Don’t Just Do Something… Sit There

We’ve touched on this idea before – not the transposed smart-alecky version in the title, but the idea that someone somewhere is doing something about climate change. And because they are, everything will be cool (sorry). You might be doing something yourself – you might have biked to work today, or bought a diesel SUV that gets better mileage, switched out your soft white 75s for CFLs… whatever is, we’re all doing some of these things, which means we’re all doing something, in our way. Which come to think of it, is our way. More on that in a minute.

When it comes to government-level actions to tax carbon or enact a cap-and-trade regime, things are also moving – that is, people are doing things. You have the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the house in June. And the senate version, leaked yesterday and released today, uses healthy doses of legislative lingo (I won’t say gibberish) to show boldness at reducing emissions while obscuring the polluting that will be allowed and the billions of dollars in emissions permitting that will be given away… ahem. This is the game, and one reason, among many, that you cannot merely be sanguine about the fact that someone in Washington (our capital) is doing something. There are many issues, among them – what is cap-and-trade? How is it different from a carbon tax?

Grist has a good interview with James Hansen of NASA, discussing the merits of these bills, what’s at stake and, reading between the lines, why we all need to understand the two questions above in order to hold solid opinions on whether someone is actually doing anything. Grist/Hansen:

One of the places most recently where you’ve been rather blunt is on the proposed Waxman-Markey climate bill. How would you summarize the problems that you see?

You can summarize the problem and prove that the bill is inadequate in a very simple way. You just look at the geophysical constraints on the problem and you look at how much carbon there is in oil, gas, and coal. And you see that the oil and gas is enough to get us into a dangerous zone for atmospheric carbon dioxide but not so far that we couldn’t solve the problem. But if you add coal and put that carbon in the atmosphere, then there is no practical way to solve the problem. So you just have to look at the proposed policy and see if it allows coal to continue to be used and emit the CO2 in the atmosphere.

You’ve got to cut off the coal source. Not only does [Waxman-Markey] assure that we will continue to run these coal plants that we have but it actually gives approval for additional coal plants. That simple test tells us that this bill is not adequate.

The basic point—the fundamental problem—is that because of government policies, fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy. They are not made to pay for the damages they do to human health and the environment. As long as fossil fuels are the cheapest form of energy, they are going to be used. That’s why I say you have to address the fundamental problem and that is put a rising price on carbon emissions.

You’ve been an advocate for a carbon tax instead of cap-and-trade. Why do you think a carbon tax is not getting much traction?

It’s partly because of the poor choice of words. I have a new description and that is “deposit and return.” Either a carbon cap or a carbon tax affects the price of energy and so they’re qualitatively not different. And so it’s kind of a mistake to call one a “tax and dividend,” and the other a “cap,” as if the cap does not increase the price of energy. If it doesn’t increase the price of energy, then it’s not going to be effective.

We have to begin to move to the sources of energy beyond fossil fuels. And the way you do that in a way that is economically sensible and beneficial is to do it gradually but continually. The public and the business community need to understand that the price of carbon will continue to rise in the future, and then we would begin to move more rapidly to the post-fossil fuel era.

So would it be fair to characterize the Waxman-Markey bill as business-as-usual, or is it even worse than business-as-usual?

Well, it’s a small probation of business-as-usual. It’s worse, in my opinion, than almost no policy because it does lock in, it does give approval for, some new coal-fired power. It puts a ceiling on the reductions that will occur. If you put a price on carbon emissions so that the competitors, the energy efficiency and the carbon-free energy sources, can begin to have the competitive advantage, then once you reach a certain point, things will move very rapidly and we will begin to leave the coal in the ground.

That’s what the coal companies are afraid of and they have been enormously effective in their impact on the politics, even though the truth is it’s not that big an industry and the total number of employees is not that large. But they are very powerful in terms of the number of senators and representatives they are able to influence, and apparently even the administration. It doesn’t make sense from an overall national perspective to give them such tremendous political clout. It is not in the best interest of the nation or the public.

We can move to simplified formulations to create helpful guides about the issue: if (measure x) does not increase the price of energy, it’s not going to be effective. Simple, understandable and clear – but we have to use them as starting places from which to move forward, likely toward measures that will require more of us and, just as likely, produce greater benefits that just being carbon negative or whatever. Quality of life stuff, like this new app I just found out about for taking in meaningful information on all sorts of subjects. It’s called sitting under a tree reading.

So don’t just do something…