The depressing politics of climate change

By Felix Salmon
May 3, 2011
climate change panel today was that there's essentially zero chance that a cap-and-trade bill will become law in the foreseeable future.

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Why has the Obama administration failed utterly to get anything at all done with respect to climate change? The issue was a major part of Obama’s 2008 platform, but it seemed to disappear as soon as he got elected, and the consensus on the climate change panel today was that there’s essentially zero chance that a cap-and-trade bill will become law in the foreseeable future.

One of the reasons is party-political: “Republicans chose to equate climate change with taxation,” said Milken’s Peter Passell, “and a well-financed campaign made climate change denial almost a litmus test for conservative orthodoxy”. Obviously, if you don’t believe in climate change, or if you say you don’t believe in climate change, then you’re never going to be remotely helpful with respect to crafting any kind of bill designed to address it.

But more profoundly — and the reason that the Democrats don’t seem particularly eager to get anything done on this front either — there’s the fact that climate-related legislation is one of those things which will create a large mass of winners with relatively little present-day political clout (us, our children, and our children’s children), alongside a small number of losers with extremely deep pockets and extensive lobbying arms.

One of the best aspects of the great HuffPo investigation of the politics of swipe-fee reform was the way in which it detailed how the issue came to dominate Washington politics precisely because both sides are so well funded. (Essentially, it’s big retailers vs big banks, with the public in the middle.)

As a general rule, it simply isn’t possible to pass legislation where the many benefit but a few entrenched special interests lose out. There are exceptions, of course, but they tend to be extremely hard-fought (think the healthcare and Wall Street reform bills) and unique in many ways. What you really need, when it comes to climate change, is a powerful constituency which would benefit from a bill. And since the largest beneficiaries haven’t even been born yet, let alone started making campaign donations, we’re not about to find one.

For similar political reasons, I’m evolving away from my preference for cap-and-trade over a carbon tax, since a cap-and-trade system is certain to get gamed by special interests. Allocations will be given out for free, and carbon credits will end up being given to projects which don’t reduce carbon emissions at all: Bjorn Lomborg talked about a cottage industry in China where people will build refrigerator factories designed to use a particularly potent greenhouse gas called HDFC23, not to build refrigerators, but just to get billions of dollars’ worth of carbon credits when they don’t build refrigerators.

Indeed, politics in general is a really bad way of addressing the issues of global climate change. When politicians do implement something, it’s as likely as not to have a minuscule marginal impact and to cost a vast amount of money: think of Germany’s subsidies for solar panels, which work out at about $1,000 per ton of carbon emissions saved, or U.S. subsidies for corn ethanol, which arguably create extra carbon emissions when you take into account the deforestation they cause by people needing to grow food elsewhere. Expensive programs aren’t always enforced particularly well — see California’s plan to mandate zero-emission autos — but they do make it seem as though any attempt to address climate change is bound to be prohibitively expensive if it is enforced. And that’s a bad message to send.

What’s more, even if we did pass cap-and-trade legislation — or even an outright carbon tax — it wouldn’t necessarily do a huge amount of good: such a move might be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient when it comes to the big goal of preventing the buildup of atmospheric carbon to the point at which climate change becomes catastrophic.

We also need major technological breakthroughs, and possibly also insurance in the form of geoengineering — at least a few experiments with injecting sulfur into the stratosphere or evaporating more sea salt so that marine clouds become whiter and reflect more sunlight. They might not work, and they might have significant unintended consequences, but it’s looking increasingly as though Plan A when it comes to preventing temperature build-up — reducing global carbon emissions drastically — simply isn’t going to happen. So we ought at least to be thinking about Plan B, and endowing a few prizes for technological innovation on both fronts.

One message I did get from the panel is that individual attempts to minimize our carbon footprint are not going to make any real difference. When I see people suffering a significant loss of utility because they’re watching their footprint and refuse to fly, for instance, it’s pretty clear that the personal cost of their decision is much greater than any global benefit. Even if they act as a role model and persuade others to follow their lead, they’re still perpetuating the idea that individual actions count. And I’m not sure there’s any evidence for that. Especially when the single most carbon-intensive thing that anybody can do — having children — is the last thing that they ever will (or should) give up for the sake of the planet.

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