Sunday, June 7, 2009

Prediction--No Climate Bill in 2009: Blame Game Obscures Lessons

It may be premature to predict the demise of federal climate legislation for the year, but I’ll take the risk and do so anyway: the overwhelmingly Democratic Congress will not pass climate legislation this year. This prediction seems to fly in the face of President Obama’s desires, words of congressional leaders, the deceptive “progress” in the U.S. House of Representatives, and candidly, my personal desires.

This makes the blame game for the defeat the next big thing.

Obviously, the Democratic leaders will blame Republicans, business interests who didn’t agree with them, and conservative anti-climate naysayers. Some of this will be accurately placed, but most will simply be political blame game trash-talk. Unfortunately, this blame game and political posturing will obscure the real reasons of the failure and the lessons that could be learned that would result in a bill in 2010 or more likely 2011.

Real reason #1 of congressional failure on climate is that the President’s driving motivation for pursuing climate legislation is to raise revenue. His secondary motive appears to appease his environmental constituencies. The next motivation seems to be to have something, (anything?) for when the world’s climate negotiators meet in Copenhagen in December. Achieving significant GHGs in a low cost way is a distant fourth. These mixed up priorities doomed climate legislation from the beginning.

Real reason #2 of congressional failure on climate is that dealing with GHGs if done wrong can be very, very, very expensive. And, wrong and expensive is how the U.S. House bill seems to be going. Thus, while some banks may be too big to fail, some legislation is too big to not fail. It tries too much, too quickly at too great an expense.

Real reason #3 of congressional failure on climate is that GHGs are a global problem that requires a global solution. An international solution is needed before national solutions will be environmentally effective. Just as it is unwise for a single state or region to unilaterally address their GHGs, no nation (even one as big as the USA) can tackle this issue by itself.

Real reason #4 of congressional failure on climate is that successfully tackling the issue is very, very hard and needs the Congress’ undivided attention. And, that’s just not happening. Besides energy and climate issues, the President is asking the Congress to deal with health care, banking, education, the closing of Gitmo, budget bills, and of course, the nomination of Judge Sotomayer to the Supreme Court. These issues will distract the Congress, preventing it from focusing on the climate.

Real reason #4 of congressional failure on climate is that there are just too many substantive and political balances that need to be achieved. For example, Congressmen Peterson and Walz have already expressed their concerns with the House climate bill because of how it treats ethanol and agriculture. Then there are the balances between the House and Senate.

These are the real reasons that there will be no climate bill this year. Political gamesmanship and special interests may exacerbate these fissures, but they do not cause them. And, there are some lessons to be learned from them:

Lesson #1. The climate bill has to be about reducing GHGs in the easiest, cheapest manner. It cannot be about revenue-raising, appeasing constituents, or “punishing” emitters.

Lesson #2. The Congress should consider taking a deliberative and iterative approach to GHG reductions. First, promote more efficiency; then increase the use of renewables. Third, set a reduction goal; and then building upon these actions take the time to develop the lowest cost, simplest ways to achieve that reduction goal.

Lesson #3. Instead of rushing (and failing) to put together Potemkin climate legislation in advance of the Copenhagen meetings, our national leaders should focus on getting an effective international agreement that includes all the countries of the world. Once that is done, the USA will know what it needs to do and know that other countries will be doing what is necessary.

Lesson #4. If President Obama and the Congress need to recognize that they cannot and ought not do everything at once. They need to set priorities.

I could be wrong. The Congress could still pass climate legislation this year. In which taking credit (instead of blame) becomes the main game. But I doubt it.

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