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What if the CO2 Ceiling Debate Were Like the Debt Ceiling Debate

By Joe Romm on July 17, 2011 at 12:42 pm

"What if the CO2 Ceiling Debate Were Like the Debt Ceiling Debate"

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The national debt isn’t the greatest short-term problem we face.  That is spurring jobs and economic growth.

And the debt certainly isn’t close to the greatest long-term problem we face.  That would obviously be unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases, which threaten human civilization with multiple simultaneous catastrophes — from endless superstorms to permanent DustBowls.  And yes, we could solve the first by addressing the second — but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

I can understand why the Tea-Party-driven GOP has made the national debt its focus.  Conservatives are using the debt debate as a stalking horse for their disdain of government to gut as many federal programs as possible, from clean energy to Medicare to EPA oversight.  Since those  programs are popular, the best strategy is for the GOP to attack them under the guise of their concern over some other issue.

As an aside, I’m not certain “conservatives” is the right word for them anymore, since they don’t actually want to conserve anything.  A better term would be “anarchists.”  If they cared about the debt more than their rigid self-destructive anti-tax ideology, they’d obviously be open to the unbelievable $4 trillion deficit-reduction deal that Obama put on the table and keeps offering every friggin’ day.

It’s mostly a mystery why the president has thrown the full weight of his bully pulpit and political muscle behind something that isn’t the biggest short-or long-term problem we face.  Yes, he has boxed the GOP into a corner, exposing their hypocritically extremist position for all to see — but for what gain?   He has bought into and reinforced the GOP narrative that debt and spending concerns reign supreme, which will undermine short-term and long-term efforts to create jobs or promote clean energy or reduce oil dependence or cut carbon pollution.

But what’s going on in Washington DC right now does provide an interesting window into the question, “What if the CO2 Ceiling Debate Were Like the Debt Ceiling Debate.”  Obviously, that is purely a counterfactual for the foreseeable future.  But by 2025, give or take 5 years, most everybody inside and outside of DC will realize that those pesky climate scientists were right all along.  Our concern over greenhouse gas emissions then will exceed our concern over the debt now to an unimaginable degree — indeed by more than our concern over the debt currently exceeds our concern over emissions.

In this post, I’ll look at the counterfactual.  After the debt ceiling debate is “resolved,” I’ll do a post on lessons learned.

What would be different if CO2 Ceiling Debate Were Like the Debt Ceiling Debate?

First and most important, the right wing would be demanding urgent and strong action to reduce emissions.  Indeed, their “green tea party” would be demanding that we set a ceiling of 350 parts per million atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (we’re currently at more than 390 and rising 2 ppm a year).  After all, anything less would pose an unacceptable risk to all of our children and will devastate the lives of billions of people, for many decades if not centuries (see Royal Society special issue details ‘hellish vision’ of 7°F (4°C) world — which we may face in the 2060s! and A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice).

We would hear over and over again how unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions threaten an explosion of government control over our lives.  If we don’t restrict CO2, the government will inevitably get into the business of telling people where they can and can’t live (can’t let people keep rebuilding in the ever-spreading flood plains or the ever-enlarging areas threatened by sea level rise and DustBowlification) and how they can live (sharp water curtailment in the SW DustBowl, for instance) and possibly what they can eat.  Who else can possibly fund massive sea walls and levees but government?  Who else can respond to the mega-disasters that will be a yearly occurrence?  (See “Don’t believe in global warming? That’s not very conservative”).

And we’d hear endlessly from the “green tea party” about the value of resource conservation as a basic ethic.

Second, the president would convene daily meetings with members of Congress on how to address the climate problem.  He would hold regular press conferences on the subject  patiently explaining the underlying science and the remarkable low cost of the solutions (see “Intro to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost“).  He’d make sure all of his senior advisers focused on climate and did messaging on little else.  Heck, he’d actually practice some of the rhetorical techniques that got him to be president, like explaining things relatively simply and repeating them again and again.  Remember, this is a counterfactual! (see The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2)

Third, the media would run stories every day about climate change and climate solutions.  Heck they’d even patiently explain to the public the connection between global warming and extreme weather, since they spent a lot of time explaining to the public why addressing the debt is so important to our economic health, which is a far weaker arguments substantively.  Sadly, this, too, is all part of the counterfactual (see Silence of the Lambs: Media herd’s coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).

Fourth, the public would rally around climate action and clean energy.  Oh, wait, that isn’t a counterfactual (see a dozen polls over the last two years here).  Ironically, the counterfactual here is that the public doesn’t actual think reducing the deficit is the number one problem — and yet it is now our national obsession.  But they have always supported reducing pollution and accelerating the deployment of clean energy — and so of course we are now increasing pollution and facing cuts in clean energy funding.

Bottom Line:  Would the climate problem actually get addressed in this counterfactual? That still means the parties would have to work together, and the Republicans would have to give Obama a major political victory — whereas their top priority, as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has said repeatedly, is to make Obama a one-term president.

So, no doubt the green tea party would be incredibly uncompromising.  They’d refuse any solution that required government mandates or tax increases.

Instead, conservatives would demand Obama embrace Republican ideas supported by major utilities and energy companies.  In particular, they’d insist on a Republican-created, business friendly policy that actually creates a “right to pollute” and turns it into an economic product that could be traded like any other — so-called emission allowances.  Conservatives would demand that businesses and consumers be given these allowances either directly or through their local utility to protect them from the short-term costs of the clean energy transition and to ensure that higher cost for dirty energy could be ameliorated most equitably.

In short, they would insist on a cap-and-trade system — and we all know that could never pass Congress.  Oh well, I guess we don’t solve the problem even in the counterfactual.  This is like one of those time travel paradoxes where no matter how many times you try to go back and change things, you just can’t…..

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