alien & sedition.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
  A Way Forward on Climate Change

This article by Peter Teague and Jeff Navin is the best thing I've read on the politics of climate change in a long time. Teague and Navin argue that environmentalists are headed for political doom if they don't take seriously just how sensitive Americans are to rising energy prices:
Americans' anxiety over rising energy costs is a serious challenge to anyone seeking a solution to global warming. The anxiety is real, and the vast majority of Americans perceive these costs as causing financial hardship for their families. Proposals that raise energy prices risk triggering populist anger; Americans uniformly reject government efforts to increase the cost of gasoline or electricity as a way of encouraging certain kinds of behaviors.
The authors use the failure of California's Proposition 87 as an object lesson, pointing out that the initiative floundered -- despite initial public support -- when advocates were unable to convince the public that its regulatory mandates would not cause gas prices to rise.

Teague and Navin make the case for a response to the challenge of global warming that goes beyond simply imposing regulations on carbon emissions, calling for an integrated approach involving massive public investment in the development of a clean-fuel economy:
Ultimately, the global warming crisis will be solved by the emergence of a new clean energy economy that is also capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of America's -- and the world's -- growing population. Regulation should be only one piece of a larger set of strategies designed to speed the emergence of that economy, with interlocking investment, tax, and fiscal policies also designed to send the right market signals and prompt private-sector investment and innovation. These policies must both solve the problem of climate change and have the political support to be enacted and sustained.

Good policy is therefore inseparable from good politics.
I haven't read enough of the literature on climate change to know how novel Teague and Navin's argument is. But I have read enough conservative writing on the subject to see its importance. As I've been documenting for a few months, the right's approach to the warming debate has been shifting from straight denial to a more nuanced position, which accepts the reality of global warming but rejects regulatory solutions and argues for letting the market take care of the problem -- call it the "Yes, But" approach. See, for instance, the cover story in last week's National Review, or this AEI paper by Samuel Thernstrom and Lee Lane, or this Robert Samuelson piece. It isn't a uniform shift across the conservative spectrum; there's still plenty of denialism mixed in, as well a sort of hybrid, defeatist mentality that accepts warming but would have us just try learning to live with it. But what all the approaches have in common, the pivot point between denialism and the "Yes, But" approach, is a focus on the costs of carbon regulation. What Teague and Navin understand is the power of arguments like the one made by Stephen Hayward:
Liberals in the 1960s and 1970s never comprehended how damaging "limousine liberalism" was to their cause. They seem even more oblivious to the self-inflicted wounds of "Gulfstream liberalism." Whatever the intricacies of climate science, middle-class citizens understand that Gore wants them to use less energy and pay more for it, while he and his Hollywood pals use as much as they want and buy their way out of guilt, like a medieval indulgence.
I know I've quoted that before, but I'm quoting it again, because it's tremendously important. This is the fatal flaw in any attempt to deal with climate change as a strictly regulatory issue, and it's why the whole notion of purchasing carbon offsets is wildly misguided as a feature of the public debate on the issue. I like Al Gore a lot, but the controversy over his energy bills was an example of the kind of thing that will be tremendously damaging to the environmental cause, and his response fell flat. We cannot afford to wind up on the wrong side of a class conflict when it comes to this debate.

Teague and Navin get this:
The "right-wing populist vs. liberal elite" frame is dropping into place with the help of those calling for the deepest cuts in carbon. The deep-cut mantra, repeated without any real understanding of what might be required to get to 60 or 80 percent reductions in emissions, ignores voters' anxieties. It also reflects the questionable view that these changes can be achieved with little more than trivial disruptions in our lives -- a view easier to hold if you're in a financial position to buy carbon credits for your beachfront house.

Labor has indicated a willingness to support action on climate change, but it won't support deep cuts if working people are the most affected. This will leave environmentalists up against the well-financed business lobby. Good luck holding onto moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans -- even those who are beginning to understand the need for action on global warming.
One of their key insights is that "today energy costs seem to generate the kind of ire taxes did a decade ago." Poll data show strong public support for government investment in a transition to a clean-energy economy -- read the article for more details on what that investment might entail -- while empirical evidence suggests that a strictly regulatory approach, by raising energy prices or even threatening to raise energy prices, triggers a backlash that harms the whole effort to fight climate change. Conservatives are preparing to stoke that backlash, even as they offer a faulty "market-based" alternative approach. Teague and Navin are absolutely right: progressives need to step up their game.

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I'm the guy who wrote the National Review cover story on global warming that you reference. This is a really smart post (though I’m not sure whether you’d consider praise from me as a good thing!). I've been waiting for a smart progressive to figure this out and articulate it this clearly.

The one criticism that I have of the perspective that you share is that it seems implicit (though I'm not sure about this) in your post that you think that while the "populist" reaction against increasing energy prices needs to be considered as politically relevant, it is misguided from a policy perspective. What I argue in my piece is that this is not true - that the costs of reengineering the economy to rapidly eliminate most of the CO2 that we generate would be much more costly than the benefits it would create. There is actually a huge body of scholarly research (and from Yale and Harvard, not the Heritage Foundation Climate Research Unit or something) that supports this idea. In fact, I believe that it’s fair to say that a consensus of economists is that rapid carbon abatement is not currently justified.

Since I doubt many of your reader are subscribers to NR, here is a link to a PDF of the National Review article:

Best regards,
Jim Manzi

Thanks for the PDF. I haven't looked at your article in depth yet so I can't really comment (I wanted to mention the fact of the article at the very least). I may add more on this subject after I've had a look at it.

I should add - I don't mean to imply that a reaction against rising energy prices is entirely unjustified. Economic pain is economic pain, and higher energy prices in particular can function as a sort of regressive tax.

The question, to me, is more a pragmatic one -- how to find solutions to global warming that are worth the amount of economic disruption they would cause. On that we agree, though we may disagree as to how just much sacrifice is acceptable, and how it will be shared -- keeping in mind that the cost of acting too slowly will be severe economic disruption of another kind.

In particular, I suspect we will disagree about the respective roles of government and the market in developing solutions that go beyond cost-prohibitive regulation (though I note that even the AEI scholars Thernstrom and Lane called for significant public investment in R&D).
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