Friday, January 16, 1970

The Battle For Climate Action In Obama’s Second Term

by Auden Schendler, via The Atlantic

Two things have happened since the obscure holiday of St. Crispin’ day, October 25, this year. First, Hurricane Sandy emphatically reset the American conversation on climate change. A recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek was “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” Second, the presidential candidate who understands climate science and wants to take action has been elected. In his victory speech Obama said: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In history, St. Crispin’s day happens to have marked two legendary battles where armies overcame overwhelming odds. The U.S. and Australia’s improbable victory, outgunned and outnumbered, at Leyte Gulf during World War II, was one. And in 1415 at Agincourt, Henry V and his men used longbows to defeat the numerically superior French forces. It’s worth noting that the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade also happened on St. Crispin’s day, reminding us that great boldness often carries great consequences.

Perhaps this year, St. Crispin’s day marked another improbable victory against all odds: The date when Americans finally started talking about realistic paths to climate solutions.

Where do we go from here? There are at least three viable options today, and here they are:

A Frontal Assault on Climate

It has become abundantly clear that adaptation, the climate solution recommended by Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, is a joke and a myth. “Adaptation” looks like lower Manhattan under four feet of water. The upside of that harsh truth is that government officials like Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, Obama, and maybe even Chris Christie, are beginning to realize what conservative Yale economist William Nordhaus has been saying for years: It’s going to cost more not to deal with climate change than to fix it.

With that in mind, and knowing that Obama does see climate as a huge problem, it’s possible he could pursue actual legislation to reel in carbon emissions.

The right path wouldn’t be tepid support for a wildly complex fraud-incubating cap and trade program. Rather, it would be a creative, bipartisan policy fix supported by the left and by Grover Norquist Tea Partying Republicans.

The approach, proposed by a group called Citizen’s Climate Lobby and suggested in similar form by climatologist James Hansen, is a fee on carbon at the wellhead or mine, refunded back to the consumer. “Fee and dividend” looks like your heating, electric, and car fillup costs going up by, say, $50 each month (though the cost could rise), but a check for the same amount arriving at your mailbox every quarter. The idea: create a revenue-neutral market incentive for our economy to decarbonize, without adding a new tax. The right likes this approach because it’s not a tax and because it creates a market incentive to fix climate. The left likes it because a carbon fee is the sine qua non of fixing climate change. Will this alone slow the rise of the oceans? Of course not. But it’s the first step, it signals intent and creates policy certainty, and China will take notice. A simpler approach — a straight tax on carbon – is now gaining traction as part of a deal to fix the fiscal cliff.

Leyte Gulf: Fixing Climate through Tax Reform

Even though the above policy fix makes wonks drool, it would be pretty bold for Obama to go after climate directly, given the insane partisanship in the country, and the outsized bickering around this issue…. So perhaps he needs to tackle it obliquely, the same way Americans won the Battle of Leyte Gulf, forced into using smaller, nimble ships to fight more powerful opposition forces. A policy version of this tactic might be to attack climate from the sides, through tax reform, which both John Boehner and Obama see as necessary.

Most economists agree our tax system is broken. It’s a Rube Goldberg device that does nothing well and a lot of things badly. Annual compliance costs alone are in the hundreds of billions of dollars, more than the economies of many nations.

Left, right, and center agree with William E. Simon, the former Treasury secretary, who said that “the nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

So let’s do something everyone agrees we need to do, and in the process, start taxing bads instead of goods: pollution instead of income. Again, a carbon tax won’t solve all our problems, but it’s the sine qua non of climate fixes, and a market signal and a message to China and India that the U.S. is now moving on climate, and they can follow or be left in the dust.

Agincourt: Campaign Finance Reform

Perhaps tax reform is just too big a lift. Why not go after El Jefe of all problems — one both right and left have aspired to fix — the problem of money in politics? As with Henry V at Agincourt, we’d need both luck and strategic brilliance to pull this off. But if we did, as Shakespeare’s King Henry said: “From this day to the ending of the world, we in it shall be remembered!”

Currently, politicians can’t simply make the right decision, they have to make the decision that will allow the dollars to keep flowing in. This is madness. It means soul crushing 24/7 fundraising, and limited time to actually govern. What if, after the dust settles from this election, both parties asked the question: “Were we happy spending a billion dollars each to achieve nothing?” We’ve certainly proved the Mutual Assured Destruction of unlimited campaign spending. Publicly financed elections create a better world, allowing our elected officials the time and freedom to actually govern, to make the right decision, not the one that protects fundraising, and allows citizens and businesses to spend their money on things they really care about, like schools and churches, food banks and medicine and children. If you fix money in politics, you start to fix climate, and health care, and energy subsidies, and key problems with our democracy. Money in politics is the great structural failure of our republic.

People on the inside of the sausage factory tell me this is crazy talk, and that campaign finance reform can never happen, because the people who benefit most from the money — the lobbyists — are in charge. Perhaps even tax reform and climate legislation are themselves similarly impossible propositions.

But after this awful election, and after Sandy, many of us — citizens, parents and patriots — have had enough. We are mobilized for a fistfight, or worse. At Agincourt, a similar point of no return, King Henry V recognized the human willingness to shed blood in a battle worthy of the fighting. Climate is one such battle. If we tackle this problem in earnest, the rewards far exceed the pain. If we do this, as Shakespeare wrote:

… gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Auden Schendler is Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and author of the book Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution. This piece was originally published at The Atlantic and was reprinted with permission.

Fiscal Cliff Threatens Environmental Protections

If Congress fails to reach an agreement, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts would kick in, making it much harder for the government to deliver the health and environmental protections people value. We would feel these punishing cuts in our daily lives.

Obama Talks Climate Change During His First Post-Election Press Conference

Slate Magazine Staff Writer Will Oremus summed up how a lot of folks in the climate advocacy community were likely feeling this afternoon after Obama’s first post-election press conference, in which he was asked about climate change.

There’s been a lot of talk in Washington in recent weeks about the possibility of a carbon tax proposal from Congress or even the White House. Along with the fact that the Obama Administration says it is not planning such a proposal, Obama’s response in today’s press conference shows that broad action on climate probably isn’t very high up on the priority list at the moment. While he did say he wanted to do more on climate in his second term, Obama gave few specifics about what a plan might look like.

Here’s the full New York Times transcript of the President’s comments on climate change from this afternoon:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you’re going up to New York City, where you’re going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is changing our weather. What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change? And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, as you know, Mark (sp), we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change. What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been extraordinarily — there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe.

And I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.

Now, in my first term, we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks. That will have an impact. That will a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. We doubled the production of clean energy, which promises to reduce the utilization of fossil fuels for power generation. And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.

But we haven’t done as much as we need to. So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

I don’t know what — what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue. I also think there’s — there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.

I won’t go for that.

If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.

So you know, you can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this — moves this agenda forward.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying, though — (off mic) — probably still short of a consensus on some kind of — (off mic).

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I — that I’m pretty certain of. And look, we’re — we’re still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don’t get a tax hike. Let’s see if we can resolve that. That should be easy. This one’s hard. But it’s important because, you know, one of the things that we don’t always factor in are the costs involved in these natural disasters. We’d — we just put them off as — as something that’s unconnected to our behavior right now, and I think what, based on the evidence, we’re seeing is — is that what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road if — if — if we don’t do something about it.

Nothing shocking here. Don’t expect anything ground-breaking on climate coming out of Washington anytime soon.

But while some will be disappointed in the lack of policy specifics, the climate advocacy community is surely breathing a sigh of relief that we still have a President who says this:

(Hat tip: Adam Peck of ThinkProgress)

Sen. Majority Leader Reid: ‘Climate Change Is An Extremely Important Issue For Me, And I Hope We Can Address It’

We are seeing a unique confluence of events put a carbon tax squarely back into the national debate: the debt crisis and fiscal cliff, Hurricane Sandy, and the results of the 2012 election.

Sen. Majority Leader Reid said Wednesday:

“Climate change is an extremely important issue for me and I hope we can address it reasonably. It’s something, as we’ve seen with these storms that are overwhelming our country and the world, we need to do something about it.”

Back in August Reid spoke to Greenwire following one of the most powerful public speeches on climate that any national policymaker has made in years:

Reid said he hopes the Senate will take up a bill to put a price on carbon emissions if Democrats maintain control of the chamber….

Reid now has a much stronger hand. Democrats picked up 2 seats in the Senate. A few months ago Republicans were thought to have a good chance of seizing control of the Senate — now they have undercut their chances of taking back the Senate even in 2014. And newly elected Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) both explicitly campaigned on climate change.

No, Reid can’t do this single-handedly. But President Obama, reelected with the help of a decisive youth vote that rightly puts climate change near the top of the list of their concerns, himself said on election night:

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

In  the coming days and weeks, Climate Progress will explore the prospects for a carbon tax from all angles. We’ll also explore other policies that could potentially achieve the same kind of reductions. And we’ll try to set the record straight when we think the media doesn’t get it quite right, as with this CNN Money article, “Climate change is back on the table“:

“If we’re going to do a grand deal on taxes, [a carbon tax] will be high on the president’s list of priorities,” said Dan Clifton, a partner at Strategas, a research firm that serves institutional investors. “But it would have to be part of a compromise for Republicans to accept something.”

Clifton puts the chances of a carbon tax up for serious debate at 20% currently, but higher if a grand deal on taxes takes shape.

Still, the chances of a carbon tax actually passing remains low.

“I think there will be some opposition from many sides,” said Whitney Stanco, an energy analyst at Guggenheim Securities’ Washington Research Group. “From conservatives because it’s a tax increase, from liberals because it’s likely a regressive tax increase and from environmental groups because it would be used to pay down the deficit, not invest in clean technologies.”

So a carbon tax will be a high priority of Obama’s and the chances of a carbon tax being part of the debate is 20% — or higher — but the chances of it actually passing are low. Hope that clears things up for you.

In fact, while everyone I talk to in DC thinks the chances of a carbon tax are below 50-50, ultimately if the President insists on a carbon tax, it has a serious shot — and Stanco’s three points of opposition are each incomplete.

First, it’s certainly true many conservatives would oppose any new tax, which is why Obama and Reid would have to put on the table something in return that conservatives want — such as a lower corporate tax. Indeed, as I will explain in a subsequent post, many in Washington think the only way to have any kind of grand deal on taxes is to simply let all the Bush tax cuts expire. That will happen automatically at the end of this year if the House and Senate can’t agree on a package that the president will sign in time.  In that scenario, the subsequent 2013 deal can be billed as the biggest tax cut in history — and throwing in a carbon tax and lower corporate tax rate wouldn’t change that.

Second, a carbon tax is certainly somewhat regressive. But we are probably talking about a tax that is under 1% of GDP — a key point I will elaborate on in subsequent posts — so it won’t be a burden on most individuals. And it is perfectly straightforward to rebate some of the tax to those in lower income brackets to eliminate the regressivity. This is certainly not a show-stopper.

Third, environmental groups would be delighted to have a carbon tax — they certainly won’t oppose it because the money might be used to pay down the debt (or even to lower taxes for corporations and lower income groups). Also, if there is a grand bargain on taxes it would probably include a final set of tax credits for wind energy and other renewables. I for one would much rather have a permanent carbon tax then permanent clean energy tax credits, especially since the latter have proven anything but permanent.

I’m not saying this deal would be easy to construct and pass through the House and Senate. I’m only saying that one can certainly design a carbon tax as part of an overall tax package to minimize opposition. It then becomes a matter of how much the President and Senator Reid insist that it be part of the final deal.

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Yes, Climate Change Contributed To Superstorm Sandy

As Hurricane Sandy battered the East Coast last week, meteorologists and climate scientists were repeatedly asked to explain what role climate change played in amplifying the storm. Overall, we know that climate change has stacked the deck so that this kind of event happens more frequently. That answer, however, prompts a deeper, more unsettling question that many want to know: is climate change worsening some recent extreme weather events like super storm Sandy?

Sandy forces climate change on US election despite fossil fuel lobby

By Bill McKibben, posted Nov 1, 2012:

Here's a sentence I wish I hadn't written – it rolled out of my Macbook in May, part of an article for Rolling Stone that quickly went viral:

"Say something so big finally happens (a giant hurricane swamps Manhattan, a megadrought wipes out Midwest agriculture) that even the political power of the industry is inadequate to restrain legislators, who manage to regulate carbon."
I wish I hadn't written it because the first half gives me entirely undeserved credit for prescience: I had no idea both would, in fact, happen in the next six months. And I wish I hadn't written it because now that my bluff's been called, I'm doubting that even Sandy, the largest storm ever, will be enough to make our political class serious about climate change.
Maybe I'm wrong, though. Maybe – just maybe – the arrival of a giant wall of water in the exact middle of the financial and media capital of our home planet will be enough to get this conversation unstuck. Maybe that obscene slick of ocean spreading unnaturally into the tubes and tunnels of the greatest city on earth will shock enough people to change the debate. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, allowed as how:
"There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement, that is a factual statement … Anyone who says there's not a dramatic change in weather patterns, I think, is denying reality."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg added:
"What is clear is that the storms we've experienced in the last year or so around this country and around the world are much more severe than before."
Truthfully, I think I'd just as soon see statements like that as carefully thought-out endorsements of climate science. It's experience that changes people: the summer's drought left more than half of American counties as federal disaster areas, and meteorologist Jeff Masters estimates Sandy hit 100 million Americans with "extreme weather". Add in the largest forest fires in Colorado and New Mexico, the hottest month in US history, and the completely absurd summer-in-March heatwave that kicked off our year of living sweatily, and you can begin to understand why the percentage of Americans worrying about global warming has spiked sharply this year. Spiked high enough that even a few politicians are willing to speak out.
Not many. The presidential candidates avoided the topic at all their big public forums – except for Romney's Republican national convention joke about how silly it was to try and slow the rise of the oceans (which probably didn't win him many votes on the Jersey Shore this week). Obama did talk climate with MTV last week, but that venue almost defines the issue's fringe status; his other real discussion of it was with Rolling Stone – global warming is, apparently, only for people with earbuds.
They barnstormed through the hottest summer on record, and they didn't seem to notice. One appreciates cool in a president, but there's a limit.
If Sandy, however, begins to give a little opening for discussion, we're unfortunately at the point where we have to force the discussion. After 20 years of inaction, we're so far behind the curve that we've got to raise the bar higher than mere acknowledgement that we've got a problem. We've got to get some action from these guys.
And that, I think, requires a truly crucial set of changes. We need to neutralize the force that's kept them quiet. It's not that our politicians didn't know about climate change: I've watched, for two decades, as the world's best scientists make the annual trek to Capitol Hill to lay out the latest data. It's that, as scary as those charts and graphs were, the fossil fuel industry was scarier still.
As the richest industry on earth, and the biggest political player, the boys from coal and oil and gas have bought one party and terrified the other. Last week – in the very final days of the US election – Chevron smacked down the single largest corporate donation in the Citizens United era,$2.5m to a GOP Super Pac. There's not a congressman who didn't notice, and who didn't think: what if they came after me with ten days to go?
If we're going to change the political equation, we're going to do it by going after the fossil fuel industry. They deserve it. As that Rolling Stone article of mine laid out, they're planning to burn literally five times more carbon than the most conservative government on earth thinks is safe. They've turned into a rogue force.
Which is why sent out an email blast today, raising money for the Red Cross and raising signatures for a petition to oil execs asking that they stop their campaign donations and spend the money repairing New York instead. And it's why we launch a road show next week. We'll go to 20 cities in 20 nights, trying to spark a movement for divestment from fossil fuel stocks, and a new willingness to stand up to the industry. It starts next Wednesday in Seattle, and we'll do it no matter who wins the White House next Tuesday night.
Because as important as elections are, they're not the biggest battle.

Originally published at The Guardian

Image credit: dno1967b/flickr