21 October 2009

Greenpeace: Optimists, Apologists, Opposition and Principled Action

Greenpeace has a new report out -- called Business as Usual (PDF) -- critical of the House and Senate approaches to climate policy now working their way through the Congress. I don't agree with everything in the report, but one point I strongly agree with is its highlighting of the prominent role given to coal:
There is probably no better indication of the persistence of business as usual than the fact that both the House and Senate climate legislation prioritize support for the primary industrial source of greenhouse gas. That’s right, the largest federal investment is to subsidize coal.

It was expected that climate legislation would support coal energy to make a transition to a future where its primacy as the source of electric power diminishes. But no one was prepared to see the enormous level of federal support in the bill aimed at an industry that employs fewer Americans than wind energy alone. It is beyond reason and integrity. It has led many to wonder whether the House bill might be more aptly named the American Coal Energy and Security Act, for embedded within it are generous subsidies and boondoggles that favor coal above all other energy sources.
Their discussion of offsets is both entertaining and on target:
It is as if a man with heart trouble and diabetes who weighs 360 pounds is encouraged by his doctor to pay someone else to go on a diet for him.

To be fair, the economic thinking behind offsets has a narrow theoretical validity. Since the atmosphere is one entity, it really does not matter precisely where or how CO2 emissions get reduced. So the rational thing to do is scour the planet for the cheapest opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions, or their equivalent. One problem with this approach is a moral one—it skirts complex issues of social justice—because it enables the wealthy nations to pay the poor ones to go on a carbon diet for them. It allows polluters to continue polluting by buying indulgences that clean the conscience more than the environment.

Another problem is that this approach avoids the practical reality that it has not been possible to generate real offsets in any meaningful quantity. The academic analyses of Michael Wara and the recent arrests in Europe over massive fraud in carbon trading provide ample concrete evidence for us to relinquish belief in workability of the offsetting theory.

The fact is that the allure of immense profits has mostly produced massive instances of cheating in the offset market, with the environment left to suffer the consequence. We are on the brink of witnessing the creation of another sub-prime bubble, a global trade in ostensibly halted CO2 emissions that in reality are in the atmosphere.

The fat patient will stay fat; the other man paid to go on a diet will do no such thing; and the doctor will walk away satisfied. It is a healthcare system for the environment that will be in need of reform the day it is created.

This is why the California legislature voted to strictly limit the use of offsets in the cap-and-trade program it is developing to regulate emissions of the state economy. The California economy by itself is the eighth largest in the world. By forcing polluters to take action in-state, legislators are keeping new green jobs at home and bringing associated health benefits of cleaner air to their own constituents.

It is unfortunate that the federal and international discussion of offsets is usually a jargon-laden affair, with experts talking about how to guard against “leakage” and assure “additionality.” These are euphemisms for the question—how do we make sure no one cheats. The jargon has assured that the general public has little access to the discussion. If it was conducted in plain English, we’d understand that the offsetting conversation is really about how to design a loophole to allow polluters to keep polluting—to continue with business as usual. Everyone already knows—wink, wink—that the cheating will continue because there is no practical way to stop it.

The number of offsets pending legislation authorized on an annual basis is truly astonishing: Two billion tons worth. That is equivalent to one quarter of annual US emissions—or the first 75 pounds of flesh our fat man would shed on a diet. That’s why many analyses conducted by both the EPA and EIA have shown that the offset provisions will mean that the US will not have to start reducing its own industrial emissions for almost another two decades. If that is not business as usual, nothing is.

When the number of allowable offsets was first revealed, in the climate community it had the impact of a punch below the belt, and it left everyone temporarily down for the count and sucking air. Some of us have yet to recover. Some have picked themselves up off the canvas and brushed off the low blow. Others have found ways to rationalize the offsets as necessary, even playing the role of apologist for bad policy.
Apologist for bad policy? I wonder who they might be thinking of? Greenpeace pulls no punches in its conclusion:
Optimists, Apologists, Opposition and Principled Action

After more than 20 years of effort and attention to the issue, America has never been closer to enacting climate legislation. The tantalizing prospect of having a climate law on the books has created a dangerous willingness to accommodate unacceptable compromise.

The legislative momentum of 2009 has prodded industry to spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbyists, hired to secure handouts and craft loopholes. Together with longstanding opponents of progressive climate and energy legislation, they have driven lawmakers to make such steep concessions in order to secure votes that pending legislation has become merely an extension of business as usual.

The optimists seem to believe that a price signal, no matter how weak or undermined by handouts and loopholes, will provide the impetus to help us get started to turn the corner on climate change. They point to the Clean Air Act and Social Security as federal measures that started out weak and grew effective over time.

It is attractive historical analogy that is in the end ultimately unpersuasive. Those national laws did not have embedded within them a simultaneous and greater strengthening of the very thing in need of correction. The Clean Air Act, for example, did not send hundreds of billions of dollars in handouts and loopholes to the very polluters it was trying to regulate. The pending legislation does.

Optimists argue, too, that we will likely never have a constellation of elected and appointed leaders in Congress, in the White House and in the federal agencies as sympathetic to climate action as we do now, so, despite its apparent flaws, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is the best we’re going to get.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, they say.

That is a good argument used to poor purpose. Rather, let us stand firm not to adopt legislation that locks in a permanent and endless fossil fuel future, let us insist that this constellation of great leaders be the enemy of impending catastrophe.

There are apologists who go a step further than the optimists. They argue suddenly that it doesn’t matter if you allocate carbon credits for free, rather than auction them; or that offsets might not be bad thing after all; or that the big bet we’re placing on technology to capture and bury carbon emissions will actually bring about the demise of coal as an energy source.

There is all manner of spinning—well-intentioned, disingenuous, self-serving—among supporters of climate action, and it has become almost impossible to separate political calculation from scientific necessity. There is even a belief that the Senate will improve the legislation and correct its fatal flaws in the months ahead. We are under no such illusions.

The Senate bill, now in play largely mimics the House bill, with lawmakers in the Senate poised to make a fresh round of fresh handouts—to the nuclear power industry, the oil industry and agribusiness interests.

Despite talk of raising the bar, the reality is that Congress will further weaken the bill before it has concluded its business.

Many supporters of climate action find themselves forced to grasp a flimsy hope—that we just need to get something started—anything—and strengthen it later. And so we witness the cheerleading to which we cannot lend our voice.

Politics as usual will only produce its corollary, business as usual. Corporate special interests are still dictating United States’ global warming policy, slowing the pace of our nation’s ambition at every turn, and creating a dead weight on international cooperation to solve the climate crisis.
We see the only hope of global climate remedy to be active and principled engagement from the Oval Office. The world is waiting.
Ouch. Kudos to Greenpeace for an interesting and well-written report.