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What the Primary Elections Mean for the Environment September 16, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Congress, Election, Politics.
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Check out my first post at Change.org on what the primary elections mean for the environment:

Despite a Democratic supermajority and a successful bill in the House of Representatives, this summer witnessed another climate failure in the Senate. Unfortunately, the situation is not improving. In our warming world, the term “glacial pace” is now a completely appropriate description for climate policy progress: Decades of frustratingly slow advance are now reversing into a rapid retreat.

Mike Castle is not the first moderate conservative to fall to an extremist challenger sure to be a solid ‘no’ for environmental protection. Last month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) lost her primary to another climate-denying Tea Partier, Joe Miller.  It is sadly telling that even lame duck Murkowski—who is already back in Washington trying to gut EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions—is being mourned in some pragmatic environmental circles. Her bid to block EPA essentially involves replacing uncontroversial climate science with partisan political science—and she lost her primary for being too moderate?

As of now, I’ll be posting at Change.org on a weekly basis.

The Political Climate is now on Twitter!  Follow @PoliticalClimat for updates as well as daily tweets linking to important and under-reported environmental news.

A Eulogy for Cap-and-Trade July 1, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Coal, Congress, Politics.
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Although it appears that immigration is cutting in front of energy on the legislative agenda, earlier this week, President Obama told Congress that he wants an energy bill that puts a price on carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by the end of this year.

Cap-and-trade is the best way to accomplish this goal.  That is why the House passed the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act over a year ago.  Yet pundits have long ruled this elegant policy tool dead.

At this point, it seems that only a sea change within the Senate could ever bring cap-and-trade back again.  Before it receives its final judgment, it’s worth taking a look back at how this all started, how we got here, why it seemed like a good idea at the time, and why it still is.

Tom Crocker conceived of the cap-and-trade system as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s.  In the 1990s, it was applied with great success to control sulfur dioxide emissions from American coal plants that were producing acid rain.  Our sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade system achieved greater reductions than expected at less than half the projected cost. The Economist dubbed it “probably the greatest green success story of the past decade” in July 2002.

Here in the US, cap-and-trade efficiently reduced sulfur dioxide emissions for a fraction of the projected cost.

The EU implemented a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in 2005 with mixed results.  But it is a rare step in the right direction and a valuable first try from which we can learn many important lessons.  To co-opt a Republican oil spill talking point, one plane’s turbulence shouldn’t preclude air travel.  We can rebuild it.  We have the technology.

A number of key Republican senators have stated that they will never vote on any energy policy that includes cap-and-trade.  This is an unabashed flip-flop for which they have not been held accountable. Many of these senators supported cap-and-trade before they started calling it a “job-killing energy tax.”

Point of clarification for Republicans: carbon dioxide is not energy.  It is a waste product and pollutant being dumped into a vital resource.  Cap-and-trade is no more an “energy tax” than charging people who pumped cow manure into our drinking water would be a “beef tax.”  Also, it creates jobs. Other than that though, “job-killing energy tax” is a perfect characterization.

Recent cap-and-trade “debates” have lacked relevant historical context; in 2003 John McCain cosponsored the first climate cap-and-trade bill, for crying out loud.  The theory remains unchanged, the only new development is these senators’ adherence to Republican lies talking points.  Blatant, partisan flip-flops are well-documented by McCain, Richard Lugar, Lindsay Graham, Scott Brown, and even Lisa Murkowski!

For decades, conservatives railed against “heavy-handed” traditional environmental regulations.  Known as “command and control” regulations, these laws mandate one solution for a given problem, regardless of the circumstances.  For example, if a factory emits too much of a given pollutant, by law it must install a specific type of scrubber to reduce that pollution, even if cheaper alternatives could produce that same emissions reduction.

While appropriate in many situations, economists and conservatives have argued against such regulations because they can be inefficient and impose higher costs than necessary upon businesses.  This is a valid criticism.  It is the reason why economists prefer and advocate for “market-based instruments” (MBIs) – such as cap-and-trade.

Market-based instruments, as their name implies, utilize markets for environmental regulation.  They are preferable to command and control regulations because markets enable us to achieve emission reductions as efficiently (i.e. cheaply) as possible.

Command and control regulations stifle innovation.  They mandate the use of a specific technology, and that is that.  In contrast, MBIs foster and catalyze innovation.  Cap-and-trade presents a great example.

Once we put a price on carbon pollution, it is suddenly within industries’ interest to invest in ways to cheaply reduce their emissions.  Instead of dictatorially deciding what technology to use, we unleash our nation’s intellectual resources upon this challenge.

Under cap-and-trade, cheaper emission-reducing solutions are developed and utilized.  And the benefits don’t just accrue for industry.  Third parties stand to gain from developing these technologies for them, so MBIs incentivize the creation of startups and the expansion of small businesses attempting to reduce carbon output and increase efficiency – and obviously spur renewable energy technologies for our future.

But just how does cap-and-trade put a price on carbon?

If you know how a cap-and-trade system functions, you will want to skip to the last paragraph.  If you’ve heard the phrase everywhere but aren’t really sure exactly what is entailed, I have provided a description here.

The Cap:

Regulators determine how much pollution the country is allowed to emit in a year.  Then they distribute permits for emissions up to that amount (the distribution method is a complicating factor that I will discuss below).  Because a fixed number of permits are issued, this system has the benefit of ensuring emission reductions (as opposed to a carbon tax).  Polluters want to emit a given amount of pollution but there are only so many permits available.  This creates a market for carbon pollution.  That market puts a price on emitting carbon and also provides a long-overdue economic disincentive to pollute.

A carbon tax also puts a price on carbon, providing some but not all of these same benefits.  A carbon tax is an inferior carbon control mechanism.  If you are interested in why this is or dispute this point, I could easily throw together a cap-and-trade vs. carbon tax post.

The Trade:

Suppose, for example, that there are two factories (see the graphic below to visualize this example).  One is ancient and spews pollution (Plant A) – making emission reductions at this factory is very expensive.   The other is brand new and could easily be upgraded to drastically cut its carbon emissions (Plant B).

Under traditional, command and control regulation (left example), it would be very expensive to bring the older factory into regulatory compliance.  Yet under a cap-and-trade system (right example), we could let the newer plant reduce its emissions for both itself and reduce its emissions further on behalf of the older plant.

In this cap-and-trade example, our polluters have permits entitling them to emit a certain amount of pollution.  In this scenario, the newer plant emits even less pollution than it has permits for; it has cleaned up so much that it has permits to spare.   So the older plant could pay the newer plant for offsetting its continued emissions (the newer plant sells its unused emission permits to the older plant).

Because paying the newer plant is cheaper than making further upgrades to the older plant would be, the same emissions reduction under command and control regulation is achieved for a fraction of the price using cap-and-trade.  And the system operates efficiently because we allow the market to determine the price of the permits.

Permit Distribution:

How these pollution permits would be distributed is the biggest source of contention within cap-and-trade proposals.  There are three ways to distribute credits:

1) Auction – companies bid for every one of the permits they think they need.

2) Allocation – the government gives away permits to polluters for free.

3) Grandfathering – permits are allocated based on historical emissions.  This accomplishes nothing because there is no incentive to reduce emissions, but it has been lobbied for heavily by major polluters.

Serious cap-and-trade proposals have included a mix of these distribution options.  From a climate change perspective, a pure auction is the best solution.  It raises the most money to help offset costs to consumers and spur research and development of renewable energy technologies while providing the most incentive to reduce emissions.  But direct allocations are attractive to legislators because it lets them in a sense “buy” the support of different groups that otherwise would not support the bill because they would be more greatly affected.

Some of this allocation falls into the realm of necessary political compromise, but it is also this aspect of previous climate bills that has doomed them in the contorted, propagandized public perception.  That being said, instituting a cap-and-trade system without any initial allocation would impose heavy costs on industry all at once.  I’m not saying they don’t deserve to pay for the free ride they have enjoyed for centuries, but helping them make the transition is not an outlandish idea.

Conclusion:

In any case, this all may be a moot point because cap-and-trade’s prospects in the Senate are beyond dim as long as Republicans stick to those guns they love so much and Democrats do not control a supermajority (and probably still even then).

I wrote this post because as this policy dies at the hand of partisan politics, it needs to be said that this was our best vehicle to address climate change.  Study after study have shown that cap-and-trade bills would tackle our climate pollution while reducing the deficit, creating jobs, and increasing our energy security.

But who wants that?  Not Republicans, apparently.

The Spam We Need February 10, 2009

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Congress, Election.
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For at least the next two years, the impotent Republican minority in the House of Representatives will produce nothing but drama and headlines.  And the theme of this show will be partisanship.  President Obama promised us a new era of bipartisanship, so whenever he supports a Democratic policy, Republicans are crying foul.  Disregarding the fact that liberals got “partisan-ed” pretty hard during Bush II years, let’s examine what bipartisanship really means today.

First, “partisan” does not deserve such a negative connotation; it describes how our legislature functions.  Two parties with widely differing ideologies will obviously support the solutions they believe will work, as they have for centuries.

When Obama won, the phrase ‘mandate for change’ surfaced – the sense that a clear majority of Americans trusted that this Democratic president had a better platform to fix our country.  For Obama to now embrace Republican plans for a stimulus package (mainly tax breaks) would violate the trust of every person who voted for him.  Americans elected Democrats into the White House and clear majorities in the House and the Senate.  This is not a product of random chance.

2008 election results with states scaled by population.  See all the blue?

2008 election results with states scaled by population. See all the blue?

Worthy or not, Republicans successfully cast themselves as the party of “tax breaks.”  And if that is your single, shortsighted priority for our government, it seems clear you should vote Republican.  But in November, America did not.  So last month, when Obama was asked why there weren’t more Republican ideas in his stimulus plan and he replied “I won,” his response was not only delightfully honest but informative.

Bipartisanship means understanding, respecting, and listening to the opposition.  Obama is doing that.  Sometimes it means making compromises too, but not on everything.  I’m no economist, so let’s try this from a civics perspective: in a democratic republic, citizens vote for the people they think will choose what is best for their country.  Because Republican policies and leadership failed us so spectacularly during the last eight years, we voted them out of power.  We already tried pure tax breaks – they didn’t work. And there’s a reason Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  So maybe this time our government should actually govern?

But no, Republicans want to give tax breaks another whirl.  All 188 of them in the House voted against the stimulus bill (which still passed easily).  But they are quite proud of their completely ineffective yet unanimous opposition.  They even view it as a victory because Obama spent time meeting with them.  Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) explained, “if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn’t have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility.”  …Or alternatively, one could interpret that to mean that Republicans are equally unwilling to compromise on their core beliefs and voted with their party.  What’s that called again?  Oh yeah, “partisan.”  Bipartisanship is a two-way street, not the unilateral acquiescence of a ruling majority.

While Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) proposes a $3.1 trillion tax break “stimulus” alternative, his fellow Republicans oppose the current $838 billion plan as wastefully large.  Highlighting minor expenditures (like the efficiency measures I last wrote about), they’ve framed the bill as a giant helping of congressional pork.  But this label doesn’t quite fit.

Legislative “pork” is normally funding for projects that benefit only a small constituency, frequently within a single congressperson’s district.  Most of the “controversial” stimulus expenditures fund broader objectives, such as anti-smoking campaigns.  These seem more like “riders,” unrelated and often contentious provisions attached to a larger, important bill that is likely to pass.  But this comparison doesn’t work either, because these expenditures themselves are the bill.  That would make the stimulus package some kind of conglomeration of self-propelling riders, or maybe “meta-pork,” but that’s a little confusing.

Given the difficulty of classifying this project and our penchant for labeling legislation as meat, I propose that this bill is most like spam: nobody really knows quite what it is, it’s probably a lot of different things mashed together, and whatever it is, it’s going to be around for a while.  It’s not your first choice, but you’d certainly eat it if you were starving.

Looks...yummy, doesn't it?

...yum.

This stimulus spam is not perfect, but our economy is famished.  Barring a government-wide “kumbaya” moment, continued debate will accomplish little.  I concede that some of the proposed expenditures would not provide short-term economic stimulus and perhaps should be removed, but the Democratic agenda has long been stifled and a crisis is indeed a terrible thing to waste.  And it’s worth mentioning that many of the “jobless” investments, like the anti-smoking campaign or computerizing medical records, would surely save money in the long run.

Regardless, the performance of our economy during this administration will be attributed to, or blamed on, Democrats; if we’re shouldering all the risk, we might as well do this our way (if we can get the votes in the Senate).  Claims of partisanship are the crutch of an intellectually bankrupt Republican party that has nothing new to offer.

Last week, Sen. John McCain sent an email to his supporters with an anti-stimulus petition.  He wrote, “With so much at stake, the last thing we need is partisanship driving our attempts to turn the economy around.”  But is partisanship really worse than a prolonged, deeper recession?  I don’t think so.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.

Year of the Youth Vote November 6, 2008

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
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Back in January, Time dubbed 2008 “The Year of the Youth Vote.”  It appears they were correct. Pollsters consider “youth voters” citizens between 18 and 29 years old. CIRCLE (from whom I got all these stats) estimates that youth voter turnout was between 49 and 55 percent (votes are still being counted).  In the three preceding presidential elections, youth voter turnout rose from 37 to 48 percent. In each of those elections, youth votes accounted for just 17 percent of ballots cast (overall turnout also rose).  This year, the National Exit Poll projects our share of votes at 18 percent.  This increase may seem small, but even a minor vote share increase in a year of strong overall turnout is significant.

Students comprise about a quarter of the youth vote. We will have to wait for more detailed statistics, but an examination of votes in counties with major universities suggests that students broke heavily Democratic this year. Youth voters chose Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. John McCain by a whopping 34-point margin (66-32), and many analysts believe that students were pivotal in electing Democrats up and down the ballot.  Obama won the youth vote in 41 states with over 80 percent support in some states.

Obama’s campaign pursued the youth vote much more actively than McCain’s. While I knew this intuitively, I wanted to see if I could quantify this assertion – Yes I Can. There are 23 special “coalition” pages on McCain’s website.  While bikers (leather, not spandex), racing fans, and lawyers were important enough to get their own pages, students were not. Even Lebanese Americans got their own page. Now I have nothing against Lebanese Americans; unlike Senator McCain, I never implied that ‘Arab’ is derogatory word. But the fact that McCain’s website would court a decidedly minor demographic and not students is absurd. If ever there was a demographic to appeal to online…But my quest for quantification continued.

Barack Obama is an Arab.

A domain search on johnmccain.com for the word “students” returns just 317 hits, and some of the first hits aren’t even about us, they clarify Sarah Palin’s position on teaching creationism in schools (she’s for it, but thankfully that doesn’t matter anymore). Conversely, the same search on barackobama.com returns 931,000 hits.

Students for Barack Obama was largely responsible for this disparity. SFBO, the official student wing of the campaign, was almost entirely student-run. It had hundreds of chapters at schools in every state and tapped students to volunteer, canvass, phone-bank, and register voters throughout the nation. Full disclosure: I started working for SFBO nearly a year and a half ago, but my own considerable bias aside, it is quite telling that our group had no counterpart in the McCain campaign.   I was unable to find even a state-level organization. The campaign supported efforts on individual campuses and external groups like College Republicans, but did not create any organization of or for new supporters.  At least none that was ever meant to be found online.

Why? The obvious explanation is that McCain was expending his resources elsewhere because students heavily favored Obama, but that has major implications. Sure, demographics have their trends, but do campaigns regularly leave such a large, important group unchallenged? Young voters are not just a subset of America, we’re a cross-section of it. We come from every part of the nation, every socio-economic situation, and as diverse a racial background as our country has to offer. And you know those future generations that will have to pay for today’s mistakes? That’s us. And our kids. Considering the number of recent mistakes, shouldn’t our perspective matter?

Vote by Age

Young voters won the election for Obama. Graphic from CNN.com, data from the National Exit Poll.

In this election, it did. And what of the future? Regardless of how they vote, many young voters consider themselves independents. That sentiment typically dwindles in higher age brackets. It is conventional electoral wisdom that lifelong party identification forms some time in a voter’s first few elections. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won 55.4 percent of the youth vote, the highest percentage since the voting age dropped to 18. That election had formative, lasting effects on the youth voters who participated; their age cohort still trends more Republican than those immediately younger and older. Although we are not all predestined to become Democrats and could maintain our relative political independence, this certainly doesn’t bode well for the Republican Party.

At least 22 million young people voted in this election. While youth turnout increased, what is extraordinary is how lopsided our support was. Obama tied McCain among voters aged 45-64 and lost among voters 65+. According to CIRCLE Director Peter Levine, who studies the youth vote, we are Obama’s core constituency and he couldn’t have won without us. We won’t be youth voters forever, but our generation has definitively asserted itself on the political stage. Let’s keep it up.

A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.