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Let's Be Optimistic About Solving Global Warming For Once

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApril 16, 2009 1:24 AM


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In my latest Science Progress column, I argue that basically, there are three "knobs" that, if turned properly, could make passing a law to deal with climate change truly feasible before the end of the year. To wit:

The first “knob”—let’s label it “EPA”—regulates the extent to which administrative action will be employed to control global warming, either to achieve a non-legislative cap on emissions or simply to prompt congressional action. The more the Obama Environmental Protection Agency indicates that it’s simply going to regulate greenhouse gases on its own if Congress doesn’t move, the more Congress will feel pressured: After all, many fossil fuel companies won’t simply want to be left at EPA’s mercy. And thus far, EPA has moved rapidly indeed. It has already submitted an “endangerment finding”—the determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act—to the White House, the first step toward regulatory action. Yet there are multiple kinds of leverage available to the administration and to congressional policymakers. The second knob—let’s call it “auction”—would regulate the percentage of emissions permits that would initially be sold off under a cap and trade bill. Industry tends to complain about the economic disruptiveness of going immediately to a 100 percent auction, the Obama administration’s official goal. Centrist politicians inclined to sympathize with these companies could therefore be mollified by a tuning down of the initial auction percentage. Are there problems with this strategy? Definitely. We should get to a full auction as soon as possible. On the other hand, I’m convinced that political dynamics will change dramatically once we have an actual climate bill in place and there is no need to fight over it any more in the congressional arena. So there’s nothing wrong with using the “auction” knob to smooth the transition to a cap, provided the new law turns that knob up to the max with some rapidity (say, within 5 years). And there’s one final knob, arguably the most powerful of all—labeled “dividend.” For the administration and congressional lawmakers can also “tune” the extent to which auction revenues go back to members of the public to help them cope with projections of higher energy costs. The more money average Americans receive back from the government under a new cap and trade bill, the more popular that bill will be, and the less possible it will be to paint it as an economic attack on the middle class. People simply won’t buy that argument as they go to the bank to cash their government checks.

You can read the full column here. What do you think, am I over optimistic?

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