Waxman-Markey: The Incredibly, Mind-Numbingly Complex Calculations of “Is it Worth the Trouble?” At Such Scales and Under Such Uncertainty

Breaking News: The notorious Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2998, just passed the House. A good rundown of this monster is here at thinkcarbon.

Now it is on to the Senate to see if this too-weak-to-succeed beast of a federal law will make to it the President’s pen. Here are some thoughts as we all consider the multitude of relevant factors and sources of uncertainty bearing on “environmental legislation” of this kind: federal legislation that aims to attack truly massive problems whose time horizons stretch literally decades and centuries into the future.

First, it is certainly worth noting that anything of this kind made its way through the House’s gauntlet of eight (8!) committees with primary jurisdiction. My hat is off to the management team that pulled this through the House of Representatives at all.

Second, the true test lies ahead, unfortunately. The Senate has yet to pass its own version. A Senate version will then move into a conference of some kind for reconciliation with H.R. 2998 (assuming the House leadership holds the line and the floor vote goes as this discharge vote went today).

What climate disruption has really meant as a public problem is diversity: diversity of effects, diversity of perceptions, diversity of economic positioning should major changes in our fossil fuel economy be made, etc. That the House could assemble anything which makes a meaningful claim to systematic treatment of global climate disruption, and could do so largely in response to growing international pressures, is not to be taken lightly. Senators from states that stand to lose from a behemoth like HR 2998 are trying to block it however they can. Think: traditional fossil fuel states; states with lots of voters on fixed incomes who cannot easily adjust their “consumption curves;” states that elect those of the tinfoil hats.

So what is the threshold at which it is time to call a weak first step not worth taking? The options seem stark: (1) wait for another Katrina or other such obliquely-related mega-tragedy to wake the masses back up into thinking about climate disruption with a little urgency or (2) go ahead with this version in the hopes that incremental ratcheting will get it where it needs to be in a few years without having to go back to the drawing board where disruption risks are highest.

This choice seems to summarize a core dilemma of conservation in the 21st century. Action at the scales needed to attack massive problems has daunting coordination costs and risks born of irresolvable normative disagreement, dispersed and/or missing information, and the intangibles that stem from deceit or the possibilities of deceit as more and more trust is needed to make something work.

This week’s deal for “offsets” to farming is a good example. The bill now includes whopper subsidies to Ag for any kind of C-footprint reductions at all, even if they come from superior practices like no-till farming, even if they come from adopting such practices years ago. And that's before we strike up another eye-glazing tour of the arithmetic and modeling exploring ethanol as a greenhouse gas reduction technology. Tom Vilsack has taken casuistry to a high art form on that for months now.

Indeed, the bill takes the calculation and administration of Ag offsets away from environmental enforcers and gives it to Ag’s patron bureaucracy, USDA, presumably because only USDA has the expertise needed to keep Agribusiness, Inc., adequately subsidized. Ironically enough, of course, Ag stands to lose the most from ineffective action on climate disruption (perhaps second only to the skiing industry), as this perceptive column by Steven Perlstein pointed out this morning.

But this is just one rehearsal of the whole public dialogue on climate disruption and what has now become known simply as “Waxman-Markey.” Truth is I can hardly tell, myself, whether this step is worth taking. I guess I’m waiting to see if the legislative process can actually yield a better answer to that question from its “many minds” than I can come up with on my own.

All people seem to talk about on this dilemma any more is what it will “cost” — like we have any idea what these costs are relative to a “business-as-usual” future. BAU futures, I hate to belabor, are going to be really and truly costly. As HR 2454 was wending its way through the House committees, the “per household” price tag it was given made a bit of a splash. The CBO estimated that the bill would cost an average household $175 a year; the EPA put it at under $110 a year. What does this really mean, though?

How manipulable people are when such cost figures appear. Might that have been different had we started educating people about cost-benefit analysis sooner? The real protection against self-dealing, myopic politicians is, after all, a populace that doesn’t stand for myopia or self-dealing—and knows it when they see it. "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" was a pretty effective slogan some years ago. The way the future is shaping up, maybe that slogan ought to be refurbished and used to jolt people to think about a future without snowpack in the West (i.e., drinking water for 70 million people), plankton in the ocean (i.e., a food chain that yields protein for a third of the planet), or 70% of our current species on Earth.

Posted by Jamie Colburn