On Climate: Do Something

Bill Scher

With a climate protection and clean energy jobs bill already facing stiff resistance in the Senate, I was afraid that the post-Massachusetts election fallout would bury it for the year. But fear not! Bipartisan Senate negotiations continued literally a day after the election.

As long as we have a shot, it is imperative for President Obama to keep climate as a top priority in tomorrow’s State of the Union address.

There many lessons to learn from the last several months of the health care debate. But to me, the biggest one is: it’s better to do something than nothing.

Politically, it’s better to show you are actively tackling tough problems, than to endlessly squabble.

As Ezra Klein put it: “If Democrats abandon health-care reform in the aftermath of Brown’s victory, the lesson will be that they can’t govern … At that point, what’s the pitch for voting for Democrats? That they agree with you? A plumber and I both agree that my toilet should work. But if he can’t make it work, I’m not going to pay him any money or invite him into my home.”

Substantively, it’s better to engage in “bold, persistent experimentation” (as FDR did to end the Great Depression) making adjustments as you go, then to let problems fester while you wait forever for the perfect bill.

The reality is we never know for certain what will work and what won’t. We shouldn’t fly blind, of course. We should pass legislation based on the best expert advice we can. But only by trying ideas out, even big ideas, can we improve upon them.

Take “Cash For Clunkers” for example. Many environmentalists criticized the program before it began because the of weak fuel-efficiency threshold for new cars to qualifying. But the average trade-in increased fuel efficiency by 10 MPG, better than expected. Not the panacea to global warming, but no one ever said it would be. More importantly, by trying it, policymakers — if they weren’t so politically terrified, — would be able to design a Cash-For-Clunkers II and make it even more powerful.

Now we know we face the imminent threat of a climate crisis. But we don’t know for certain the exact strategy to avert it.

The House passed a climate bill with a “cap and trade” approach, involving a limited number of free pollution allowances for both polluters and consumers. But some environmentalists derided excessive subsidies for dirty energy, while coal-friendly Senators complained there weren’t enough.

Some have been intrigued by a “cap and dividend” bill by Sens. Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, where the pollution permits are auctioned off and the proceeds are mainly returned to taxpayers. The potential downsides would be that not enough revenue is invested into clean energy, and carbon-intensive states may complain that the proceeds won’t distributed fairly.

Last week, conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has been working with Sen. John Kerry on a bipartisan bill, said he expects their final bill to be a “hybrid” of the two approaches.

What does that mean? Frankly, I don’t know. And I don’t terribly care.

We do not need to have a bloody war over whether cap-and-trade or cap-and-dividend is the mostest bestest way to go. Neither would be perfect. Either, just like a carbon tax, can be weakened during the legislative process. If Kerry and Graham can find a way to coherently if imperfectly merge the ideas together, bless them.

So long as it is a sincere attempt to create a framework to slash greenhouse gas emissions, and can be modified and strengthened as we go forward and learn more about implementation, it is worth doing.

I will eagerly fight for the strongest bill possible, the most aggressive targets possible, the biggest investments in clean energy jobs possible and the fewest subsidies to polluters possible.

But as I don’t know exactly what would work and what won’t, and as the climate clock is ticking, I have to in the end, side on the side of action over inaction.

To that end, we do need to see President Obama prioritize climate protection tomorrow. We do need to see him pressure Sens. Kerry and Graham to finish their work. We do need to see Obama make clear that protecting climate also creates good American jobs, to rebut the obstructions who will dishonestly claim we can’t save the planet during a recession.

But we don’t need to see the President draw too many lines in the sand.

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