Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Good, Bad, or Worse Then Nothing

The case against the American Power Act from Gar Lipow:

1) Bills only getter better when they don’t make things worse from the beginning:

All the cases I can find of weak reforms that grew stronger over time avoided one flaw that is prominent in Kerry-Lieberman. No matter how weak they were, they contained no features that made parts of the problems they were trying to solve worse. The 1957 Civil Rights act did not increase Jim Crow in limited areas to buy off racist Senators. The original Social Security act did not repeal any existing pensions, nor weaken any existing protections for workers or old people.

And APA makes things worse:

The nominal target has already been more than halfway met just by emissions reductions from the current recession and existing “command & control” legislation. Most of the remaining target could be met by offsets, legal counterfeit do-it-yourself emission permits. So at best the bill would produce few, if any, real cuts – nowhere near the reduction claimed in the nominal cap. Worse, many types of offsets could end increasing emissions even before they served as permission to continue burning coal.

For example, we may see ethanol (which has higher greenhouse gas emissions per mile than gasoline) credited as a carbon offset. Or we may see types of forestry which might release centuries of banked carbon from trees and soil credited as carbon reductions. The protection of offset additionality is phrased in stern generalities with specifics left to regulators. So we don’t really know what would or would not be allowed. In an age of regulatory capture, that is not good news.

Even worse, the KL bill repeals the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The usual reply from KL supporters: “That old thing? We weren’t using it anyway. And that broom is missing a few too many bristles to sweep clean.” That misses two points. However weak or strong that authority is, it is the only leverage to get climate legislation through a 60-vote Senate. Pass weak legislation that eliminates the EPA, and what will you use as leverage to strengthen it? Especially after you start seeing big agriculture and forestry garnering massive profits from the counterfeit permit industry (otherwise know as offsets). And while EPA authority does not include the ability to reduce emissions in as optimum a path a we would like, the EPA certainly has authority to reduce emissions by more than the KL bill does.

I’d suggest the issue EPA reductions vs. KL really hinges on how far into the future you’re talking about. Since KL is so weak in terms of what counts as an emission reduction and how little reductions we get in the next ten years even modestly successful reductions created by EPA regulation, would result in a lower emissions path by 2020. But going further the dynamics would probably start to shift in favor of APA.

I say probably because the offset market could expand enough to nullify even the harder limits and the EPA path doesn’t involve cutting off any additional programs. Most people think the offset market couldn’t get that big/ineffective and in political environment where it did EPA regulation would have similar problems.

It’s hard to see either path making a strong case for improving the future, passing a bad bill would reduce the urgency for action, but another failed bill hurts the cause. The scenario I most want to avoid is a wide acceptance within the environmental community of a bad bill that doesn’t pass, laying the ground work for an even worse bill in the future.

-Chris

More LBJ Then FDR

Like ThinkProgress guest blogger Jamelle Bouie I don’t understand the basis for Paul Rosenberg‘s claim that,

Barack Obama has manically embraced “discredited conservative ideas” and “helped enormously in extended the hegemonic continuity of [the] Nixon-Reagan Era

That said, the alternative proposition expressed by NY times columnist David Leonhardt that the Obama achievements “rivals any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition”, isn’t really the that powerful a rejoinder. Here’s the full first paragraph of Leonhardt column:

With the Senate’s passage of financial regulation, Congress and the White House have completed 16 months of activity that rival any other since the New Deal in scope or ambition. Like the Reagan Revolution or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the new progressive period has the makings of a generational shift in how Washington operates.

Which is to say that the Obama administration achievements are comparable to the domestic achievements of Reagan or LBJ. Not that they exceed them or are on par with FDR’s achievements. Nixon actually had a pretty robust domestic policy legacy, although it’s a bit of orphan because of it’s mixed ideological direction and Nixon’s personal legacy.

Obviously the important thing will be if the bills make the world a better place. The early results for stimulus bill are lacking. The economy needed more and it just didn’t happen. In size and scope the health care and financial reform bills are historically large. So what, will they work? For health care it’s pretty clear the expansion of coverage will last and improve lives of millions of Americans. But I wouldn’t pretend to know if financial reform will look like an achievement in ten or twenty years. It’s size and scope could just as easily be measures of failure as success.

-Chris

Climate Science and the Split Over the American Power Act

Good run down of the big green vs. little green dust up over the the American Power Act by Jonathan Hiskes. However, this passage isn’t really accurate:

It’s worth noting that all the groups involved have shown they understand the scientific urgency of an aggressive clean-energy plan.

Maybe off the record that’s true, but on the policy level there are real differences between what they’re saying. You’ve three camps:

1) The 450ppm is OK crowd,
2) 350.org saying the present levels are dangerous
3) James Lovelock and other pessimists saying we’re all doomed.

The 450ppm camp pretty much fell apart, in that most of them will basically say that 350 might well be the right goal. Saying anything else would seriously undermine their leadership position even more after all the flack they’ve taken from the little green groups calling their legislative agenda a big polluter give away. But it doesn’t really translate into a change in their agenda, it’s still based around the old idea that we’re in the safe zone and can safely keep going up. The emissions targets just aren’t strong enough to believe that the the plan isn’t to let CO2 reach 450ppm and only lower it slowly from there. The was the official plan 3-4 years ago and nothing has changed.

The 350.org folks start from the position that the science says danger is at the door step. Thus we need stronger emissions targets, more money, more effort and less compromise. Politically we need more effort around long-term movement building and to just forget about the current legislation. Use every tool, read pressuring for the strongest possible action by the EPA, in the short term.

James Lovelock is basically saying that only the unequivocally politically impossible action will avert climate change and even that probably wont be enough. He basically endorses the 350.org agenda, plus drastic life boat policies. I once wondered if he’d tell Obama to consider invading Greenland or telling young people with children to move to Canada.

Surely a lot of the differences causing the split are political, personal, and philosophical, but there’s science behind the policy and it’s not the same science.

-Chris

Our Emotional Senate?

So financial reform certainly beats health care reform in terms of drama and action Via Open Left:

2. Susan Collins and Ben Nelson on board, but progressives blocking passage
Republican Susan Collins, and uber-ConservaDem Ben Nelson came out in favor of cloture today.

If all other Democrats held together, this would mean there are enough votes for cloture to succeed. However, many progressives–Cantwell (reinstating Glass–Steagal), Dorgan (ending naked credit default swaps), Harkin (capping ATM fees at $0.50), Merkley (reinstating Volcker rule), Levin (same as Merkley) and others–remain angry that their strengthening amendments have not received votes, and as such are not promising to support cloture. In fact, Cantwell just said she does not support cloture, as of right now.

Progressive anger over this turned into chaos–or as close as the Senate ever gets to chaos–on the floor last night. Tom Harkin openly angry at Harry Reid, Senators huddled every which way to strategize, strange procedural moves were employed (see bullet point below for the prime example), and more. Ryan Grim and David Dayen have good rundowns of the events.

Everything related to HRC took forever and never seemed to include any surprises on either the House and Senate floor. Pretty much every vote turned out as predicted, the changes happened in the in between periods. The little bits of drama were in the various of periods of wringing out votes. Don’t know if all the drama will make for a better bill, but it’s a lot more interesting then the endless debates about pulling together. Maybe it’s just the absence of Joe Lieberman’s oxygen depleting presence as a central figure in the debate.

The Discounted Future

Note: The Carrots and Sticks Blog has been down for a bit, but we’re back now. Also let me apologize now for the long post.

I thought this was an interesting post by Brad Delong on the Costs and Benefits of climate action.

First a review Cass Sunstein and how he might begin to calculate when to act on climate change.

After all, if money depreciates at say, 3 percent a year, then spending $1 million today is the equivalent of spending only about $860,000 of today’s dollars five years from now. Over very long periods, like those involved in climate change, the discount rates that are applied to short-term problems like budgets build toward absurdity: using one common method, spending $1 million today to forestall climate change would be the equivalent of spending $2,300 in 2100. Calculations like this seem to argue against doing anything now. The problem, Sunstein says, is that we might do irreversible damage to the planet while blithely waiting for the price of action to drop just enough…. As an academic, Sunstein seemed to side with economists like William Nordhaus at Yale, who set the discount rate at about 5 percent, which would counsel patience. “It’s not clear what direction the risk of error cuts in,” he told me. “If we err, 7 percent could be bad,” he said, but “if we err, 1 percent could be bad also.” A low a discount rate might protect the environment by spurring us to sacrifice now — while damaging the economy, increasing poverty and putting more people out of work. The difficulty is that the experts are lined up “out the door and down the block on both sides of this issue,”

Brad Delong retorts:

Here we have yet another example of why law professors should simply not be allowed to practice law and economics or moral philosophy without a license–and of how Cass Sunstein has never bothered to do the work necessary to acquire a license to practice law and economics.

First, “irreversible damage”: we are doing irreversible damage to the environment every day in that every day human activity brings more species closer to extinction, and natural or artificial selection would never be able to resurrect them no matter how much money we would spend trying to do so. The question that must be asked: is how much we care–how damaging is the “irreversible damage,” and what other goods are we willing to forego in order to avoid it? What Sunstein implies–that “irreversible damage” is something that must be avoided and that trumps cost-benefit calculations–is simply incoherent, and does nothing other than perform the function of getting him onto Obama administration message without admitting that he does not understand why the cost-benefit analysis tools he loves so much are leading him to what is for an Obama administration official an off-message conclusion.

Delong goes on to suggest Sunstein is using the wrong type of discount rate since we’re discussing human lives and welfare. I don’t know why Sunstein thinks it’s “It’s not clear what direction the risk of error cuts in”.

Using either the pessimistic or optimistic scenarios at some point reach feedback loops where it’s either impossible or much more expensive stabilize the climate. Further the do something now approach proposed by the Obama Administration is really a do something over the next 30 years and probably longer approach and it’s back loaded towards doing more 2020-2040.

Pretty much all the scientific questions about energy research and development and ecology point towards some strategy, starting sooner then later. Economics doesn’t exist in bubble, if you’re positing we can wait and wait and wait you’re not looking at the whole picture.