Was Cap and Trade Oversold?
Environmental Leader Says Democrats Were Too Quick to Appease
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 14, 2011 | Comments (0)
Democrats and many members of the environmental movement are too quick to appease industry voices and have lost their focus, says a leading attorney forcing the climate change debate in the United States. Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity says she is "disappointed" with the Obama administration's approach to environmental issues. "Perhaps the president himself just doesn’t get it," she told me. "He certainly doesn’t have a background in environmental matters."
Siegel forced the Bush administration to list the polar bear as a threatened species, raising the ire of energy industry lobbyists, climate change denialists and antiscience radio commentators and prompting pseudoscience papers arguing the bears were doing fine, like this one, partially paid for by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil Corporation.
The Endangered Species Act requires the government to judge cases only on the basis of the best available science, not economic impact, not political pressures, not industry compromises, so despite the noise, the Bush administration had to list the bear or go to court and lose on the science. "We put them between a rock and a hard place."
With the election of Barack Obama and his pledge to "restore science to its rightful place" - the mission statement of Science Debate - scientists and environmentalists were hopeful that some progress would finally be made on the climate issue, which has been in policy discussions since the Johnson administration. Obama appointed early Science Debate supporters who were knowledgeable in climate science - science adviser John Holdren, energy secretary Steven Chu, NOAA director Jane Lubchenco, USGS director Marcia McNutt - so it seemed clear that he was intent on progress. But with the great recession, the climate bill took a back seat to economic stimulus and health care.
The bill that made its way through congress focused on cap and trade - a market driven system developed by conservative economists under Reagan to tackle acid rain.
Doug Holtz Eakin, Bush II's chief economic adviser described it to me this way: "There’s a broad division that’s clear between initiatives that harness market forces and initiatives that override them. Command and control regulations versus let’s have a carbon tax and a cap on carbon and allow people to innovate to minimize their exposure. That’s a big dividing line."
The Obama administration thought they could get climate done by going with cap and trade to win conservatives support. But between January 2009 to June 2010 the energy industry spent a half a billion dollars fighting climate change legislation, or almost $1,900 per day in lobby expenditures for every US senator and representative in Washington. They spent an estimated $73 million more on anti–clean energy ads from January through October 2010. "Cap and tax" became an epithet, making the bill politically untenable even for conservatives - which remains the current situation. Last week, Mitt Romney was lauded for his courage when he publicly supported mainstream science, stating that he "believes" in climate change. Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's response: "bye bye nomination." "They’ve taken positions that are divorced from any reality on the policy, that are divorced from any reality of their own history or ideas," says Holz Eakin.
The Obama administration is now reportedly backing away from the words "climate change" in policy circles. Science officials and activists, as well as some NSF staffers are talking about how the administration is trying to steer language away from the subject, deeming it a loser. They want to focus on competitiveness.
Siegel says this is a big mistake. "It’s a massive political miscalculation to think that climate isn’t a winner of a political issue" she says. "Somebody just has to stand up and do the right thing. You got elected to make a difference in the world. You've got four years to do it. Also this general thing of the democratic party not articulating - and the environmental movement too - their values and their positions in a clear way to change people’s minds, is a big problem for the environment." Recent polling suggests there is some support. Only 15% of Americans think that even with the bad economy America can't afford to do anything about climate change.
Siegel thinks that Democrats' focusing on cap and trade was problematic to begin with. "We already have all these laws set up and ready to go. There’s this idea that’s really appealing, that we have to use the best way, and then we argue over what that best way might be and what it would look like and what compromises we need and what we have to get rid of, and then we wind up using nothing while we argue. We should use the laws we have. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act. Yet it’s been this incredible uphill battle to get the government to implement any of its own laws."
Currently, beyond litigating under the Endangered Species Act, the CBD has petitioned the EPA and every coastal state to list their coastal waters as impaired under the Clean Water Act due to the high level of ocean acidification caused by absorption of carbon dioxide, which would require them to cut down on CO2 emissions. Roughly half of all emitted CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, which is causing major changes in the ocean food chain and ecosystems.
"I just think we need to use every tool we have and the most important tools we have are the ones that are time-tested – maybe they’re not perfect but they’re the world’s best, most successful laws. The environmental movement has been too quick to focus on claimed imperfections rather than defending these laws. There are limitless policy tools we can choose; let’s use them all. A theoretical cap and trade system is not incompatible with all our existing laws. The idea that we’re going to demonize one of our laws because we don’t like it politically is just ridiculous."
Tags: Climate Change, Republicans, Democrats, Economics, Politics, Antiscience, Environment