May 22, 2009

Waxman-Markey: Better than Nothing

Count me on the side of Krugman, Romm, and Roberts in supporting Waxman-Markey, even in its current watered-down version (and which just recently passed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee). Of course, it would be better, as a matter of distributive justice, if the permits in the cap-and-trade system were all auctioned off and the revenue rebated back to individuals.* And of course, it would be better if the use of carbon offsets were kept to a bare minimum. That said, the fact that W-M establishes a price on global warming pollution for the first time in American history is something to be celebrated; and the clean energy provisions that make up the majority of the bill will do a lot to move our economy away from reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite all that, there’s no denying that W-M has been watered down, to the detriment of trying to keep the planet from warming to dangerous levels. And given that W-M, as written, would have rather meager effects on planetary warming (Jim Manzi, for one, claims it would only reduce global average temperatures by 0.1ยบ C by 2100), what is the virtue of enacting it? The answer, I think, is twofold: the US would have a stronger position going into negotiations with China and the other major developing countries at the Copenhagen conference in December; and by putting in place the basic mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions now, they can more easily be strengthened, tweaked, etc., down the road. Of course, it’s impossible to say if W-M will actually help accomplish these goals — Suppose the Chinese balk in agreeing to reduce their emissions? Suppose the Republicans regain power while still committed to denialism about climate change? — but it seems to me that progress will not be made by waiting around for a perfect bill. Indeed, I think that once the US commits to reducing carbon emissions, the scare stories that dominate much of the climate change debate in this country will lose much of their force, and making stronger reductions won’t seem so impossible to many. Now if only W-M survives in its current form though the other House committees, a floor vote, and the Senate…

* Though see this report which argues that the allocation scheme of W-M will prevent utilities from reaping windfall profits, as they did in Europe during the first phase of its cap-and-trade system.

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