Over and over you read and hear in the media that "all of the presidential candidates favor a cap-and-trade system to deal with global warming"--as if there were no difference between the two democrats and John McCain on this issue.
There are differences, big differences, and if the Democrats want to win in November, they'd better emphasize those differences. If they don't the voter who is moderately aware of climate problems is going to hear McCain talk about the issue and feel okay about voting for him, under the mistaken impression that McCain is going to deal with the problem.
Any day now McCain is going to bring out his policy paper on global warming, and then the devil will be in the details. What details should we look at? Here are the wedge issues that are likely to separate McCain from the Democrats (and which will separate McCain's Business as Usual model from sound policy that carries us toward solving the problem).
- The biggest difference: the Green House Gas emissions goals, of course. Currently the atmospheric GHG concentration is about 430 parts per million (ppm). (This figure is in CO2 equivalents. While CO2 isn't the only GHG, it's convenient to translate all the concentrations into a common denominator.) If we do nothing, that number will surely increase. The Intergovernmental Body on Climate Change--a panel that distilled the work of hundreds of the world's leading scientists--says that if we want to limit eventual warming to the range 2- 2.4 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels (a temperature range in which there are still noticable consequences), we've got to stabilize emissions rates NOW (in the next six years) and cut them to half of 1990 levels by 2050. This is where the EU, with its cap-and-trade system, has weighed in. The goal for GHG concentration is crucial, as is the timing: the longer action is delayed, the larger the cuts have to be to have a decent hope of stabilising climate change at some level we'll find acceptable. (Meaning, a level that gives us a planet that we'd find decently commodious and habitable.)
We're all going to have to become a bit wonkish on this, because the science here is probabalistic, and there are no guarantees. And there are trade-offs: maybe we could accept some global warming in exchange for some rate of carbon emissions--but how much global warming is acceptable? We all make our choice on that--but the choice should be based on what science tells us are the likely scenarios, not on what campaign-contributing corporations want, not on pie-in-the-sky confidence that some deus ex machina is going to arrive and make our carbon-emitting habit suddenly okay. So the key questions to ask: is the cap proposed in this policy consistent with the scientific consensus on what we have to do? To many who study this, that question means: does this policy get us somewhere below 400 or even 350 ppm CO2 equivalent by 2050? See what Joe Romm at Climate Progress has to say. (And remember: global warming has scary positive feedback loops--methane released from thawing perma-frost, for instance--that may mean that even the more ambitious target isn't enough.)
The difficulty--the tragedy--is that what is scientifically necessary is, at this stage, politically impossible; and what's politically possible falls far short of what we know to be necessary. Why? Because we've lost years and years of potential progress to the struggle to fight climate change denial. And because the American public has been trained by years of cynical manipulation by neoconservatives to think that science is NOT disinterested, but is greedy and self-interested like everybody else is presumed to be (and encouraged to be). Leadership means getting out in front of America--literally and metaphorically--and saying, 'this is what we have to do.'
- Difference number two: is there or is there not a trade-off between economic and ecological values? Is establishing a sustainable relationship to the planet the fundamental prerequisite of economic well-being, or are environmental values just one kind of economic value--a value that's nice to have, but which has to be weighed in the balance with other claims on our money? The old argument, the old assumption, is that dealing with global climate change will cost us dearly. The people saying this can tote up all kinds of costs: lost jobs, lost GDP, and hence a lower standard of living. McCain is likely to line up squarely behind this old thinking. The new thinking is based on FACT: if we do nothing, global climate change is going to cost us even more. The relevant question is not "what will this climate change solution cost us?" but "what is the cost of the solution compared to living with the costs of the problem?" There are hundreds of thousands of jobs, good jobs, "green collar" jobs, to be made in key "de-carbonization" industries. And GDP, as I've said in a previous diary, is a stupid, useless measure. Once upon a time in the long-ago never-never land of Cheap Oil Forever, there may have been some correlation between GDP and the general standard of living. But it has in the past few decades become abundantly clear: all that GDP measures is how fast the wheels of the economy are spinning. It doesn't measure how much we like where we are or where we're headed. It doesn't even tell us whether we are going forward, improving our standard of living. Because of the loss of ecosystem services, because of the negative quality-of-life effects of population growth and economic development, it's not even clear that economic growth improves our standard of living. Our economy has been like a car trying to get up a snowy hill: you can spin the wheels as fast as you want and still slide backwards. Let's not measure our country's economic well-being with GDP anymore, and let's stop using idiotic cost-benefit comparisons that don't compare all the costs and all the benefits of all the options.
- Another wedge issue: The role of market incentives and government structuring of markets. The neocon agenda has been to push deregulation and free markets everywhere; governments "intervene" in markets, and intervention is bad, because the natural operation of the market is good. (Let's reframe that "intervene" to something else, something more accurate: government regulations supply markets with a responsible structure. That's their job--a job that this admin didn't do in housing and finance, and isn't doing for climate change). Free markets won't solve this problem--as even Bush now admits (and maybe that's what his spokesman meant when he said that the press missed the big story on Wednedsay (March 17, 2008) about the President's climate change speech: Bush's first official policy statement about global climate change could have been headlined "President admits failure of neocon economic theory, accepts government role in fixing planet.") Self interest is a powerful motive, and there's a role for it as expressed in the market. Maybe it's even a large role; but that role has to be shaped by a structure. That's the whole idea behind cap and trade--use the demonstrated power of the market to find the most efficient ways to cut carbon emissions.
What's the proper structure for the market in renewable energy sources? The market alone won't give us mass transit, solar photovoltaics, home geothermal heating, or the R and D we need to wean ourselves from Carbon. (The market could give us a lot of that. All that's needed is a four- or five-fold increase in the price of oil, which would begin to make the monetary cost of fossil fuel reflect its true social and ecological cost. But by the time the market puts oil at that price, we'll have wasted a lot of time and money building and replacing old-style, "cheap energy" infrastructure instead of building a renewable energy infrastructure--and it will be too late to stop global climate change.) The entire amount of government support for R and D in renewable energy last year is equal to one and a half days of the Pentagon's budget. We'll spend billions to fight a war for access to oil--but we won't spend one percent of that figure to find ways to make that war unnecessary. Global climate change should be the death sentence for the neoconservative commitment to unregulated markets as allocators of our social resources.
- Auction of carbon permits versus grants to polluters. An economist will tell you that once the permits are printed and in circulation, the market will efficiently allocate them. The market doesn't care who first latched on to the permits, and from the standpoint of efficient market incentives to reduce GHG, the atmosphere doesn't care, either. But we should and do care. The permits are, in effect, a form of specie--they have a monetary value. How will they be put in circulation? When I think the way that neoconservative economists tell me I should think--when I think purely of my own financial self-interest--I think that the best solution is to give them all to me and I'll sell them. Obviously, that's not fair. The atmosphere is a commons that each of us has a share in; let's distribute the permits to dump carbon into that commons equitably. One good way to do that is to have the government that prints these permits auction them off--and put the resulting money into the public coffers (and to dedicate that money to additional R and D into sustainable systems). Will McCain do that? Or will he give away the permits to the companies that are currently polluting?
- Less carbon = "family values". This is a key issue, and it's a bit subtle. In the past, "family values" has been code for discrimination against homosexuals, for abstinence instead of sex education, for "faith based" initiatives that violate the wall of separation between church and state, and a host of other positions that appeal to the fundamentalist Republican base. The sentiment that emerges in the behavior of these American "values voters" is very real, and has roots that go far deeper than these troubling positions that violate Constitutional guarantees. I think that what the American "values voter" wants is a return to the organic, neighborhood communities that they remember growing up in not so long ago, communities in which their kids could flourish, communities in which life and the challenges of meeting one's responsibilities seemed simpler and easier, a world knit together by non-economic relations. Those communities have been spun apart by powerful, centrifugal forces: population growth; cheap energy and the easy wealth it brought us; the decline of family and kinship structures as people embrace the idea that they should live where the market says their skills are most valued; the difficulty of assimilating newcomers, and the difficulty of sustaining a sense of community among a transient population dedicated to getting and spending and looking out for number one; and the near-total invasion of family and childhood psychic space by corporate America, which is interested not in promoting health and healthy relationships--good old family values--but in selling us stuff. (And they'll pretend to care about families if it helps their bottom lines, as long as we continue to buy X-boxes for the kids, continue to bloat them with regular trips out for fast food, continue to let advertisers have unrestricted access to our kids' fragile, still-developing neurosystems.)
Ironically enough, neoconservative candidates line up in favor of every one of these forces that are stressing American community and family life--and then sell themselves as the saviors of that life by scapegoating outsiders, people who are different, people who believe in science and "reality based" policy, people who have some appreciation for the Constitutonal guarantees (like freedom of speech and symbolic speech, the right to be free of unwarranted government intrusions, the right to dissent) that this country was founded on.
Instead, let's line it up this way: the climate change deniers (and former deniers who have been shamed into becoming half-assed carbon-cutters) want business as usual--more getting and spending and more damage to the planetary ecosystems that support us. Arrayed against them are those who have a new and yet old vision for the U.S. That vision seeks to reestablish and retain the values that values voters want: rooted communities where families (of all kinds) can flourish; communities marked by neighborliness and good, non-governmental systems of mutual aid; a sense of moral purpose in life that checks the excesses of the economist's "enlightened self interest"; and an appreciation of the truly remarkable heritage we enjoy as Americans, with our unprecedented civil rights and freedoms.
To get that kind of political life again, we need to build a social, cultural, and economic infrastructure that is ecologically sustainable. Imagine it: a world in which you walk to work and the kids can play outside and you don't have to drive an hour to the local big-box stores for food or clothing or the other things you decide you need. A world in which you buy your food from a neighbor who has to look you in the eye when you ask if it's fresh and healthy. A world in which we don't define success as the ability to flaunt opulent excess. That's the world that controlling carbon can give us. I'd rather live there than in the ugly and brutal world of cheap fossil fuel, and if it's framed this way, I think a lot of former Republican voters would, too.