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Messaging Becomes Reality: Abandoning a Carbon Cap?

The healthcare bill isn’t close to ready for a signature yet, and already Senators have started trolling — oops, expressing concern for getting a climate bill through the Senate. Politico has a roundup: moderate Senate Democrats are urging the White House to give up now on any effort to pass a cap-and-trade bill next year, with quotes from Senators Bayh, Conrad, Landrieu, Ben Nelson, and Pryor. The Washington Post concludes that Obama faces a tough fight in the Senate, quotes Senators Lieberman, Lugar, and Murkowski, and interviews Obama:

There is no doubt that energy legislation is going to be tough, but I feel very confident about making an argument to the American people that we should be a leader in clean energy technology — that that will be one of the key engines that drives economic growth for decades to come.

Obama might be messaging, or he might be signaling a pullback on the centerpiece of the climate bill — the cap on carbon — in favor of a renewable energy bill.

1. Competing "climate bills"
First, the alphabet soup of legislation includes three and a half "climate bills" seriously in play along with a host of energy-related side bills. All of these bills are wholly insufficient. The latest scientific report tells us that, to achieve the goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, emissions need to peak by 2015 and reach essentially zero by midcentury. At most, a bill will establish the foundation of a framework for capping carbon. At most.

* The Clean Energy Jobs & American Power Act (S. 1733), aka Kerry-Boxer, is what people usually mean by "the climate bill." It sets up a carbon cap and trade system, it’s long and complicated, it promises jobs, and it requires carbon emissions to be cut 20% by 2020. It’s the Senate equivalent of the Waxman-Markey (ACES, HR 2454) bill that passed the House in June. The Kerry-Boxer bill passed the Environment & Public Works Committee 11-1 with all Republicans boycotting; more on that below.

* The Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal Act (S. 2877), aka Cantwell-Collins, has a much snazzier title. It’s short, it sets up a cap and dividend system instead of cap and trade, and it doesn’t say anything about jobs. It promises a 5% reduction in carbon by 2020 and an additional 15% target for carbon emission reduction; without going too far into the why and how, analysis by the World Resources Institute (11 pg pdf; chart on p.2) contends that it’s less effective in reducing carbon than either CEJAPA or ACES, especially during the initial years. It’s been referred to the Finance Committee; more on that below too.

* The American Clean Energy Leadership Act (S. 1462) is solely a renewable energy bill with no provisions for capping carbon. It requires electric utilities nationwide to meet 15% of their electricity sales through renewable sources of energy (solar, wind, biomass, geothermal energy, hydropower) or energy efficiency by 2021. It’s likewise long and it promises jobs. ACELA passed the Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee on a bipartsian 15-8 vote. Early indications were to fold into Kerry-Boxer, which does not contain a renewable energy standard; more on that below, again.

* And the half-bill is the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman framework-not-bill, promising to be the weaker sibling of Kerry-Boxer. The carbon cap is reduced to 17% by 2020. The framework expands nuclear power, states’ ability to opt in to offshore oil drilling, and the oxymoron of clean coal, all to attract Republican votes.

2. Messaging and reality
Clean energy and jobs are both incredibly popular among voters; a cap on carbon, not so much. Early on, the White House and Congressional leaders made two decisions: (a) a bill capping carbon would be merged with a renewable energy bill in one package, and (b) the bill would be sold as one promising clean energy and jobs. (CLEAR flouts these decisions.) Voter psychology may have played a part in this decision, as it’s easier to sell the half-full glass of a clean energy-based economy than the half-empty glass of a carbon-limited future. In any case, since his election Obama has touted the benefits of a clean energy economy, e.g., in Florida and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but I don’t recall him discussing a cap on carbon.

At some point, the message becomes reality. Remember when the White House stopped talking about health care reform and started urging reform of health insurance? It’s time to start asking whether the messaging is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If clean energy and jobs are the only subjects being discussed, don’t be surprised if all efforts focus on clean energy and jobs, and none on a carbon cap. Politico, again:

Asked about cap-and-trade last week, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said: "At this point I’d like to see a complete bill but we have to be realistic."

Read Obama’s Washington Post quote again. Is he spinning the benefits of CEJAPA? Or is he signaling a new reality in which he gives up on a climate bill with a cap on carbon? Obama has shown a tendency toward declaring Pyrrhic victories in Copenhagen and on healthcare reform. Is he likewise giving up on the politically unpopular idea of a cap on carbon to favor politically popular clean energy?

3. Possible scenarios for passing a climate bill
* Conventional wisdom until the last couple of weeks has had the Senate abandoning Kerry-Boxer (Politico’s favorite source, A. Nonnie Mouse, reported that Boxer’s tactic in passing the bill despite a boycott doomed it) but picking up bipartisan votes for the K-G-L framework. Of course, the more K-G-L is tailored to suit Republican sensibilities, the less effective it’s likely to be. In particular, encouraging oil drilling to cap carbon is counterproductive (or, more crassly, "like f*cking for virginity").

* A possible, albeit highly unlikely, scenario has all Democrats banding together in unity as they did for healthcare reform, realizing that they have to stand together.

* Another possible scenario has Cantwell-Collins siphoning enough support from conservative Democratic senators and moderate Republicans (Dorgan, Webb, and Murkowski are mentioned) that CEJAPA is abandoned; then a renewable energy bill passes, CLEAR or un-CLEAR. If the Finance Committee, where Cantwell sits, takes up CLEAR before CEJAPA, consider it as a strong signal of Senatorial interest in CLEAR. I tend to think a more likely scenario involves a merger of CLEAR with CEJAPA. A bill can’t have both cap-and-trade and cap-and-dividend. In an early indicator of willingness to negotiate, Kerry told reporters in Copenhagen that "I can’t tell you the method or the means or amount by which we might price carbon. We haven’t resolved that issue yet."

* The scenario favored by certain conservative Democratic and moderate Republican Senators has the Senate giving up entirely on any bill with a carbon cap, and instead passing a renewable-energy-only bill such as ACELA. I call this the "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" strategy. If clean energy is priced to compete with fossil fuels (either through subsidies or through the magic of the marketplace), utilities and people will switch over…

slowly…

very slowly…

How slowly? The auto took about 50 years from introduction to replace the horse as the dominant form of transport in the United States, and its use is still rising in other countries. Old coal plants can be made to live longer than old horses. (Photo credit: Washington State Historical Society via Grist.) A renewable-energy-only bill won’t mandate replacement of fossil fuels.

There’s only one minor detail with giving up on a carbon cap in the name of political negotiation. Rahm Emanuel likes to say that that only thing not negotiable is success, but he’s overlooking Nature. Or, if you prefer, Science. Emissions need to peak very soon and be down to zero within less than 50 years. The laws of physics can’t be messaged, filibustered, spun, conference-committee’d, or amended.

Cross-posted at DailyKos.

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