An exchange on climate and energy legislation: must it include a carbon constraint?


Andy Revkin’s concern that battles over emissions restrictions are a losing political game in the Senate climate and clean energy debate, and a distraction from a more immediate need to initiate a ‘sustained energy quest’ (DotEarth blog, New York Times, July 14), prompted us to join an exchange of comments on whether an ‘energy-only’ Senate bill would be an adequate first legislative step.

Post by Rick Piltz

Excerpts from Revkin’s post and exchange with readers:

Senate Eyes Bush Plan on CO2

DotEarth, New York Times, July 14


…With other approaches to an energy and climate bill blocked — including carbon taxes or a broader cap-and-trade mechanism for controlling emissions — the only viable alternative appears to be to limit a cap to utilities, the one sector that’s already familiar with smokestack rules and markets in emissions credits….

[H]ere’s my longstanding concern: Any package of legislation focused on emissions restrictions will — because of the nature of congressional compromise — inevitably be too weak to have much of an impact where it matters — in the atmosphere. This means that such fights, which are at the core of the delays over energy legislation, are a distraction from the simpler process of building the first stages of a sustained energy quest after a long comfortable nap facilitated by cheap abundant fossil fuels for which longer-term and indirect costs are finally being gauged.

There’s another advantage to this approach, which is that there is far stronger public support for advancing and disseminating low-carbon energy sources than there is for restricting emissions of carbon dioxide using a rising cost through a cap.

Some environmental and climate campaigners have said they are willing to be “a big fan of a lousy climate bill,” as Joe Romm of Climate Progress described himself not long ago (around the 34th minute in this video) — as a step toward breaking longstanding gridlock. “A lousy climate bill helps us get off the business as usual path,” Romm said in that onstage discussion.

My sense is that a better approach is to recognize, from the start, the reality that shifting energy norms, even as coal remains a core energy source, will be a process unfolding over decades, and making sure that legislation, while pushing standards for cutting energy waste and pollution, also focuses on support in all the arenas that matter to building a sustained energy quest — including education to create the intellectual capacity for such an undertaking and sustained and increased direct support for basic inquiry in science and technology — an area where there’s been bipartisan disinterest in federal investment for decades.

In the end, this pattern is unlikely to break unless and until there is a new Obama energy and climate plan to supplant the approach being taken in the Senate now…

From Readers’ Comments:

Mike Roddy, Yucca Valley, CA

What you are saying here, Andy, is that since legal or administrative restrictions or prices on CO2 emissions will either fail or be too weak that we should instead focus on a “sustained energy quest”, whatever that means, phased in over several decades. You suggest more money for research, promote educating the public, and plan on a transformation to occur very gradually.

This is the current Republican Party position. Even Bush strayed from it on the campaign trail in 2000 (though he was lying about it).

You are saying that with all of the recent data about arctic melting, methane releases, record heat waves, and so on — far in excess of IPCC IV projections — that you feel no real sense of urgency, and have given up on carbon pricing or other market adjustments. Don’t worry, be happy — as Lomborg and Pielke would say.

If the solution is to throw a little money at research and education and ignore the need to enact incentives to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the earth will be a dangerous and chaotic place in our children’s lifetimes. This is not my opinion, but that of almost any extensively published climate scientist. The fossil fuel and timber industries are bent on continuing to enjoy subsidies, bribing Congressmen, and hiring spokesmen to downplay the dangers of their huge CO2 emissions. They are essentially criminal organizations, and their paid spokesmen also bear responsibility. That means that urgent action from the US government is required….

Rick Piltz, Washington DC

I agree with what [President Obama’s Science and Technology Adviser] John Holdren said at the National Climate Adaptation Summit on May 27: “If we do not accept that climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face, we will not put into the legislation that we need, the key ingredient that we need. Until the US gets serious nationally about climate change — and we’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions — we’re not going to have the international agreement, we’re not going to have the mitigation that we need, and we’re not going to have the support for adaptation.”

What makes you think we can drive the radical transformation of our energy system that will be required to forestall dangerous anthropogenic climate disruption with an energy-only policy, without using policy to put a price on carbon emissions? No one is against “clean energy” and energy R&D — those are safe, noncontroversial because they are weak. They have not generated the compelling narrative, the sense of urgency, or the market signal sufficient to significantly alter our emissions trajectory. I think those who are advocating an energy-only, ‘disconnect the energy discourse from the climate change discourse’ approach, are doing a great disservice. Why would our society and political system undertake to decarbonize the energy system, which will be an enormous undertaking spanning decades, and how would public support be maintained for such an undertaking throughout the challenge, unless there is an understanding of the implications of unchecked climate change? How would we develop and maintain the support that will be neded for adaptive preparedness to deal with the impacts of climate change? If political leaders, journalists, and advocates engage in the reductionism of energy-only formulations, without focusing on carbon emissions regulatory and pricing policy, I believe there is little chance the climate change problem will be addressed succesfully. Energy-only policy without climate policy is a cop-out.

Revkin reply re #5:

Rick, I’m describing the process I alluded to not long ago that was laid out by Steve Schneider of Stanford — aggressively demonstrating energy successes as a prelude to the tougher steps. A comprehensive approach is doomed either to keep hitting this wall or result in a bill so eviscerated that it would, in effect, be a setback. And there is a separate argument against the assumption (that’s all it is) that a U.S. bill would substantively shift the commitments of China and India.

Rick Piltz

Andy, re your response to Comment #5—

Schneider talked about a first step while, I believe, acknowledging the need to get to a constraint or price on carbon as part of an effective policy solution. But others seem to think we can deal with climate change without reference to regulating or pricing emissions as part of an overall policy strategy (Pielke Jr.? Shellenberger and Nordhaus?). I just think this view is politically unsophisticated, and certainly does not do justice to what the science community is telling us (e.g., most recently in the National Research Council’s “America’s Climate Choices” reports) about the need for the country’s political leaders, if we actually have any on this issue, to bring the public along on the need for climate change mitigation and adaptation. If not now, when?

Revkin reply re #8:

I encourage you to click on the video in which I lead a discussion between Joe Romm and Michael Levi on policy options, both domestic and international — particularly at the time signature I mention and beyond. There Joe talks about the importance of a climate bill lying in the creation of *any* price on carbon (knowing, as I’m sure he does, that only a very low price — far too low to drive change — is politically realistic). That means he, in essence, is in the same camp with those calling for a low carbon price from the get-go, labeled as such (the other Nordhaus, some guy named Lomborg…). So, once again, this shows (me at least) what a waste of time it is to fight NOW for the climate-policy full monty.

Ann M., Seattle

Andy, yes, I’m sure you’re right: those in the center of the policy discourse agree that the process of shifting energy norms will take decades. And I believe it’s still true that this is too little, too late.

What I’m arguing for is a concerted effort to transcend politics as usual. You speak of “the nature of congressional compromise.” We must change the politicians and how they do business. We must change public perception and the sway moneyed interests have. We must work toward not only renewable energy but also strong carbon pricing. We’ve got to do it all because it’s simply too important not to.

If there’s ever been a time to think outside of the box, it’s now.

Rick Piltz

Andy, re your reply to comment #8:

Of course anything that passes at this point will be inadequate to ‘solving’ the climate policy problem. I doubt that anything of real significance will be enacted anytime soon. But the choice that seems to be being posed is: legislation with an explicit carbon constraint, or without. Legislation with a carbon constraint, however limited, at least would put in place a policy regime that can be strengthened over time (over what is likely to be a long period of time). My bottom line is, we can’t solve the climate change policy problem without talking about climate change. The American people have never heard any president, Obama included, give a single talk that focuses meaningfully on climate change (not just clean energy and green jobs), characterizes the problem, and talks about what is needed to deal with it (including dealing with impacts). Until we have a president with some gravitas on this issue, and a Congress that treats climate policy as something more than a logrolling of parochial energy special interests, if not outright crackpot denialism, I expect there will be no meaningful national mobilization to deal with this challenge. I watched your interview with Joe Romm. Let’s see what legislation comes up in the Senate, and maybe we’ll agree on whether it’s enough of a little step in the right direction to be worth supporting. I think the Dems take their base altogether too much for granted when making bad compromises and being held hostage by their worst senators, and will continue to do so as long as people keep saying they’ll settle for crumbs.

Ray Pierrehumbert, Chicago
(Professor, Geophysical Sciences, Univ. of Chicago)

Andy, can you say the words “market failure?” Economists — even free-market U. of Chicago economists — have no problem with this concept so why should you? All your nattering about “energy quest” is fine and good, but any energy quest will be running with both ankles hobbled and hands tied behind the back if it has to compete with energy from cheap coal. Energy that is cheap because of externalities — environmental costs of coal burning that are not factored into the cost of coal at present. That’s why we need a price on carbon. Sure, massive investment in energy technology is necessary, but it needs to be accompanied by fixing the market failures regarding artificially cheap coal. Is that so hard to understand? And coal cannot become a “core energy source” without committing us to a high-carbon future, not unless carbon capture and storage is implemented on a much bigger scale and much faster than anybody is currently contemplating.

Revkin reply re #23:

I absolutely agree that coal combustion (and oil) have had far too easy a ride, thanks in part to decades of favors doled out by Democrats including the sadly departed Robert Byrd, along with Republicans. The question remains, in our political and economic system you have two knobs for building support for this kind of change — as laid out by Dan Schrag in some chats a few years ago — you can raise public will (for higher fossil prices) or lower the cost differential between clean and dirty energy by improving the efficiency or cutting the cost of the clean stuff. Obviously some of both would be needed. The legislative approaches so far (except perhaps Cantwell) do not create a case or mix that can pass muster with Americans. And the lack of focus by Obama, as Rick Piltz has said above, isn’t helping.

Earl E, The Lost World

I just wanted to say that I have felt relieved for once. I have read all the comments this blog and am grateful to see that comments from:

Mike Roddy …Yucca Valley, Ca.
Rick Piltz ……Washington, DC
Asteroid Miner …..Illinois
Ann M. …..Seattle

have given me hope that I am not alone.

Asteroid Miner, Illinois

18 Rick Piltz: According to James Hansen in “Storms of My Grandchildren,” on the first page of the introduction: “Obama doesn’t get it.” The president is a lawyer and a politician. He never studied science.

Earlier CSW posts:
May 28: Holdren at Adaptation Summit: We’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions

May 28: Text of remarks by Obama science adviser John Holdren to the National Climate Adaptation Summit

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