association and Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that enacting a mandatory cap would wreck the already crumbling U.S. economy. But a host of mainstream economists agree that the cost of climate inaction over the long term would far exceed the cost of a well-designed cap-and-trade system. What does your economic team say about the cost of climate action, and how can you reassure the American people that it won’t be an insupportable economic burden?
Q. During the election you came out in favor of auctioning 100% of the emissions allowances in a cap-and-trade system. But the larger question is this: What is the best way to cushion working Americans from energy cost increases that may result from a mandatory declining cap on carbon? And what is the best way to help American industry, including electrical utilities that now depend on coal, pay for the transition to a carbon-constrained world?
Q. One objection to cap-and-trade is the fear that it will be “gamed” by industry lobbyists — loaded up with safety valves, off ramps, or other escape hatches that destroy the integrity of the declining cap. How do you distinguish, in your own mind, between legitimate cost containment mechanisms and efforts to erode the cap? Will you commit publicly to a mandatory declining cap that really is mandatory and actually does decline?
Q. Your EPA is about to embark on a long, contentious rule-making process, driven by a Supreme Court order, that could lead to regulation of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. This prospect has been described as "a glorious mess" because the Clean Air Act wasn't designed to regulate carbon and because years of protracted litigation would surely ensue. Do you see EPA rule-making for carbon as a pressure tactic designed to prod Congress into action, as a legitimate way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions emissions, or as both?
Q. You favor a strong push to develop the technology needed to capture and sequester carbon from coal-fired power plants. Many argue that the surest way to bring this technology to market is to impose a nationwide moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired plants that don’t capture and store their carbon emissions. Would you support such a moratorium?
Q. International competitiveness is an enormously important issue, one that demands a long-term plan for bringing China and India into a global climate deal. But as the Presidential Climate Action Project argued in its “State of the Climate” message to President Bush last year, inaction by the developing nations cannot be an excuse for inaction by the U.S. The message, signed by (among many others) John Holdren, who is now your White House Science Adviser, stated: “The United States will have little influence on other nations until we lead by example with a credible, comprehensive domestic program. Our first step in constructive engagement with the international community must be concrete action at home.” Do you agree with that statement?
Q. If so, isn’t it important to have a climate bill passed by the House and Senate before the December 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen?
Eric Pooley is a contributor to Time, Slate, and other magazines. His book about the politics and economics of climate change will be
published by Hyperion next year.
H2 energy fan until ~1996
02/22/2009, 10:40 AM
"It’s hard to see how a carbon tax would be more politically sellable than cap-and-trade" -- try "Dividend First".
I and some other carbon tax proponents, including J.E. Hansen, believe it's vitally important to return the carbon tax revenue to the citizens on an equal-dividend basis.
But there is ALREADY a lot of carbon tax revenue. That means if we are sincere about returning the money, we have an opportunity to show this, right at the start.
Call the initiative "Defossilize government", or maybe, seeking brevity, "De-oil city hall" ... maybe you can do better ... and let it begin with a dividing-out of existing fossil fuel tax revenues.
What if, shorn of their special fossil fuel interest, government personnel become friends to fossil fuel conservation and substitution efforts, and with this new amity, those efforts turn out to be surprisingly effective? So much so that up-ramping of fossil fuel carbon tax rates proves unnecessary?
That would be a nice surprise to many, although not to me. But if it doesn't happen, at least a precedent will have been established: government doesn't keep fossil fuel money.
This will make the raising of carbon tax rates easier to sell to those with less than the average amount of money.
--- G.R.L. Cowan, ('How fire can be domesticated')