A Tragic Tale of “Hide the Price”

10/5/2010 by James Handley

This week’s New Yorker (Oct 11) features an excruciatingly twisted tale. “As the World Burns, How the Senate and the White House missed their best chance to deal with climate change” reports how Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman took deal-cutting to new heights — or depths — to put across their carbon cap-and-trade-with-offsets bill. In pursuit of their holy grail — a cap to reduce U.S. CO2 emissions 17% by 2020 (but just 8% below last year’s level; and their cap would have relied heavily on unverifiable international and domestic offsets) — the “Three Amigos” offered deals to anyone who’d listen, including expanded offshore drilling (whose hazards inconveniently re-surfaced just weeks later in the BP disaster); more subsidies for nukes; de-regulation of toxic pollutants including heavy metals like mercury; special arrangements for the gas, coal and oil industries; and free “allowances” to help utilities buy their way out of the cap.

The fascinating and heartbreaking narrative can be read as an indictment of the Senate and the power of the fossil fuel industries. The scene of Sen. Kerry seeking a deal with natural gas baron T. Boone Pickens — who in 2004 “swiftboated” Kerry out of a possible presidential victory — is particularly pathetic. But there’s an ironic nugget missing from the story.

In February, at a meeting with Sen. Kerry, climate scientist Dr. James Hansen urged the Massachusetts Democrat to quit “hiding the CO2 price” under cap-trade-offset “gimmicks.” Instead, Hansen insisted, Kerry should propose a direct fee on CO2 pollution, assuring fairness and popular support by returning revenue via equal monthly “green checks” to every citizen. Kerry insisted, “I know what can pass the Senate.” As the New Yorker article’s title suggests, the Senator knew no such thing … and the result was tragic.

The tale of climate legislation isn’t over, though; people do learn from experience. Can we move beyond the mirages of cap-trade-offset to a transparent “carbon fee and green check” or “carbon fee with payroll tax cut”? With atmospheric CO2 at 388 ppm and rising, there’s no time to lose.


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