Senator Graham shouts “Play Ball!”

March 3, 2010


Asher Miller is executive director of think tank Post Carbon Institute. Any opinion expressed here is his own.

It should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention to the politics of climate legislation to hear Senator Lindsey Graham pronounce, “the cap-and-trade bills in the House and Senate are dead.” The truth is that they’ve been dead for quite some time. It’s just that now we finally have the coroner’s official report.

Many proponents and opponents of climate legislation have had one thing in common for some time now—they hate the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey bill which passed in the House by a narrow margin back in June).

So an unlikely assembly of hardcore climate activists and equally hardcore climate deniers likely greeted Graham’s announcement with some measure of satisfaction.

The opponents’ argument against the bill is stunningly simple: They don’t believe in human-caused climate change.

The arguments on the other side are, not surprisingly, more numerous and more complex, not to mention more valid. The reason why so many climate activists like myself have opposed ACES is that the 1,400-page House bill was riddled with so many giveaways to polluters, and set targets so low and so slow, that folks were honestly debating whether or not it would be better to have no legislation at all than this piece of… paper.

Keep in mind: with a much narrower majority in the Senate, the bill was likely going to get watered down even further.

So is Graham’s pronouncement good news? Yes, and for two reasons:

First, at least Senator Graham is being honest. This is an election year and the healthcare debate is now going into extra innings. How likely is it that the Obama Administration and Congressional Democrats are up for a doubleheader, when game two is far less of a guaranteed win in terms of public support than game one was supposed to be?

Lack of progress in Copenhagen and doubts sewn by coordinated campaigns to discredit climate science only serve to make the outcome of any debate on Capitol Hill all the more uncertain.

It’s no surprise, then, that Congressional leaders are looking for new approaches. And that’s a good thing.

Which gets to the second point: If this is indeed a new ballgame, Senator Graham’s pronouncement could actually open the way for more meaningful legislation.

Graham is busily crafting a new bill with Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman. Who knows what it will actually contain? But there is already another alternative out there that could be a clear (pardon the pun) game changer.

In the months since ACES stalled, slow but steady momentum has built for an alternative approach called cap and dividend. In late 2009, two Senators, Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins—from opposite ends of the country and opposite sides of the aisle—introduced the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act.

In contrast to ACES, wherein a large number of permits would be given away to polluters, CLEAR would auction off 100 percent of the carbon permits. And rather than create a complex market for trading these permits, CLEAR would send 75 percent of revenues to the American people in the form of monthly checks (the other 25 percent would be invested in clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation programs). That’s right—actual checks that Americans can put in their savings accounts or use as they see fit. And it’s not like this is a new idea or would bankrupt the energy industry. Just ask Alaskans how they like their Permanent Fund, which has been sending them checks since 1976.

In this economic climate, cap and dividend makes a lot more political sense than cap and trade (cue images of Wall St. fat cats getting fatter) or a carbon tax, however more substantive the latter may be.

Which is why cap and dividend could actually work if positioned right. Positioned as a climate bill, it will fail. Positioned as a means of putting money in every American taxpayer’s pocket while reducing our dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs, it may just succeed.

Here’s hoping it does. The stakes of this game couldn’t be higher.

Photo shows The Boston Red Sox bat boy holding baseballs for the home plate umpire before the MLB Inter-League baseball game between the Red Sox and the New York Mets at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts May 22, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


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Posted by Report: Google hack was ‘amateur,’ began in July | Hide Your IP Address | Report as abusive

Mr. Miller makes an excellent argument for CLEAR (cap and dividend). It addresses the concerns about “gaming the system” and provides an individual payment to reduce the negative effects of increased costs to energy users.
However, I prefer the simplicity of the carbon tax – imposed at the point of extraction (well-head, mine) or import. Capping and tracking compliance with tens of thousands of distinct energy using/polluting facilities will require some significant administrative overhead. Tracking the production of a few hundred oil, gas and coal producers is much more straight-forward – perhaps requiring one full time clerk to administer – and would be much harder to “game”.
Either way, we need to move on with some mechanism to support the movement towards a low-pollution, high employment society. Either of these methods would be a great step in that direction.

Posted by MichaelOHara | Report as abusive

Did Sen. Graham sign on to the Cantwell/Collins cap and dividend bill? If not, he’s playing bait-and-switch, not ball. As for a carbon tax, when a Republican signs up for that, it’ll be a sign that hell has frozen over, or that the climate has started to resemble hell.

Posted by Greenhead | Report as abusive

Yes. If you are going to be honest about it, a straight forward carbon tax may be the best way forward. Of course, that will inhibit the economy in the short run…not exactly what we want during a recession.

Frankly, as bad as prospects were a year ago for this…they are much worse now, with all the fraudulent research from the AGW community. The publics confidence in the science must be rebuilt before we can go forward with such a massive tax plan.

Posted by neoavatara | Report as abusive

@ Greenhead:

There’s an old joke about a New England farmer who dies and goes to Hell. Satan is trying to devise the worst punishment imaginable, and–based on this guy’s life history–assumes that his worst moments were shoveling frozen manure and slush out of a barn on dark, sleeting mornings. So Satan creates this environment, turns the farmer, and says: “Welcome to Hell.” The farmer starts jumping for joy, shouting: “The Red Sox won the World Series! The Red Sox won the World Series!”

Well, the Red Sox *have* won the World Series. Twice. So Hell can freeze over.

And many Republicans know full well that the Permanent Fund is more popular than $2 beers in Alaska (home of one Sarah Palin).

Just sayin’–let’s not dismiss cap n’ dividend (and possible Republican support of same) out of hand.

Post Carbon Institute makes a good case for CLEAR as a potentially viable alternative.

Posted by redsox | Report as abusive

On the one hand, the ‘fee/cap and dividend’ approach is attractive because it has real populist appeal (overall). On the other hand, the structure of the US economy and political system means that it can’t pass in its simple form. Because of the disparities in fossil fuel production across states (eg some regional economies are much more dependent on coal-fired electricity), a national cap-and-dividend will result in money flowing out of those states to people elsewhere. Not only that but electricity will be more expensive. So those states (and their senators) are definitely not going to support a national dividend approach.

Posted by BillyT | Report as abusive

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