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Climate and Obstruction

Kevin Drum points out that tough cap and trade legislation isn’t just in trouble because of Republican opposition, it’s in trouble because Barack Obama never campaigned hard on it, and because the public seems skeptical. This is all true.

But it’s worth emphasizing that these obstacles are largely all parasitic on lockstep GOP opposition. The environmental movement has — correctly — been willing to be extremely flexible in terms of how to organize a policy aimed at reduce carbon emissions to a sustainable level. Folks have been open the idea of a carbon tax, or else to cap and trade. Within cap and trade they’ve been open to giving the permits away (to minimize the adjustment costs to business) to rebating the revenue (to minimize the adjustment costs to consumers) to using the revenue to finance offsetting tax cuts (to minimize the macroeconomic adjustment) and to using the revenue to finance clean energy investments (to minimize the impact on energy intensive businesses). They’ve been open to mixed strategies for the use of the revenues and to mixed strategies about the extent of permit auctioning.

If the conservative movement were willing to put forward any kind of realistic proposal for coping with the climate crisis, environmentalists would gladly embrace it, and political obstacles would melt away. But instead, the main strategy of the conservative movement has been to foster public ignorance by denying that the problem even exists.

A secondary, and infuriating, move has been for politicians to establish “reasonable” cred by putting forward a climate change proposal and then becoming absolutely dogmatic about the precise details. So John Corker (R-TN) is for cap-and-trade but only if it’s 100 percent auction with 100 percent rebate; anything else he’ll vote against. And John McCain (R-AZ) is for cap-and-trade but only if it’s 0 percent auction; anything else he’ll vote against. This is all enormously irresponsible, and it’s this irresponsibility that’s the fundamental cause of the problem. None of the possible approaches to the climate crisis are especially appealing, but the conservative movement has invested a ton of time and energy in obscuring the fact that doing nothing is not appealing either, thus creating an enormous amount of public inertia around what’s really a very acute problem.

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The only beneficiaries of this, in the end, will be the coal and oil companies. But they benefit a lot. And obstruction has proven to be an enormously successful tool for advancing their interests.