It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Sunday, May 17, 2009

waxing poetic

In the end, I reluctantly conclude that David Roberts is right that we (and I in particular) should STFU about the Waxman Markey legislation and let the politicians take it as far as they can.

This is what is ironically called a "real world" compromise, in which we understand perfectly what techniques would be needed to make a world of vastly greater human dignity, beauty, mutual support and happiness (though, perhaps, a wee bit less ludicrously funny), but the "real world" of politics interferes to make a thorough bureaucratic muddle of it all.

The NYTimes explains this flavor of realism here.
How did cap and trade, hatched as an academic theory in obscure economic journals half a century ago, become the policy of choice in the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption that befouls the public square or leaves the nation hostage to foreign oil producers?

The answer is not to be found in the study of economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy debates are ultimately settled: politics.


Cap and trade, ... is almost perfectly designed for the buying and selling of political support through the granting of valuable emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific Congressional districts. That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has used such concessions to patch together a Democratic majority to pass a far-reaching bill to regulate carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan.
The upshot is a lot of short term gain spread around to specific people, and a balancing amount of unnecessary extra long term pain spread around to nobody in particular. This is the activation energy of politics.

When I discovered the distinction between popular and less popular blogs about global change, I noted that the dominant players, at least so far, are the more politically oriented ones. I inadvertently offended Joe Romm, but whatever his educational background, his thinking is pretty inside-the-beltway. David Roberts, though happily ensconced in the other Washington and pretty critical on the whole about DC, is also in the class of unabashedly liberal/progressive blogs. These are the guys who, at least at present, are getting the traffic, relatively speaking. Maybe that is as it should be. Maybe the group of people I want to reach is intrinsically smaller. Anyway, while we may agree on many things, what they try to do on their blogs and what I try to do on mine are not alike.

I discovered that while there is no doubt that I describe myself as liberal/progressive in contrast to other political postures, that is only a crude generalization in my case, since my politics takes a back seat to evidence-based reasoning, and sometimes I say things that progressives hate, for instance, "CCS sure had better work" and "coal is not the enemy of the human race" and so on.

Consequently, my writing and my thinking is not about how to advance liberalism or progressivism or my preferred political parties, but about what the most effective response to circumstances would be. Almost invariably, these ideas are considered "unrealistic".

While carbon emission contraints are long overdue and there is a very dramatic mismatch between policy and evidence, it is an unusual sort of slow motion crisis. The effect of delaying a response to the second year of the present congress would be relatively inconsequential, compared to the distorting influences of a bad bill.

And in so saying, I fall into the fourth way: neither partisan nor afraid to draw a conclusion, feeling grimly disappointed that political realism creates such a muddle out of what ought to be a straightforward application of the part of economics that obviously works.

Commercial activity responds effectively to monetary incentives. Seriously. It does.

But I'm not an absolutist. The dominant factor in the present circumstances is the upcoming Copenhagen negotiation. It makes a great deal of difference to all the other countries whether the US shows up having made real substantive cuts, by which the participants will mean, exactly, large symbolic actions that might eventually lead to real substantive cuts.

How much better off will this leave grand gesture us than did the grand gestures of the past, most notably Kyoto?

Oddly, much better, since Damocles' sword has slipped much lower, and since America would not find itself explicitly rejecting international cooperation. Maybe some of these theoretical cuts will eventually exit the "real world" of politics and enter the other (unreal?) world where the actual radiative properties of the atmosphere are changing at an unusually high and climbing rate.

So it's perhaps best to leave the politicians to their craftiness or craziness. Because like it or not the radiative properties of the atmosphere for the next 100,000 years may depend sensitively on an all-too-casually chosen word here and there, and on the ensuing future sturm und drang among lawyers and judges and corprate interests about what the word actually means.

After a half century of our warnings and a quarter century of our drum banging, at least they are taking note in their peculiar way. Will it be enough?

The answer seems to be that, enough or not, it is the best we can do this year, and that this year matters.

In short
@david_h_roberts is right: we shouldn't quibble too much re Waxman Markey. Timing is politically important so let's cope.

PS - That's right, the Canadians are smarter.

PPS - Or maybe not. Krugman, taking me completely by surprise, prefers a cap to a tax.


jg said...

I hate to have to ask, but did you leave something important out of the 8th paragraph?

"The effect of delaying a response to the second year of the present congress would be
And in so saying, "


Michael Tobis said...

Thanks, fixed.

I don't actually write in a straight line, which is why things get mangled on occasion. Maybe if I had some way to get paid for this I could justify spending enough time proofing, and/or getting an editor.

Meanwhile I rely on you all to keep me on track. Corrections are always appreciated.