28 February 2010

Direct or Indirect? Two Views on Engaging Climate Change

Across the page from each other in todays NYT, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Al Gore express polar opposite views on how to enagage climate change. Gore recommends a direct approach focused on using science a a political sledgehammer against the "deniers":
What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.. .

Some analysts attribute the failure [of the Senate to act] to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically. It is difficult to imagine a globally harmonized carbon tax or a coordinated multilateral regulatory effort. The flexibility of a global market-based policy — supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies — is the option that has by far the best chance of success. The fact that it is extremely difficult does not mean that we should simply give up.

Graham, profiled in a column by Thomas Friedman, proposes an indirect approach, one that sidesteps the science and focuses on areas of common interests:

“I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party’s future with younger people. You can have a legitimate dispute about how to solve immigration, but when you start focusing on the last names of people the demographics will pass you by.”

So Graham’s approach to bringing around his conservative state has been simple: avoid talking about “climate change,” which many on the right don’t believe. Instead, frame our energy challenge as a need to “clean up carbon pollution,” to “become energy independent” and to “create more good jobs and new industries for South Carolinians.” He proposes “putting a price on carbon,” starting with a very focused carbon tax, as opposed to an economywide cap-and-trade system, so as to spur both consumers and industries to invest in and buy new clean energy products. He includes nuclear energy, and insists on permitting more offshore drilling for oil and gas to give us more domestic sources, as we bridge to a new clean energy economy.

“Cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die — and you will never have energy independence without pricing carbon,” Graham argues. “The technology doesn’t make sense until you price carbon. Nuclear power is a bet on cleaner air. Wind and solar is a bet on cleaner air. You make those bets assuming that cleaning the air will become more profitable than leaving the air dirty, and the only way it will be so is if the government puts some sticks on the table — not just carrots. The future economy of America and the jobs of the future are going to be tied to cleaning up the air, and in the process of cleaning up the air this country becomes energy independent and our national security is greatly enhanced.”

Remember, he adds: “We are more dependent on foreign oil today than after 9/11. That is political malpractice, and every member of Congress is responsible.”

Clearly, Gore is going to appeal -- in both positive and negative fashion -- much more to people who are monomaniacal about the climate issue and fervent partisans in the debate. This includes many in the blogosphere who are singularly focused on climate change. Gore's approach is the classic "political wedge" that forces people to take sides and demands a winner and a loser. Gore ends his piece by demanding that voters address this issue politically, by voting out people who do not share his views.

Graham's approach is far more pragmatic and realistic, with far greater potential to appeal to the masses on terms that they care about. Graham focuses on areas where people already have expressed strong interests, like jobs and the economy, and suggests that climate policy be addressed indirectly by capitalizing on what people already value. Graham's proposal is much less focused on political winners and losers than is Gore's approach. Graham's policy recommendations, he would argue, make sense regardless who is in office.

Both Gore and Graham offer their predictions for U.S. climate policy in the near-term, Gore:
The pathway to success is still open, though it tracks the outer boundary of what we are capable of doing. It begins with a choice by the United States to pass a law establishing a cost for global warming pollution. The House of Representatives has already passed legislation, with some Republican support, to take the first halting steps for pricing greenhouse gas emissions. Later this week, Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman are expected to present for consideration similar cap-and-trade legislation.

Cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die . . . The future economy of America and the jobs of the future are going to be tied to cleaning up the air, and in the process of cleaning up the air this country becomes energy independent and our national security is greatly enhanced
I suspect that Graham is right in his short-term prognostications about the fate of cap-and-trade. But more importantly, he is right about the longer-term politics of engaging the climate issue. Action to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy will remain in gridlock so long as climate is approached as a wedge issue. Bloggers and partisans like wedge issues, but as we have learned good public policy rearely results from framing issues in such terms.