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Climate change vs. American politics


David Roberts wrote a smart post a few days ago explaining why the climate bill is going to suck. The answer, in short, is the Senate. Cap and trade, like every other bill, will face "a supermajority requirement coupled with an extreme, unified minority," Roberts says. "Everything else — and I mean pretty much every lamentable feature of American politics — flows out of that."

That's usually my analysis of policy failure, too. But with cap and trade, I'd go further than that.

First, the mechanics of the policy collides with the quirks of both our political process and of our politics. For one thing, the solution requires a tax, which is never where you want to start when you're dealing with the American electorate. For another, the burden falls disproportionately on specific states and districts, which is poison in a system where the national legislature is organized around, well, states and districts. The benefits of the policy, meanwhile, accrue mainly to future generations, and worse than that, to future generations that live in other countries.

Cap and trade would be well suited to a nationally elected legislature in a cosmopolitan country that's attuned to the benefits of wise forms of taxation and accustomed to thinking on a long time frame. That does not describe our Congress.

Second, climate change is uncommonly resistant to the incrementalism favored by our -- and most -- political systems. Health-care reform is a good counter-example. Dramatic as the policy is, it's an incremental improvement from the current situation. That's okay: Do a bit now, and you can do a bit more later. If you don't do enough, you can still reform the system at the point of fiscal crisis. That's not ideal, but it's doable.

Not so for climate change. If you don't do enough, the problem spins out of control, with glaciers melting and carbon sinks opening and permafrost thawing. Worse, the viscerally detectable consequences come long after the point when reform could still avert their damage. It's not like health care, where we can fix the problem after international bondholders decide to stop buying treasuries. By the time the earth's temperature has risen three degrees Celsius, the game is pretty much up, and our only options are endless geo-engineering, with all the unintended consequences and techno-political difficulties that entails, or some massive technological breakthrough that allows us to actually absorb the carbon in the atmosphere. I wouldn't bet my planet on the success of either, though.

Photo credit: By Ed Andrieski/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  November 4, 2009; 2:44 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change , Government  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Governance matters more than elections
Next: Congress gets another voice on health-care reform


You have to admit being alive for the next 50 years will be at least interesting, since our political system is terminally incapable of dealing with a problem like climate change, we're going to see what happens when 700ppm of carbon is being emitted into the earth's atmosphere.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 4, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I confess to a bit of puzzlement watching you, Roberts, and Yglesias calmly lay out the hopelessness of all this and then switch over to baiting David Brooks. Could you please start analyzing potential plans of attack? E.g.:

- a serious national effort to run more progressive candidates in key races
- an effort to persuade the Senate to rein in the filibuster
- a divide-and-conquer approach to the opposition

Telling us we're doomed may be savvy, but it's not helpful. Where's information we can use? Also, it can have a self-fulfilling quality.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | November 4, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The issue here isn't that I, and others, haven't written about the need to abolish the filibuster. It's that none of us no how to do it.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | November 4, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

"If you don't do enough, the problem spins out of control, with ... permafrost thawing.

Flooding Bangladesh would be a bad thing. The desertification of current farm land would be a bad thing. By contrast, thawing permafrost would be a good thing.

Posted by: ostap666 | November 4, 2009 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Pass the zell miller filibuster rule (cloture starts at 60 and then over time slowly goes down until only 50 votes are necessary to get a full vote) and have it take effect in 6 years. Or even 7 years if Republicans would prefer so that its ensured that Barack Obama won't be the president when the filibuster is weakened. Let both parties have an even shot at getting the first benefit of the weakened filibuster. I think you could get the votes necessary to do that. Really all it takes is 12 or so people from both parties to agree to this rule for it to stick.

Posted by: spotatl | November 4, 2009 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Right now we need the government to actively create employment opportunities, to provide health benefits through a new health care system, and to retire these old polluting industries. These things fit together very well. All that is needed is a little coordination.

People should demand new jobs not the protection of their old, outmoded jobs.

Posted by: bcbulger | November 4, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Shorter Ezra:

"We're Screwed"

To which I agree. There are enough people with oiwer in the Climate Change equation who just don't give a damn that they will sink real progress.


Posted by: toshiaki | November 4, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

"For one thing, the solution requires a tax, which is never where you want to start when you're dealing with the American electorate."

Well DUH! *Every solution Democrats craft involves a tax.

It's what they DO
It's ALL they DO

And the money collected is not earmarked for climate change, it's just more revenue that they will spend instead of paying down our bills.

It's a crock

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 4, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

ostap666 - thawing the permafrost is very bad because it results in an additional increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. It, like melting snow cover, is one of the positive feedback loops that amplify climate change.

wrongfuldeath - thanks for that example of why even a market based approach to solving climate change is politically toxic because it involves the T-word.

Posted by: etdean1 | November 4, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Maybe this is the way to finally convince the Democrats to abolish the filibuster -- to save the planet from the Republican minority.

If the Democrats want to abolish the filibuster -- and as a result get strong global warming legislation -- they can do it. It only takes 51 votes to abolish it.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | November 4, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Democrats hold all the levers of government. They enjoy supermajorities in both houses and hold the presidency as well and yet....and yet....goobers like the one above blame the powerless Republicans for their inablility to promote their Marxist agenda.

The only power the Republicans have is to expose the Marxist Democrats to the voters and so far, it's been rather effective.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 4, 2009 10:32 PM | Report abuse

"ostap666 - thawing the permafrost is very bad because it results in an additional increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide."

Specifically, because huge amounts of greenhouse gases are trapped under that permafrost. If (when) the permafrost thaws, all of those gases will be released pretty quickly, increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere much faster than we're already doing.

By the way, WrongfulDeath, your ignorant cries of "Marxist" aside, you're right that it's not fair to blame Republicans alone -- many of us blame spineless and/or corrupt Democrats as well.

Posted by: Janine1 | November 5, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Exactly how is the progressive agenda as demonstrated by this radical administration and the radicals it has surrounded themselves with *not* Marxist?

Maybe Maoists might be more accurate? I dunno...I'll have to ask Anita Dunn. She stated that she turns to Mao's philosophy daily.

She'd know whether it's Marxist or Maoist. Either way, it's radiacal collectivism and it ain't very American.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | November 5, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Please. The Obama agenda is, at most, center-left. Even the liberal wing of elected Democrats (which does not, in fact, include Obama) would be considered centrist in many European countries that are, themselves, still pretty far removed from ACTUAL Marxism.

Once you start shrieking about Marxism and Maoism (let alone Stalinism, fascism, Nazism, etc.), you are so far off in Hyperboleland that there's really no point in trying to reason with you.

Posted by: Janine1 | November 5, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Nevertheless, here are some specifics to try to wrap your head around. Some key Obama initiatives, such as the Senate health care reform bill and cap-and-trade, were, just within the last 15 years or so, the _Republican_ positions. Now they are radical, Marxist, anti-American leftist plots. Go figure.

Posted by: Janine1 | November 5, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

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