Legislating At Scale When the Climate's Wrong

Lately I’ve become convinced that scaling up to attack truly massive environmental problems like climate disruption is a kind of trap. To engage such problems in institutions that are big enough (like our Congress), the necessities of making those institutions actually operate inflate your costs and complications to arresting proportions. When you consider just how unimportant "median" voters are today—and how scarce politicians who represent them are in our gerrymandered Congress—the possibilities for "public reason" seem to shrink. Beyond that political calculation, you’ll have an even harder time deciding whether going to all the trouble is worth it given the limitations inherent in law as a social institution, etc. This is perhaps just another way of restating some old political wisdom, but I think it has sobering implications for American citizens who think about confronting vast environmental problems.

Waxman-Markey (WM) is my case in point. (In a comment to my post last week, Mike suggested this is true of many big problems in Congress lately. I’m inclined to agree but have no expertise on the issues he mentioned.) There has been a lot of talk about the path WM took out of the House. It was a less-than "deliberative" process, to be sure. Rumor has it that few members of Congress even saw the text of the bill (all 1,300 pages of it!) before they voted because a huge managers’ amendment (300+ pages worth) reordered the whole thing the evening before. This embarrasses the standard model of "representation," surely—not to mention deliberation in any traditional sense.

Senators will at least have time to read WM and they do represent whole states. But does that even matter? Will any single Senator know enough about the enormous array of issues this beast raises to reach an informed judgment on it as a whole? Are enough states big and diverse enough to smooth out the incentives senators are facing? I’m thinking "no" on each of these, to be completely frank.

WM can be boiled down, of course. In a sense, it is an effort to avoid the unavoidable. To make carbon-based fuel less prevalent, you have to make it a lot more expensive—exactly what politicians don’t want to do, especially in recessionary times. Putting aside all the talk about "clean" energy futures and bending the curve on GHGs, until society puts the true cost of fossil fuel into its pricing, too many of our markets will be malfunctioning.

It may be reason enough to support WM just to keep up some momentum on the problem of global climate disruption. This is probably the White House’s thinking—that and the possibility that this bill can be ratcheted along down the line. But if that is the reason for pushing this bill, keep in mind that our partners around the globe are taking real measurements of this "commitment" — and will have them in mind in Copenhagen in December.

The reporting I’ve seen puts the Senate's "maybes" around 40-45 (w/ ~35 certainly "for" and ~22 certainly "against"). A half-dozen of the confirmed "fence-sitters" are up for re-election in 2010. So it's worth keeping an eye on senators Dorgan, Gregg, Lincoln, McCain, Murkowski, and Specter.

But it's also worth recalling that the Senate is the home of tactics like the "hold." Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) reportedly has a hold on Cass Sunstein’s nomination to lead OIRA, for example, because he thinks Sunstein will use that office to push for animal rights. Now, to be sure, immediate, obviously existential threats generally rule out bogus tactics like Chambliss's no matter the scale. Most environmental problems lack such structure, though, and my sense is that virtually every legislature has better external checks than our Congress. So the only thing I’m left wondering at this point is where is the "Harry and Louise" PR campaign against fossil fuel when you need one?

Posted by Jamie Colburn