Strange Bedfellows in Climate Politics
Did lefty pundit Alexander Cockburn and corporate behemoth General Motors secretly agree to swap climate positions?
It looks that way. GM, swallowing hard, recently joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the elite enviro-business coalition pushing cap-and-trade -- a so-called "market-based system" for controlling carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, the famously acidic Cockburn lacerated global warming orthodoxy in his column in the Nation magazine, deriding it as a "fearmongers' catechism [of] crackpot theories" ginned up by "grant-guzzling climate careerists" and opportunistic politicians looking to ride the greenhouse "threatosphere" all the way to the White House. (Whew!)
But there's less here than meets the eye. For as the inconvenient details of cap-and-trade schemes start to surface, USCAP is looking less and less like a CO2 control lobby and more like a corporate club seeking to cash in on the rising clamor against free carbon spewing. And Cockburn, it turns out, has been raining on the climate crisis parade for years.
Let's dispense with Cockburn first. His Nation column is infested with nakedly inverted syllogisms, such as: Al Gore is alarmed by global warming, but Al Gore backed nuclear power as a congressman, ergo alarm over global warming is a ruse to push nukes. Or, The New York Times is alarmed by global warming, but The New York Times whitewashed the Bush Administration's Iraq WMD lies, ergo alarm over global warming is a lie.
But Gore and the Times are easy targets. The heavyweight in the room is the international climate-science community. To take them down, Cockburn disingenuously recycled a charge by Science magazine's global warming reporter, Richard Kerr, that "climate modelers have been 'cheating' for so long it's almost become respectable." It's yet more illogic: Climate modelers cheat, which makes climate models part and parcel of the "reflexive squawk of the greenhouse fearmongers," which makes global warming a hoax.
Worse, in the time scale of climate modeling, that "cheating" remark Cockburn lifted is positively ancient. It's the lead from a May 16, 1997 Science article by Kerr heralding the first climate model to replicate actual climate records without fudge factors, developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And much as the first four-minute mile back in the 1950s unleashed a torrent of sub-four-minute miles, NCAR's breakthrough triggered a tidal wave of modeling progress that has largely done away with the fudge factors, along with the yawning error bars that surrounded the old forecasts. Twenty-three different models, all unfudged, support the terrifying new finding from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the current trajectory toward doubled CO2 levels will raise the mean global temperature above the pre-industrial level by six-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit, give or take a mere degree.
No doubt Cockburn would deride this forecast as "hysteria" propounded by IPCC "functionaries and grant farmers." But perhaps it's time for Alex to take playwright Harold Pinter's advice to Bush to "look in the mirror chum." After all, this is the same Cockburn who, in a nutty 2005 paean to his "aging fleet of 50s and 60s era Chryslers" provocatively titled "The Virtues of Gas Guzzling," proclaimed: "I don't believe in any effective role of man-made CO2 in global warming, a natural cyclical trend." Cockburn then dug his hole deeper, writing that oil itself "doesn't come from dead dinosaurs and kindred organic matter [but] is a renewable, primordial soup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures." Earth to Alex: where does contrarianism end and madness begin?
But if Cockburn pretty much begs to be dismissed, the boys at the U.S. Climate Action Partnership are sober as pinstripes. From Shell to DuPont, from GE and now GM to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, the 27-member USCAP is mustering a high-octane campaign (some would call it a stampede) to re-fashion the holy grail of climate protection -- attaching a stiff price to carbon pollution -- as an emissions-trading poker table with a billion-dollar minimum. Thanks in large part to USCAP, a half-dozen carbon cap-and-trade bills are circulating in Congress, and the A-list of Washington carbon-trading acolytes includes House Speaker Pelosi and Senators (and presidential contenders) McCain, Obama, and Clinton.
Yet cap-and-trade seems a curiously unpromising way to put a price on carbon. Making fossil fuels cost more portends a radical overhaul of the American way of life: people will drive and fly less, industries will rise and fall, cities will redevelop and suburbs will stop sprawling. To make that transition requires a pricing mechanism that's simple, transparent, and equitable. A straightforward, ecumenical carbon tax meets that standard; devilishly complex cap-and-trade does not. The old Hollywood maxim that a story line can't exceed 25 words should disqualify cap-and-trade systems from the get-go. And as Americans get wind of the legions of legal and financial functionaries swarming around carbon trading, they'll likely feel disillusioned if not hoodwinked -- and ripe for a reversion to unfettered carbon-burning.
There's no mystery to General Electric's and General Motors' embrace of cap-and-trade. Daily, the climate handwriting on the wall grows clearer, and corporate America knows it's only a matter of time before it is made to pay for using -- and making products that require consumers to use -- climate-altering fossil fuels. And unlike a carbon tax, which would resist gaming and could be started quickly, a cap-and-trade system would take years to formulate as powerful interests carved up the revenue pie.
Moreover, that revenue pie -- a concomitant of "putting a price on carbon" -- will eventually total hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Yes, the carbon price has to be high to internalize the costs of climate damage and for renewable solar and wind power and energy efficiency to be in position to displace and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels. Under a carbon tax, those revenues would be known in advance and could be dedicated to public purposes such as progressive tax-shifting and transition support for affected communities. In contrast, the costs of cap-and-trade systems are likely to become a hidden (and regressive) tax as dollars flow to market participants.
The more interesting question is why some big environmental groups are pushing carbon cap-and-trade. One reason is precedent: Environmental Defense conceived emissions trading in the 1980s and spent years convincing utilities and Congress to make it the vehicle for cutting acid rain pollutants (though in truth that "market" bears as much resemblance to a carbon market as did a French mud hut to the Palace of Versailles). In addition, at the time the green groups were laying the groundwork for USCAP -- before Gore's movie and before the Republicans lost their hold on Congress -- the more politically dicey carbon tax alternative may have appeared out of reach. Settling for cap-and-trade may have seemed more sensible than vying for a carbon tax and coming away empty-handed.
Of course, there's nothing to stop the "green" members of USCAP from pointing to the new facts on the ground and throwing in with the smaller but fast-growing carbon tax forces. No one should hold their breath, however. NRDC, ED, and their partners have invested too much institutional capital in building bridges to big business.
Dig deeper, moreover, and a harder truth emerges. NRDC and ED have gotten very skilled -- and grown very prosperous -- at cutting deals. What began benignly 20 years ago, with the groups persuading utility regulators to fund innovative energy-efficiency programs, appears to have mushroomed into a perceived entitlement to speak for environmentally concerned citizens, meaning most of us, while being accountable only to their own trustees.
This top-down style, in which "the ways that work," to borrow ED's slogan, are formulated in private and presented to the community as a fait accompli, won't do with something as momentous as putting a price on U.S. carbon emissions. The stakes are too high in both dollars and lives for the environmental position to be decided by a handful of green groups, no matter how accomplished or well-meaning. The path to carbon pricing must be debated and ratified in the open, not negotiated in certified-green offices.
Cockburn knows this. Hell, it was Counterpunch's reporting on those backroom utility deregulation deals in the 1990s that helped alert advocates like me to Big Enviro's aversion to the democratic process. C'mon Alex, dump the '59 Imperial and the climate crisis conspiracy theorizing. You needn't enlist with the Carbon Tax Center, but the members-only push for cap-and-trade is a worthy target. Load up and let 'er rip.
Charles Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist, co-founded the Carbon Tax Center earlier this year.
© 2007 The Gristmill.org