Here’s President Obama in April 2009:
Now, the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.
As of yesterday, it looks like we’re gonna go with decline. Prosperity was over-rated anyhow. That’s what seems to be the message, anyway, from DC, where “pragmatism” from leaders has resulted in a complete capitulation on any substantive climate and energy bill.
I’ll spare readers my anguish and frustration over the Senate’s failure. In any case, you can find better analyses from Joe Romm at Grist (mandatory reading) and Tim Dickinson at Rolling Stone (very worthwhile).
I’d like to avoid hyperbole and hysteria, but it’s actually somewhat difficult to overstate the magnitude of the loss. The death of serious carbon policy in the Senate is a very bad thing. For more on that, see Dave Roberts at Grist, which is what you should usually do for smart commentary on climate politics.
Take a stiff drink.
Okay, now take another stiff drink.
So now what? Basically, we’re left with two sub-optimal but viable options in the near-term, plus maybe a third a little later.
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The two near-term options are:
- direct command-and-control regulation from the EPA;
- state and regional action, such as RGGI and the Western Climate Initiative.
The first one—EPA regulation —is fairly straightforward. Now that the Supreme Court has clarified that EPA does, in fact, have the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to human health, it should knuckle down. It’s time now for EPA to start doing so in a comprehensive and aggressive way. One very good place to start would be direct regulation of coal plants.
Another, ultimately more effective, version would be for EPA to institute a carbon cap-and-trade program, ideally one that is economy-wide. The EPA has already proven itself to be a smart and efficient administrator of cap-and-trade programs. So we’re talking about an agency that has the experience and know-how to do it right on a larger scale. And we’re talking about an opportunity to do it without the pigpile of pork-barrel industry giveaways that can happen in a legislative setting.
Yet if EPA does not pursue its own cap-and-trade program for carbon, there are myriad opportunities for reducing emissions through direct regulation. On that score, I’d be remiss not to mention World Resources Institute’s excellent new analysis that details exactly how this could be done. Here’s the key chart:
Over at Grist once again, Jonathan Hiskes has a great summary of WRI’s report.
The second option—state and regional action—is also fairly straightforward. Existing regional programs, such as the fully operational RGGI program in the northeast US and the still-in-development Western Climate Initiative, should pick up the baton. Perhaps they should even consider melding. RGGI has the virtue of a successful track record, while WCI has the virtue of a genuinely comprehensive and large-scale approach to carbon.
These regional programs continue to have huge potential. They represent a vast share of North America’s population and economy and, with some slightly better political leadership, they could be wielded as a real weapon in the fight to reduce emissions.
The third option is also important to consider. That’s the possibility of alternative approaches to comprehensive carbon pricing. The most obvious contender is Senator Cantwell’s CLEAR Act, which has already been introduced in the Senate. Another possibility might be federal or state carbon taxes, though there are currently no live policy proposals to push forward.
It’s highly unlikely that either of these alternatives stand a real chance in the next few months, but giving them some air now might help bolster their prospects under the next Congress, and may even provide a chance to bridge the deeply partisan carbon divide. And if the feds are unwilling to act, the onus may return to the states where, after all, there are deep revenue holes to fill.
So that’s basically the landscape as I see it. It’s certainly not good, but neither is it hopeless.
What’s worth bearing in mind, I think, is that politics are bizarre, and punditry is something of a fool’s game. What’s politically impossible one moment can become politically mandatory the next. It’s happened dozens of times before, but it’s never happened without concerted and sustained effort from citizens. That means you.