Post-post mortem on Boxer-Lieberman-Warner debate aka “Weekend at Bernie’s”

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"Post-post mortem on Boxer-Lieberman-Warner debate aka “Weekend at Bernie’s”"

weekend-at-bernies.jpgOkay, so the long, long, long dead B-L-W bill got propped up and dragged around for a few days. [Tagline: B-L-W may be dead, but it's the life of the party!] But I think the debate was quite useful for two reasons:

  1. The opponents of (even modest) action played and overplayed their cards. Now we know that the health and well-being of future generations is of no interest in them. Now we know what their primary arguments will be. This is the opportunity for progressives and moderates and hopefully President Obama to design a better messaging strategy — and to get pro cap and trade businesses to weigh in.
  2. The many flaws in the bill (other than the fact it wouldn’t actually save the climate) were exposed: not enough money returned to taxpayers, too much money given away to too many groups, too complicated, your flaw here — I’d very much like to hear your ideas for how the bill could be simplified and improved.

I will be offering my recommendations for what a better bill would look like later this month. Clearly the bill should be designed to achieve more reductions and to be easier to explain and defend.

After all, the original Weekend at Bernie’s was kind of fun and made money. But did anybody actually see (and enjoy) Weekend at Bernie’s II? We don’t want a lame remake next year.

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34 Responses to Post-post mortem on Boxer-Lieberman-Warner debate aka “Weekend at Bernie’s”

  1. Colin Beavan says:

    Hi Joe–
    Just thought you’d be interested in the climate bill I wrote myself. I’ve asked my Congressman to move it forward.

    It is a “sense of the House” resolution calling for the United States to lead UNFCCC negotiations towards adopting a standard of 350 PPM atmospheric carbon dioxide. The idea is for the resolution to serve as sort of policy compass point.

    The bill itself is a little too long to post in your comments. But if you want to read it you’ll find it here.

    All the best,
    Colin Beavan

  2. J.N. says:

    The problem is a fundamental one: voters care a lot more about the price of energy than they do about global warming. We can pretend all we want, but poll after poll makes clear that the price of energy is a big hurdle we need to overcome. Those of us who think that global warming is the biggest challenge facing the planet may be right, but we’re in a very small minority. We have to address that inconvenient truth if we want to craft a successful legislative strategy.

    The biggest needed change to the substance of the bill, and the messaging strategy, is to use the legislation as an opportunity to talk about achieving energy independence and creating new clean energy sources. This will require some pretty significant changes, although it’s entirely possible to use cap-and-trade as a means to create the revenue necessary for investment and deployment of new, cheap, clean energy sources.

    I’d propose more of a focus on investing in infrastructure, technology, and even subsidies for cheap renewable energy. If we can frame the debate as one over energy costs, we’ll be talking to the voters about something they care about. And as someone who spent over a decade on Capitol Hill, I know that’s the kind of argument that Senators on both sides of the aisle will listen (and respond) to.

  3. Brute says:

    Carbon dioxide accounts for only slightly more than 3/100ths of our planet’s atmosphere. And what percentage of the miniscule amount of gas is produced by the activities of man, including the utilization of fossil fuels? According to a thorough analysis by the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, a research wing of the U.S. Department of Energy, only 3.207% — well within historical norms. And how much has CO2 increased in the atmosphere over the past 150 years? Approximately 35%.

    In his must-read eco-thriller, State of Fear, Michael Crichton creates a brilliant visual to assist us in wrapping our minds around the components of Earth’s atmosphere. On page 387, he likens the atmosphere to a football field. The goal line to the 78 yard-line contains nothing but nitrogen. Oxygen fills the next 21 yards to the 99 yard-line. The final yard, except for four inches, is argon, a wonderfully mysterious inert gas useful for putting out electronic fires. Three of the remaining four inches is crammed with a variety of minor, but essential, gases like neon, helium, hydrogen and methane. And the last inch? Carbon dioxide. One inch out of a hundred-yard field! At this point I like to add, if you were in the stands looking down on the action, you would need binoculars to see the width of that line. And the most important point-how much of that last inch is contributed by man-made activities? Envision a line about as thin as a dime standing on edge.

    Are you still worried about the dangers of CO2?

    Me, neither.

    And historically, CO2 has been significantly higher than today. In data primarily gathered from ice cores, we see carbon dioxide levels were 500 times higher during the Cretaceous period, some 160 million years ago. Many theorize that the dinosaurs were able to grow to such sizes because of the indescribable abundance of carbon fed foliage and overall atmospheric conditions present during that era. Certainly the SUV could not be blamed for those high levels of CO2. Dinosaur flatulence, perhaps?

    Despite the cries of Congress, the Earth does not have a fever and carbon dioxide is no more dangerous than the breath of life. During the fall elections we need to cap the rhetoric from some of these political whiners by trading them in for people who know a good thermometer when they see it.

  4. Apologies in advance if I misstate the thrust of the bill, which I have not read, but I understand it mainly targets energy-related emissions from 2100 facilities. If so, it’s vulnerable to the question, “Why start there?”

    According to this McKinsey report, http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/ccsi/pdf/US_ghg_final_report.pdf, there are about 1.3 GT of CO2-equivalent reductions that could be achieved with building, appliance, and vehicle efficiency standards that would pay for themselves economically.

    Today Ezra Klein reports that Carnegie Mellon researchers have reported that the GHGs associated with what a typical household eats is nearly double the GHG’s from driving 12,000 MPY at 25 MPG. http://www.prospect.org/csnc/blogs/ezraklein_archive?month=06&year=2008&base_name=its_the_food_stupid

  5. Paul K says:

    Let’s seek to develop a plan that:
    A) brings clear economic benefit to the people (= consumers = voters)
    B) maximizes technology and efficiency deployment
    C) creates a truly broad based market, not a government revenue source

    Recommendations:
    A) Scrap the auction. Government auction of emission allowances not only locks out the people from economic benefit, it even forces them to bear the ultimate costs. It does nothing directly to favor deployment. It is a massive multi trillion dollar tax grab, not a market creating mechanism.
    B) Create a market that can accomplish a goal. A market needs two things, a product and a currency. In B-L-W, there is no product. In the system I would favor, actual deployment of efficiencies and technologies is the product. A market needs a currency, widely circulated and easily exchangeable. Everyone from the largest corporation to the lowest individual must be able to earn and exchange this currency. In most markets, money serves as the currency, but in this market a new currency must be developed based on the fossil fuel reducing and/or replacing value of every alternative or efficiency.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Brute, of course, has it all wrong.

  7. Paul K says:

    What Brute has wrong is method of refutation. He uses outdated and/or amateur sources. The science improves over time. There is plenty in the current science to argue against the catastrophic vision of climateprogress. The science discussion is a fascinating but off topic.

  8. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — Have you read Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees”?

  9. Paul K says:

    Haven’t read the book. To parody Fulgard “Every thing I needed to know about AGW I learned at climateprogress.” My position is that national security, economic survival and environmental issues other than global warming are more compelling and immediate reasons to replace fossil fuels than global warming of whatever degree.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — More immediate, at least. Whatever your reasons, yes, let’s stop using fossil fuels.

  11. exusian says:

    I see Brute is resorting the dilution argument, and relying on that well-known ‘climate scientist’ Michael Crichton, no less.

    Never mind that even including water vapour, greenhouse gases amount to at most 3% of the atmosphere, that final few inches. Yet that 3% is able to add 33°C of warming.

    And never mind that CO2, that final inch, is responsible for up to 26% of that warming.

    And never mind that water vapour can’t be increased without adding more warming first, but that CO2 has increased by almost 38%.

    So much for Crichton’s ignorant analogy.

  12. Craig says:

    Howabout:
    1. Stop all funds directed to oil.
    2. Stop all funds directed to nuclear.
    3. $25/t CO2 tax increasing $5/year
    4. $100/t SO2 tax increasing $25/year
    5. $1000/kg Hg, Cd, Zn, Pb, As, Sb tax from coal and oil. Increasing $100/y
    6. Ethanol subsidies to be revoked
    7. Funding for large scale renewable power implementations.
    8. USGS to assist with finding Geothermal sources.
    9. Some nationwide policies for improving efficiency in the home.

  13. exusian says:

    “3. $25/t CO2 tax increasing $5/year”

    That would be only $6.82/t of carbon to start, or less than 1.9 cents per gallon of gasoline (~5.5 lbs C/gal), a minuscule drop in the bucket compared to how much oil had to rise to finally get peoples’ attention enough to make them stop buying gas hogs and drive less.

    Even if you meant to type $25/t of carbon, it would still be less than 6.9 cents/gal.

    Yeah, that ought to work real well.

  14. Greg says:

    Joe,

    I think the debate needs to be framed as a progressive shift of wealth, in that everybody pays more for the carbon they emit, but a large enough portion of proceeds go back to the poor so that they win or at least break even. It is the upper X% of consumers with high incomes that drive hummers and fly 25 times a year. They should pay a carbon premium and not get any relief. Don’t statistics on the carbon footprints of the wealthiest 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 20% would show that they emit the most carbon per capita, largely by choice? Clearly they should foot the bill.

    A cap and trade system should ultimately do this, but its complexity is a double edged sword; it makes it safer politically, but also easier to misrepresent (OH NO EXPENSIVE GAS!!!!) and the benefits are obscured. I think a straight carbon tax, carefully pitched as I explained, is the way to go.

  15. Paul K says:

    Joe,
    Please explain again why a direct carbon tax is the wrong way to go.

  16. Michael Shellenberger says:

    J.N. Where have you been my entire life? You are right on:

    The problem is a fundamental one: voters care a lot more about the price of energy than they do about global warming. We can pretend all we want, but poll after poll makes clear that the price of energy is a big hurdle we need to overcome. Those of us who think that global warming is the biggest challenge facing the planet may be right, but we’re in a very small minority. We have to address that inconvenient truth if we want to craft a successful legislative strategy.

    If you have a longer piece you’d like to write about your experience working on Capitol Hill, we’d be happy to publish it at the Breakthrough Blog.

    To the question of who killed cap and trade, it was dogmatists on both left and right. One would have thought that with oil at $138 a barrel, and voter anxiety over rising prices, environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers might have considered an alternative approach, one focused on making clean energy cheap rather than making dirty energy expensive. But they couldn’t get out of the pollution-price paradigm and cap and trade suffered yet another defeat. The most significant event was the letter from the Technology Ten in the Senate. The lesson? The new political center on climate will be defined around cost-containment and technology investment.

    My full post is here:

    http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2008/06/who_killed_cap_and_trade.shtml

  17. Earl Killian says:

    I personally mistrust our ability to get cap-trade (whether cap-auction-rebate or cap-grandfather-trade or whatever) systems right. A simple tax is much less open to abuse. The challenge is that the tax rate needs to be adjusted to have the desired effect, which means it requires political will and leadership on more than one occasion (getting it on even one occasion appears to be asking too much). So I prefer the Tax Waste, Not Work approach, where carbon is considered waste (actually it is worse than waste, but that’s another matter). The attraction of the TWNW approach is that it is revenue neutral. All revenue is offset by reductions in income taxes, so it can be renamed to something without that avoids the T-word (has the FCC banned that as obscene yet? it probably will in our crazy country). Congress would probably call it the Income Tax Reduction Act :-)

    Putting a price on carbon is of course only a small part of the solution, but the above outlines my thoughts on making it simple. Conventional wisdom is that TWNW is impossible in the US, so I will support cap-and-trade, though I know the system will be gamed and abused.

  18. Earl Killian says:

    On gaming the system, consider the second story in the following radio program about classroom situation at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business:
    http://kqed02.streamguys.us/anon.kqed/radio/tcrmag/2008/06/2008-06-06-tcrmag.mp3

  19. Joe says:

    Sorry Michael — cost containment as you and most people define it is a deal killer and climate destroyer.

    Certainly rapid technology deployment is critical, but new traditional coal must be stopped and then existing traditional coal needs to be shut down. A modest price for CO2 can’t do that. Only a high price — or an emissions standard — can do it at the speed we require.

    We’ve been through this many times, but it is science fiction to believe that a technology development strategy (or frankly even a development and deployment strategy) could get the price of new low-carbon non-variable power cheaper than EXISTING coal plants plus a modest price for CO2 — which you conveniently never define, but presumably it is around $20 a ton of CO2.

    You can dismiss other approaches as politically impractical if you want, but I prefer the politically impractical to what is essentially technologically impossible, because there is always a genuine possibility that politics can change, but the magic deus ex machina technofix is a (dangerous) myth.

  20. Joe says:

    Paul — A direct carbon tax is widely seen as politically impossible. there are lots of advocates for a carbon tax on grounds of simplicity and economic efficiency, but none of them hold a major political office in this country.

    That said, as I blogged many times — price alone can’t do what is needed, especially since a price close to what is needed is politically DOA.

  21. Earl Killian says:

    Michael Shellenberger says, “Democratic lawmakers might have considered an alternative approach, one focused on making clean energy cheap rather than making dirty energy expensive.

    The idea that reducing the market price of clean energy can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions is naive, and it seems to be the fundamental problem with BI’s thinking.

    Reducing the market price of new clean energy to below the price of new dirty energy will cause most new energy plants built to be be clean rather than dirty. However, the world already has sufficient old emitters capable of increasing CO2 by 2 ppm per year. That 2 ppm per year existing base is sufficient to get us to 450 ppm in just 33 years. It is extremely unlikely that the price of new clean energy can be reduced to the point that sunk-cost dirty energy plants will be closed. Even if the price of clean energy were less than 2 cents per kWh, it is unlikely that dirty plants will be closed in much of the world, without other political changes (e.g. in the U.S. many utilities are operated as regulated monopolies that are guaranteed a return on investment, which would shield them if new energy prices were to decline).

    Price can influence new energy plants, but it has little effect on old energy plants. Unfortunately the old energy plants are sufficient to cause serious damage. We need more than cheap clean energy.

  22. Paul K says:

    There is no perfect solution, only an amalgam of imperfect ones.

  23. Paul K says:

    Joe,
    Thanks. As you say, price alone can’t do what is needed, especially since a price close to what is needed is politically DOA. I think you’d also say that what is needed is maximum technology and efficiency deployment. It seems to me you and Breakthrough are in basic agreement on that. Clearly, the B-L-W approach is not the right one. Raising the price of carbon and hoping for the best won’t get you where you want to go.

  24. Joe, What is the political scenario where Congress passes and the president signs legislation that prices CO2 at levels higher than $40 a ton, which has already proven to be too low to stop coal plant building in Europe? I’m genuinely asking. Is it to keep lecturing the American people about the seriousness of global warming? Do you think you can get them to care more about global warming than higher energy prices?

  25. Paul K says:

    Earl Killian,
    You say we need more than cheap clean energy and that is certainly true. It is also true that at some point we may need all clean energy regardless of cost. Your concern about the long wait for dirty energy obsolescence is putting the fiftieth year of the plan ahead of the first. The challenge is to find a way to rapidly deploy enough clean energy to at the very least meet the ongoing increase in demand. That’s step one. Many other steps must follow.

    Although I don’t think Breakthrough has the totally right way to go about it, they are totally correct that reducing the cost of the clean is a much more effective way to promote its deployment than is raising the price of the dirty. I don’t understand why you who has taken advantage of every cost reducing opportunity for alternative do not agree.

  26. Joe says:

    Michael — what is the political scenario whereby Congress passes and the president signed legislation that spends tens of billions of dollars a year on clean energy technology? Did you listen to the opponents of the bill? They HATE big government technology programs as much as they hate cap&trade.

    You keep claiming your approach is politically easier than other approaches — it ain’t. The downside of your approach is that it is not only as politically difficult as any other approach — it won’t actually avoid catastrophic warming.

    Paul (and Michael) — you keep missing the point. There is no technology strategy that can bring the cost of new low carbon technologies FAR below the cost of existing coal power.

    Finally, I have now repeatedly blogged that I don’t believe a carbon price is the urgent strategy that we need.

  27. Peter Kelley says:

    Bill McKibben and the head of Greenpeace USA wrote Sen. Boxer on Friday that by the time the bill reached the Senate floor it was “badly off-track” and “grotesquely riddled with loopholes and gifts to the fossil fuel industry.” They want her to follow the science next time.

    Here are some cool pictures of a protest yesterday at Boxer’s office in San Fransisco (disclaimer: I helped call Bay-area media about it) –
    http://www.kelleycampaigns.com/letter.html

    Full text of McKibben’s letter is at the above link, as well.

  28. Earl Killian says:

    Here is a simple example showing that cheap clean energy is by itself insufficient to solve the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions problem. We already have a cheap clean energy source, and we have had it for many years, and it is not making a dent in much of the U.S. Negawatts currently cost only 1-2 cents per kWh, which is below the cost of fuel and O&M for a coal power plant. Negawatts are clean. Despite the cost advantage, most U.S. utilities prefer to build coal power plants to delivering negawatts.

  29. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K said, “Your concern about the long wait for dirty energy obsolescence is putting the fiftieth year of the plan ahead of the first.

    Fiftieth year? We don’t have that long, as I pointed out in my first comment in this thread. My concern is with people who make proposals that are woefully incomplete, but don’t let on that they are incomplete. That has the potential to fool people. I am not putting the fiftieth year ahead of the first; I am pointing out the flaw in Shellenberger’s reasoning.

    Paul K said, “The challenge is to find a way to rapidly deploy enough clean energy to at the very least meet the ongoing increase in demand. That’s step one. Many other steps must follow.

    No, the first step is to reduce demand through efficiency (negawatts). Suppose the Federal government adopted California’s policies, incentives, and regulations, and over the 30 years it took U.S. kWh per capita to bloat compared to California (which held steady for 30 years), Japan, Germany, etc. let’s say U.S. kWh per capita falls to 7,800. The U.S. population in 2040 is projected to be 392 million, so multiplying we get 3,058 TWh. In 2005 we used 3,661 TWh. So electrical generation could decrease between now and 2040, if we make efficiency a priority. There need not be any net “ongoing increase in demand” (I say “net” because some parts of the country will have demand increases, others will have larger declines).

    I am not counting the 900 TWh required for getting 80% of our vehicle travel fueled from electricity in the above. That should be handled by building, for example, wind turbines.

    Paul K said, “Although I don’t think Breakthrough has the totally right way to go about it, they are totally correct that reducing the cost of the clean is a much more effective way to promote its deployment than is raising the price of the dirty. I don’t understand why you who has taken advantage of every cost reducing opportunity for alternative do not agree.

    You give no justification for this assertion. I’ve explained why it is wrong, and yet you ignore that and simply give it a “totally correct” label without addressing the point that 2 ppm per year from existing plants is sufficient to breach 450 ppm in 33 years. Until you address that point, you have no justification for your assertion.

  30. Paul K says:

    Earl Killian,
    Agreed: the first step is to reduce demand through efficiency (negawatts). The demand reducer that mosts interests me is micro generation by the people. If demand went down, wouldn’t emissions go down too even if a portion of the energy is dirty?

    I think step two will be figuring out a way to get the southwestern CSP and the high plains wind power to the population centers east of the Mississippi. I would like more information on improving the efficiency of the grid and the use of HVDC.

    The old dirty energy issue is a tough knot, but does not address the question of whether it is more effective to lower alternatives or raise fossils in price to maximize deployment.

  31. hapa says:

    @paul:

    The old dirty energy issue is a tough knot, but does not address the question of whether it is more effective to lower alternatives or raise fossils in price to maximize deployment.

    think of it this way: TANSTAAFL.

    1. subsidizing clean energy to much lower than dirty energy might have to continue for years — a fact potential energy generators would notice and maybe take into account — not necessarily getting you the price-performance improvements you were hoping for.

    2. the money for the subsidy would have to come from somewhere, making the cost of energy a little less free than it looked, which people would notice.

    3. no matter how low your clean price was, some averaged energy price — (dirty+clean)/2, maybe — would be a price people were willing to pay. very few people really want more than “good enough.”

    4. we do want to drive the fossil fuel business in one of two directions:

    a. out of business, or
    b. out of that business.

    billing them for the cost of mitigation and remediation is totally market-permissible, and is certainly the best way to maximize deployment of clean energy by them, if they want to keep producing energy.

  32. Earl Killian says:

    Paul K, hapa made good points, but let me add that the two methods of affecting market price are not equivalent. One can lower the cost of clean energy (e.g. through subsidies) or raise the price of dirty energy (e.g. through taxes or cap-and-auction). One difference is that the latter encourages efficiency and the former encourages inefficiency. (Price alone won’t drive efficiency, but you sure don’t want to reverse the sign of the signal.) The latter is correcting a market failure (by adding in the “externalities” currently ignored by the market), while the former adds to the market distortion. Markets are a useful tool, and we should work to restore their functionality when they are broken.

  33. Eugene says:

    Drill Here, Drill Now.
    Let nature take care of its self.

  34. ahmet says:

    but it’s the life of the party!] But I think the debate was quite useful for two reasons: