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A triumph of politics over policy

The Gazette

No one expected a bang; but the idea of a cap on the United States’ carbon emissions died with barely the bathos of a whimper.

Despite months of legislative fiddle piled on procedural faddle, no one ever drafted a bill with a carbon cap and the sort of trading system necessary for industry to meet its demands, that stood a chance on the Senate floor.

So the majority leader, Harry Reid, finally decided the whole issue should be quietly flushed away. With the midterm elections sure to swing heavily away from his Democrats, there is now no possibility of comprehensive climate-change legislation in the United States for years.

Given the murkiness of some of the bathwater involved (maybe we’ll let you have a little cap and trade if you’ll let us go on emitting neurotoxic mercury, said the electric utilities), it is easy to lose track of the attractions of the baby.

The U.S. is the largest perperson emitter of carbon dioxide among the world’s big economies, and the secondlargest emitter overall.

If the risks of global damage through climate change are to be reduced, U.S. emissions need to come under some sort of control, both because of what they do to the climate and because of the message such control would send to the world’s other large emitters – and in particular to China, the largest.

In his election campaign, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke enthusiastically of a cap-and-trade scheme; so did his opponent, John McCain. But Obama never made it a high priority, and McCain, back in the Senate, maintained a sulky silence on the subject.

Opposition by the Republican minority marked a triumph of politics over policy: Some Republicans recognize the risks of climate change and the appeal of cap and trade. But it was Democrats who killed the bill. A significant number of Democrats from states dependent on coal would not vote for cap and trade when the economy was weak and tight elections loomed. Pressure from their voters could have swayed them, but public support for climate action, though fairly broad, is rarely deep.

In its absence the blandishments of a well-funded environmental lobby, the sporadic half-throated encouragement of the White House, and the not entirely convincing rhetoric on green jobs from their colleagues on the left could not shift them.

To hope that a tranche of Republicans might make good the numbers when a block of Democrats wouldn’t was to ask far too much of principle in a polarized political atmosphere.

Emissions in the U.S. will not go unabated. The Environmental Protection Agency is now legally required to act on carbon dioxide. Utilities will be obliged to buy renewable energy and encouraged to build nuclear plants. But such progress will be modest, badly coordinated and inefficiently won, while also drawing on the public purse.

One of the attractions of cap and trade was that it raised money that might be spent on measures such as grid improvements and the development and deployment of new research: some technology push to make market pull go farther. Much of this would have been pork-barrel spending, but at least the capand-trade system brought in its own pork; energy-only bills do not.

Damage will also be done to the momentum of international negotiations and the United States’ leadership role within them – weak sisters to begin with.

When the U.S. helped to broker the Copenhagen Accord last year, its aim was to level the playing field between rich countries that made commitments and poor ones that didn’t. Offering no legislative commitment at all rather makes a mockery of that goal.

Optimists can see a bright side. Cap and trade was sold as the easiest way of limiting emissions: pragmatic, politically acceptable, offering hard caps on emissions, which greens want, and the possibility of free carbon credits, which companies want. But it is not the only way. And the main alternative, a carbon tax, is in many ways preferable.

Now that cap and trade has proved unacceptable, expect a swing back toward carbon taxes in policy circles. During a wholesale revision of the tax code, they might yet have their day.

But expect, too, that the country’s emissions will come down only slowly, and that the world’s will continue to rise.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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