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Richard Lugar's alternative climate bill

obamapunchinglugar.jpg

One of the conceptual difficulties with trying to evaluate various energy bills is that the problem of climate change is qualitatively different than other problems. Usually, whether a bill makes a problem better is the primary question underlying whether senators should vote to pass it. But with climate change, if we don't stabilize carbon emissions, it's game over. So it's hard to know what to say about a bill that would move us forward on clean energy while still not doing nearly enough.

That's the case with Sen. Richard Lugar's proposal. Think of it as picking the low-hanging fruit on reining in carbon emissions. As David Roberts says, the bill "is admirable for its simplicity and the clarity of its goals: capturing energy efficiency, diversifying and cleaning up the electricity sector, and reducing foreign oil dependence." It doesn't price carbon, and coal -- remember that Lugar is from Indiana -- doesn't come in for the scrutiny it deserves. Instead, there's a "voluntary retirement program for the nation’s most-polluting coal plants."

The upside of this bill is obvious: We start the process of reducing our carbon emissions. Things like efficiency improvements and clean-energy incentives can be done now, and a price on carbon will simply have to wait until there's more public support for it. The downside is also obvious: Congress gets to pretend that it "did" climate change, when it hasn't, in fact, done nearly enough. Right now, I'm leaning toward support, though I'm open to arguments from both sides. More information on the legislation here.

Photo credit: Jason Reed/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  June 8, 2010; 11:16 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Comments

I really like seeing Lugar's name on the bill. I knew he and Obama were closer than most party opponents when the President was in the Senate. I've been wondering for the last year and a half when Lugar was going to step forward with a key vote or a signature piece of legislation to validate their past relationship. This looks like it.

I imagine the White House will put its weight behind this measure, and leave it to the amendment process to improve upon it.

Posted by: Rick00 | June 8, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

--"[I]f we don't stabilize carbon emissions, it's game over."--

Ooo, the sky is falling. Klein said so.

Barely a week after he flew around the world on the wings of a carbon spewing jet airliner so he could blog about eating shark fin soup.

Yeah. If we don't cut carbon emissions, soon, Klein will be forced to fly again to eat more parts hacked from animals.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Dear Ezra,

It seems to me that the Lugar bill would have a decent chance at passing in any subsequent year, including under GOP control of Congress. 2010 might be the only year (for the foreseeable future) in which we have a chance at something big and comprehensive -- something that actually puts us on a sustainable and accelerating path towards decarbonization.

Put another way: the planet can afford to wait another year for something that will barely help; it cannot afford to miss any chance at something that may help a great deal.

Now's the time to go BIG, not small!

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I'll say it again: we need to stop pretending that passing ANY climate bill in Congress can substantively reduce global warming. It can't. Even if you passed Waxman-Markey as-is today (a much stronger bill than Kerry-Lieberman or anything Lugar is talking about), it would reduce global temperatures by 0.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century under the absolute BEST of circumstances.

That isn't to say we should do nothing and watch Indonesia drown, but let's stop with the ruse that the U.S. can do anything close to enough to turn back the rising tide.

Posted by: MDA123 | June 8, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

If the dubious premise that "if we don't stabilize carbon emissions, it's game over" is rejected, the argument changes. For the sake of argument, assume that climate science is a fraud and that antropogenic carbon emissions have an insignificant effect on global climate: what course should legislation take given such an assumption?

I'm not (at the moment) attempting to underscore the invalidity of climate alarmists; rather, I'm suggesting that a practical argument might be more successful. Consider a parallel case -- what if extremely effective legislation had been passed in response to race-mixing science? Ultimately, the fact that legislation was ineffective in implementing the suggestions of "scientists" capped loss of life at just over 12 million... more effective legislation could have needlessly killed millions more. And virtually everyone was agreed that race-mixing would cause the end of life throughout the planet.

If you might be wrong, it's wise to be less than perfectly effective. Every human might be wrong.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 8, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Given the huge odds against getting Kerry-Lieberman attached as an amendment, isn't this the time to start SERIOUSLY pushing Cantwell-Collins? It's short, simple, and has the potential to be even more appealing in light of the oil spill, with a direct tax on the oil companies being rebated to consumers...

Posted by: scharch | June 8, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

That all sounds more like goals, not an actual plan.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 8, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

It's just more string pushing. At their heart, clean energy subsidies encourage people to use more energy. Fuel standards encourage people to drive farther. Our problems are that (A) gas is too cheap and (B) electricity is too cheap. If those two 'problems' were resolved, everything in his bill would happen on its own, without the need for legislation/bureaucracy. But anything else, long as it leaves prices low, is just going to result in me finding new ways to be wasteful.

Whether it be leaving my plasma on pretty much all day or running the central cooling with my windows open, if kWhs are cheap I'm going to blow through a heck of a lot of them.

Posted by: eggnogfool | June 8, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

It's just more string pushing. At their heart, clean energy subsidies encourage people to use more energy. Fuel standards encourage people to drive farther. Our problems are that (A) gas is too cheap and (B) electricity is too cheap. If those two 'problems' were resolved, everything in his bill would happen on its own, without the need for legislation/bureaucracy. But anything else, long as it leaves prices low, is just going to result in me finding new ways to be wasteful.

Whether it be leaving my plasma on pretty much all day or running the central cooling with my windows open, if kWhs are cheap I'm going to blow through a heck of a lot of them.

Posted by: eggnogfool | June 8, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"Barely a week after he flew around the world on the wings of a carbon spewing jet airliner so he could blog about eating shark fin soup."

Yeah, and that's EXACTLY why we need to attach a price tag to carbon. Then the price of the carbon that the jet spews is right there in the ticket price, and then an editor might be a lot less willing to spring for Ezra's (and Matt's) plane tix.

Otherwise, if we want to live green, we've got to go around with little carbon calculators, trying to figure out how much carbon was generated to produce that half-gallon of milk, or will be spewed out by flying to Cleveland.

Posted by: rt42 | June 8, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

"If the dubious premise that "if we don't stabilize carbon emissions, it's game over" is rejected, the argument changes. For the sake of argument, assume that climate science is a fraud and that antropogenic carbon emissions have an insignificant effect on global climate: what course should legislation take given such an assumption?"

There would still be a million reasons to try to limit petroleum dependence, centered in (A) economic security (B) national security (C) long-term planning (as reserves deplete, and we want our economy and technology to be competitive in the 21st century).

We have tons of coal, but you don't have to be climate change believer to see the environmental devastation mass coal removal does to land, and the disposal issues with the chemical residues.

Now, if we reject "spherical earth science" for fraud, the natural response...

Posted by: eggnogfool | June 8, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

And I'm gonna go all-out AGAINST any 'energy' or 'climate' bill that doesn't put a price on carbon.

If carbon pricing is in there, and it's done badly, then maybe it can be adjusted in a few years. But it's easier to adjust something after it exists, after the principle is established. But if it's not in there at all, then it won't be in there at all for another three years, at a minimum.

But all this other stuff would probably pass next year anyway. And it's also the sweetener you use to get a price on carbon into the bill; once you let them have the spoonful of sugar without the medicine, there's nothing to help the medicine go down anymore.

And enjoy the earworm. My work here is done. ;-)

Posted by: rt42 | June 8, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

--"[T]hat's EXACTLY why we need to attach a price tag to carbon."--

How about we just apply a hyprocrite tax to gibbering types like Klein. I mean, if he can't control himself for the greater good, someone is going to have to do it for him, right?

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

--"There would still be a million reasons to try to limit petroleum dependence"--

The world runs on oil. Penalizing people for their use of oil will inhibit the search for the solutions that will one day render oil less necessary. Creating artificial shortages of the stuff is counterproductive, and short sighted.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I don't know how to apply it in practice here on the policy front, but the climate situation has me thinking about the quote from Churchill, "It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required."

msoja, I fully agree that it's a bad idea to just halt use of fossil fuels. But when you talk about "artificially shortages" I think you're thinking too narrowly about the situation. The apparent shortage of fossil fuels has to be measured up against the actual shortage in the atmosphere's ability to absorb greenhouse gases without harmful effects. Creating an artificial shortage of fossil fuels is not the goal--it is one of the tools by which we address the problem of a real, existing, and dangerous shortage of climate stability.

Posted by: JonathanTE | June 8, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

--"the problem of a real, existing, and dangerous shortage of climate stability."--

Once again, it's so "real, existing, and dangerous" that Klein had to fly half way around the world and back to get some shark fin soup. If *he* doesn't believe it's so "real, existing, and dangerous", as demonstrated by his actions rather than his bloviations, then why should anyone believe his, or your, bloviations?

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Physics and Chemistry dictates that if we don't get atmospheric CO2 levels to below 350ppm, ocean pH, glacier melting, atmospheric warming will profoundly alter the planet. We are above that now. Dicking around with efficient light bulbs ain't going to do it.

Where's the leadership?

Posted by: thebobbob | June 8, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Physics and Chemistry dictates that if we don't get atmospheric CO2 levels to below 350ppm, ocean pH, glacier melting, atmospheric warming will profoundly alter the planet. We are above that now. Dicking around with efficient light bulbs ain't going to do it.

Physics and Chemistry don't negotiate. Where's the leadership?

Posted by: thebobbob | June 8, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

--"Where's the leadership?"--

The idea behind self-governance, you know, that thing the founding fathers went on and on about, is that *you* are "the leadership". Comprende?

And that's exactly what's wrong with commies like Klein. They spew on and on about the danger of carbon emissions, and then at the drop of a hat they're off around the world on a big old jet plane. He can't walk the walk, unless the government has its boot on the neck of all his fellow citizens, forcing them to walk his walk (after which, he'll still trade on his status as a Washington Post blogger for all the bennies that the little people won't be able to avail themselves of.)

If you believe that global warming is about to destroy us all, then start acting like it. That would be leadership. Volunteering to be someone's slave is something else.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Conservatives should support this bill. It effectively takes energy off of the political table for a while and also almost eliminates any near term chances for what would be an economy depressing carbon tax.

This sounds like a pretty good bill for Republicans. They should take it.

Posted by: lancediverson | June 8, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Dear msoja,

You wrote: "Creating artificial shortages of the stuff is counterproductive, and short sighted."

Okay, how about creating artificial surpluses of the stuff through massive government subsidies of fossil fuels (~$550 bn per year in the developing world alone, according to IEA)? Counterproductive maybe? Short sighted, even?

Or, if you're okay with artificial surpluses but not artificial shortages, would you support redirecting all fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energies?

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

scharch wrote:
"Given the huge odds against getting Kerry-Lieberman attached as an amendment, isn't this the time to start SERIOUSLY pushing Cantwell-Collins? It's short, simple, and has the potential to be even more appealing in light of the oil spill, with a direct tax on the oil companies being rebated to consumers..."

My thoughts exactly. It's simple and, once easily explained, should enjoy broad popular support. From the start, it seemed to have the rare quality of being both good policy and politically appealing. Why has it been buried? I seriously don't understand.

Posted by: madjoy | June 8, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

--"[I]f you're okay with artificial surpluses but not artificial shortages, would you support redirecting all fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energies?"--

Stop the subsidies, period.

I'll note that a number of your alleged "subsidies" are in the form of tax breaks, ie. exemptions for existing onerous taxes. Rather than ending those "subsidies" (I put the word in quotes because it seems ludicrous to call "being allowed to keep your own money" a subsidy) I'd extend the tax breaks to everyone.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Dear msoja,

I think we might be getting somewhere, though your distinction between tax breaks and subsidies is a bit confusing.

It seems you are for creating a level playing field between the various forms of energy, i.e., allowing the market to set prices without evil govt. distortion yada yada...

Let's suppose that the subsidies go away, i.e., the government ceases its direct financing of our energy industry. Surely, however, even the most ardent libertarian would suggest that the government can play a helpful role in building (or at least directing the construction of) our transportation infrastructure. Assuming you agree, what should be the government's priorities in that context? Should it continue to act as though oil will be cheap and accessible forever, i.e., maintaining our existing, gas-powered-auto-friendly system of roads and highways? Or should government be forward-looking, and perhaps encourage the development of new infrastructure more suitable to a mostly electric or electric-hybrid fleet?

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Again, Ezra and everyone else are looking at energy legislation through the prism of climate change.

Climate change is not the issue here, dude.

The fact that the US Military is predicting oil shortages by 2015 is the issue. Worldwide oil production is about to drop off a cliff. http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/04/16/1583194/us-military-warns-of-serious-oil.html

Please think long and hard about the effects this has on our society. And please stop talking about this legislation as if climate change even matters. Its like being worried about a rain shower when a hurricane is on the horizon. Will the media wake up in time or will this be a repeat of the Iraq War and the Financial Crisis, as our 'responsible' liberal pundits toe the line until its too late?

Posted by: nathanlindquist | June 8, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

"And that's exactly what's wrong with commies like Klein. They spew on and on about the danger of carbon emissions, and then at the drop of a hat they're off around the world on a big old jet plane. He can't walk the walk, unless the government has its boot on the neck of all his fellow citizens, forcing them to walk his walk (after which, he'll still trade on his status as a Washington Post blogger for all the bennies that the little people won't be able to avail themselves of.)
If you believe that global warming is about to destroy us all, then start acting like it. That would be leadership. Volunteering to be someone's slave is something else."

Counterproductive. Makes as much sense as saying "Anyone who thinks a nuclear Iran constitutes a security threat to America should buy a gun and a plane ticket and put their money where their mouth is." In practice, there are many issues where we need to act as a country or not at all. Plans whereby people with principles/love of country/what have you are preferentially impoverished/killed relative to those unprincipaled/etc. are a net bad.

Posted by: eggnogfool | June 8, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

--"our transportation infrastructure"--

There's no magic to roads and bridges.

Privatize 'em. It's been done, even in the U.S.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

--"In practice, there are many issues where we need to act as a country or not at all."--

Sorry, but when the feds get their noses up far enough that they start worrying about everyone's salt intake, I and others are going to start questioning your premise.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Dear msoja,

I think we're drifting apart now. My question was about the role that government has to play in coordinating the development of infrastructure, whether or not specific roads and bridges have been privatized.

Do you have anything to say about what priorities the government should have in playing this role? Should it look forward to new, more efficient technology or simply look to maintain the status quo?

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

--"Do you have anything to say about what priorities the government should have in playing this role? Should it look forward to new, more efficient technology or simply look to maintain the status quo?"--

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that private enterprise was the overwhelming driver of "technology". The government should get out of the way, and let free people act in their own interests. That's how we got most of the stuff that we're surrounded with. Isn't it? Why are you under the impression that government needs to be directing anything? Don't you know what the concepts of liberty and freedom are about? Self governance? Hello...?

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

You know, what ISOK is inferring is just ridiculous.

Do we really need some bureaubot shunting stolen dollars toward his preferred researcher in battery dynamics? Or is it a ridiculous proposition from the start?

Aren't there all kinds of people in the private sector who would just love to be the next gazillionaire for developing the technology to take us through the century? Of course there are. Can anyone guess who that singular person might be? Of course not. And the governement shouldn't be allowed to play craps over it with other people's money.

And neither should the government be in the business of taxing people to impel them in intended directions, for it has no way of knowing that it isn't impoverishing the very people who would invent the new battery, or the new synthetic oil, etc.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Dear msoja,

Sure, absolutely it's the case that the private sector has been the driver of technological innovation (though, given the context, it's worth noting that without government-led technology this conversation would be happening over the course of months rather than minutes). I don't see how anything I've written contradicts that point.

The government doesn’t “need to” do anything. I’m asking you to imagine your ideal role for government in the context of: 1) privatized roads, highways and bridges, and 2) the existence of the federal government. It appears you are saying that government has absolutely no role to play in our transportation policy, which is to say that a transportation policy is deemed unnecessary. Fine. But please go on!

To bring up a specific example: under your 100% privatization model, who makes decisions on how to share the costs of money-losing roads, i.e., those going to impoverished and / or sparsely populated areas? Will profit-maximizing firms have any reason to have this conversation with each other?

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

--"[I]t's worth noting that without government-led technology this conversation would be happening over the course of months rather than minutes"--

Nonsense. Positing the removal of one actor from a scenario does not mean that the scenario never would have, or could have, played out. Without government involvement, the Internet might certainly be different than it is, but it doesn't stand to reason that we would still be mailing letters back and forth to each other. The alternative might have been an improvement.

--"Will profit-maximizing firms have any reason to have this conversation with each other?"--

Of course not. Just like you can't get a really inexpensive computer at Wal-Mart, profit-maximizing road building firms won't offer nice little one lane roads to the backwoods. It's either the super-highway or nothing.

Geez.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

@msoja: Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that private enterprise was the overwhelming driver of "technology".

You are wrong. There would be no nuclear power industry, no internet, no modern computing, no spin off technologies from the space program, no basic scientific research, no public universities, no modern aviation (not to mention no NIST, no FDA, no USDA, no FAA, etc.) without government.

The libertarian dream is actually a Hobsian nightmare.

Posted by: srw3 | June 8, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Dear msoja,
 
I agree completely with your last point. By choosing not to intervene in the development of transportation infrastructure, the government is tacitly supporting a development policy that restricts the universe of "livable" communities.
 
But I'm mischaracterizing! Perhaps you would say that because the Market decides this outcome, then the outcome is Good. Or perhaps you would say that the fact that the Market decides makes the process Good and therefore the outcome doesn't matter.

I, on the other hand, would argue that having the government coordinate transportation policy to accomodate remote areas enhances rather than reduces liberty in that it empowers people to choose where they want to live, regardless of whether the IRR on roads in the area exceed their (unsubsidized) cost of capital. By the way, any idea how many US roads qualify for that status? Haha, don't answer that. I'm mostly kidding.

Thanks for the exchange -- it made a slow day at work feel much faster!

Thanks,
ISOK

Posted by: ISOK | June 8, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

--"I, on the other hand, would argue that having the government coordinate transportation policy"--

... is precisely why you have a nation crisscrossed with pavement (littered with the carcasses of a hundred million animals or more a year), laid down in swaths bulldozed out of the green earth, covered over with an unfathomable amount of materials ripped out of the earth in other places, loaded up with tail-pipe spewing cars as far as the eye can see.

That's your government's transportation policy. Your government's transportation policy is very likely the prime driver for your precious alleged global warming.

srw3. Haven't we been over that, and over it? Somewhere around here I have a link to a study of the effectiveness of Government driven hooey. Be right back...

Ah, there it is.

//cite
The negative results for public R&D are surprising and deserve some qualification. Taken at face value they suggest publicly-performed R&D crowds out resources that could be alternatively used by the private sector, including private R&D. There is some evidence of this effect in studies that have looked in detail at the role of different forms of R&D and the interaction between them.
//end cite

Boom. Page 85 of the large PDF at: http://www.oecd.org/dac/ictcd/docs/otherdocs/OtherOECD_eco_growth.pdf They's some good readin' in there.

Posted by: msoja | June 8, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

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