May 11, 2008

Tool Time, Now With Market-Based Mechanisms

I was watching an old episode of Home Improvement (don't ask), and in it one of Tim Allen's sons, per the conventions of late 80s/early 90s sitcoms, goes on an environmental crusade against Binford Tools, the company that underwrites Allen's fictional TV show. The son meets with the Binford CEO, who explains to him that the company is committed to being environmentally responsible. The son counters by saying that, in fact, all Binford's done is buy pollution credits -- an allusion, I presume, to the cap-and-trade system set up in the 90s to combat acid rain -- and that Binford's claim to environmental responsibility is a sham.

Two thoughts:
  1. Sitcom writers get a bad rap, but let this be said: They do their homework. Working in something like emissions trading -- an arcane topic now, and even more so 15 years ago -- into a sitcom plot takes some skills.
  2. It's important to remember that emissions trading has always been viewed askance by a certain cohort of environmentalists. A emissions credit, in effect, gives a company the right to pollute, and for some, that is profoundly immoral. Indeed, emissions trading has something of a center-right provenance to it: I believe Reagan's secretary of state George Schultz was an early proponent of emissions trading, Bush the Elder was a strong supporter of getting emissions trading into the 1990 Clean Air Act, and the US negotiators to Kyoto were pushing cap-and-trade for carbon emissions over the objections of the Europeans. (Of course, now the EU has gone all in.)
Perhaps the bipartisan enthusiasm for cap-and-trade now has to do with the rightward shift in American politics over the last few decades. You certainly don't see that many greens today deploring the immorality of allowing polluters to buy credits to comply with regulations. Certainly not in toto: carbon offsets routinely get raked through the coals (no pun intended), and cap-and-trade is often dismissed in whole or in part. But even then the preferred alternative is usually a carbon tax, which embodies the same principle as cap-and-trade: Pollution is OK, so long as you pay for it. I don't lament at all that the moral absolutism about pollution, as embodied by the kid in the Home Improvement episode, has largely fallen away among greens, but it's kind of interesting to see one example of how much attitudes about the environment have changed over the last 15 years.

One thing that hasn't changed, however: Tim Allen is still the douchebag's comedian.

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