Editor note: This post from one year ago is reprinted for its continuing relevance to the climate-change debate. The “bootleggers” are hard at work in the post-Enron era with nearly 150 companies, lead by Exelon Corp., Entergy Corp., and Constellation Energy Group Inc., buying 30-second television spots running from today through President Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday.
The climate-change public policy debate might be thought of as a straightforward morality play. In one corner, we have the good guys laboring mightily against all odds to save the planet from rampant consumerism, human short-sightedness, and corporate greed. In the other corner, we have the bad guys, laboring mightily to preserve their profits by stoking materialism, economic selfishness, and fear of big government. Behind the curtains of this morality play, however, is a fascinating dance between the “good guys” (the Baptists) and “bad guys” (the bootleggers) to pass some form of mutually beneficial prohibition.
The emergence of the bootlegger and Baptist coalition in climate change politics has never been more obvious than last week, when the United States Climate Action Partnership (USCAP – a coalition of big business and big environmental groups) put forward its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050 through a mandatory, economy-wide cap-and-trade program. While this is somewhat less ambitious than President Obama’s proposal (an 80 percent reduction over that same time period relative to 1990 levels), the real give-away about what’s going on can be found in the proposed emissions standards for new coal-fired power plants. To wit:
• any such facility permitted after Jan. 1, 2015, could not emit more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions now considered normal for coal-fired power plants; and
• any newly permitted coal-fired power plant today would have to have the ability to be retrofitted to meet that standard.
This, dear readers, is little but a replay of the old-source/new-source standards incorporated in the Clean Air Act (CAA), which likewise established tough emissions standards for future power plants but much lighter rules for plants currently in operation. The best review of what happened then and why is the classic Clean Coal/Dirty Air, pointedly subtitled How the Clean Air Act Became a Multibillion-Dollar Bail-Out for High-Sulfur Coal Producers and What Should Be Done about It (Yale University Press, 1981). The authors, Bruce Ackerman and William Hassler, were environmentalists with sterling credentials who simply could not stomach the deal necessary to bring the business community into the pro-CAA camp. Alas, their whistle-blowing operation gained so little attention and had such little impact that, today, environmentalists cannot discuss the Clean Air Act without making the sign of the cross and whispering in awed reverence.
Today’s version of Bruce Ackerman is Joe Romm, another environmentalist with sterling credentials who cannot stomach the Baptists’ betrayal-in-the-making. Joe’s main concern, however, isn’t the old-source/new-source distinction—it’s the lack of ambition with regards to emission controls and the invitation to use carbon offsets (like planting trees or paying Chinese companies to reduce emissions) that seems to bug him the most. Well, he certainly has a point on both counts. Obama’s campaign promises call for significantly larger emissions reductions than this, and the carbon offset market has proven ripe with fraud and make-believe emission reductions. Still, it is good to know that there are at least a few environmentalists who are uninterested in gaining a slot on some corporate board or securing some lucrative consulting contract somewhere down the road.
Why should a libertarian skeptic about the dangers of climate change applaud environmental absolutism in this case? Several reasons.
First, the bifurcated old-source/new-source regulation makes no economic sense whatsoever. It distorts the power market by artificially advantaging older plants relative to newer plants. It spawns a huge legislative/legal-industry to fight over old-source/new-source distinctions until the end of time, creating substantial deadweight losses. It creates huge, unearned windfalls for politically clever corporations and thus encourages future market-rigging mischief. It would be far, far better to settle on one standard and apply it across the board to old sources and new sources alike.
Second, without corporate support, the climate change alarmists will get nowhere. Consider, for instance, the latest report out of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, finding that climate change is the least important issue of the 20 issues they asked about in their recent public opinion survey. While I would be surprised if that prevented the adoption of some sort of climate change bill in this or the next Congress, still, without corporate support that bill would likely be rendered economically toothless, with loopholes and timetables delaying serious emissions reductions until some time relatively far into the future. I am unaware of any significant environmental initiative that was successfully signed into law that didn’t manage to scare-up significant, widespread corporate support.
Third, there is a virtue in political honesty. If politicians want to argue for laws that will seriously reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, then let’s have an honest discussion about the costs and benefits of those proposed laws. Symbolically potent gestures that are more empty than real feed the public belief in free lunches. While one could argue that it’s better to get an empty gesture than a real one, when the latter has far more costs than the former, I can’t believe that any good will come from a culture of political dishonesty and voter illusion.