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James Boyce and Joe Romm discuss the Obama administration climate change policy or lack thereof

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The COP17 climate change negotiations have come and gone in Durban. Only a few weeks later, Canada announced it was pulling out of the Kyoto accord, and Russia supported Canada’s decision. Japan wasn’t far behind. What was hoped for out of COP17 would be a binding agreement. Well, there wasn’t such, and we look further away from one than we were before. In the United States, policy seems to be paralyzed on the climate-change front, and American media and American politics mostly ignored what was going on in Durban. So why this lack of interest in climate change in the United States, and what policy might be doable and effective? Now joining us to talk about all of this is, first of all, Joe Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress and editor of He was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. And joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, is Professor James Boyce. He’s head of the program on development, peace building, and the environment at the PERI institute at UMass Amherst. Thank you both for joining us.


JAY: James, you kick it off. You’ve in the past critiqued the sort of cap and trade program proposed by the Obama administration, and I’ve asked you before why you think there’s so lack of interest in the American body politic and American media on what’s happening on climate change, and you’ve kind of connected those two issues. So, first of all, what do you make of the Obama administration’s record? And why isn’t this more on the political agenda?

BOYCE: The Obama administration decided to punt in certain respects and let Congress take the lead in drafting the legislation. And when that happened, Congress made some decisions. I think some of the decisions were right, but I think one important decision was a mistake.

JAY: What’s the mistake?

BOYCE: The parts that were right was the recognition, first, that we have to do something to reduce the burning of fossil fuels here in the United States, that that’s a necessary part of the solution and it’s a cost-effective thing for us to do. In other words, the benefits of doing this, not only through reducing the risks of climate change, but also through reducing our dependence on foreign fuel, and reducing the other environmental damages associated with fossil fuel energy production, make it worth the cost of doing this. The cost is actually rather modest of investing in energy efficiency and clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels. So that was correct.

A second thing that was correct was that part of the policy mix, one of the things we need to do, is to raise the price of fossil fuels, so as to send signals to the private sector, to individual consumers, to businesses, and even to state and local governments, that investing in energy efficiency and alternative energy sources is a smart thing to do. We live in an economy in which price signals matter, and as long as the prices of fossil fuels don’t reflect their true costs, we’re not going to get the transition that we need to see. So raising the price is an important thing to do.

Here’s where I think the mistake was made. If you raise the price on fossil fuels, you create another kind of cost. It’s not a cost to the economy, it’s a transfer within the economy. It’s not the cost of energy-efficiency investments or investments in wind or solar or other forms of energy, it’s the price that people now have to pay, the extra price they have to pay for the fossil fuels they still burn. And the key question is: where will that money go? Who will get that money as it’s recycled somehow from consumers to someone? Who is that someone going to be?

The decision that Congress made was that a lot of that money should be parceled out through what are called free allowances–that is to say, free permits given to energy companies, with the idea being that bringing these people on board, buying their support by giving them free allowances, and thereby letting them keep the money that consumers pay in higher prices, was going to buy their political support. That was the calculation. Personally, I thought it was a myopic or shortsighted calculation, because as you know, Paul, what I’ve advocated for some time now has been instead that the permits be auctioned off 100 percent and that most of the money be recycled right back into the pockets of the American people through per capita dividends.

JAY: Joe, let me bring you in. So James is making the point, and he’s made the point in previous interviews on The Real News, that part of the reason this is kind of off the political agenda is because President Obama’s policies led to, in fact, higher prices and a kind of tax on ordinary consumers, as opposed to really making the corporate emitters of carbon pay some of this price, and thus the Obama administration bears some of the responsibility for the fact that people are kind of losing interest in this whole issue. What do you make of that?

JOE ROMM, AMERICAN CENTER FOR PROGRESS: Well, I think Obama bears a small part of the blame. I’ve tried to be pretty clear on that most of the blame for America’s inaction clearly goes to the conservative movement, which has embraced the denial of climate science; the fossil fuel industry, which has funded climate science denial and made it very difficult for anybody in the Republican Party to have a rational position. And so the net result has been that many people who in 2007 and 2008 supported the approach that President Obama put on the table—which, after all, was basically a Republican idea to start with. It was an idea that George Bush, George Bush’s father, embraced in the acid rain pollution reduction program in 1990. They–people like, you know, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney and John McCain, you know, moderate to even conservative Republicans, supported putting a price on carbon and taking action. And then, once it became clear that Obama was serious and might actually achieve something, they spent a staggering amount of money, the fossil fuel companies did, and the Republicans flipflopped on their position.

And it really doesn’t matter what Obama had put on the table. There was nothing–it wasn’t what Obama put on the table, it was the fact that finally the administration, you know, the progressive community, looked to be serious about passing a climate bill, which after all did pass the U.S. House of Representatives. And, again, if it hadn’t been for this, you know, frankly, antidemocratic, extraconstitutional, you know, requirement that we need 60 votes in the Senate, this bill would have passed the U.S. Senate and it would have been law. So it’s really the dysfunctionality of the U.S. political system, the flipping over to hardcore antiscience by the Republican Party, and, I would also say, the media’s failure to report the story in a way that would let the public understand just how dire the situation is.

But it bears stating that the public supported this bill and the public supported climate action, and it continues to support climate action, clean energy. It is merely the fact that a minority can stop all action in Congress that is the reason we don’t have a climate bill.

JAY: James, that bill that Joe says could have passed if there hadn’t been the 60 votes necessary, you weren’t a fan of that bill anyway.

BOYCE: I wasn’t a big fan, though of course I would’ve rather seen a flawed bill passed than no bill at all. I think I agree with everything Joe just said. I think the climate-change denial, the influence that that fringe movement has had within the Republican Party, is a very big part of the problem. But I don’t think it’s quite the whole story, Paul; I think there’s another piece as well. I think there was another form of denial that was taking place on the other side of the aisle.

If you listen to what the Republicans had to say, if you listen to Speaker Boehner, for example, he said at one point, this climate bill would be the biggest tax on American people in history. Now, that’s political hyperbole, but the idea that this was a tax on the public was also part of the Republican opposition. It wasn’t just we don’t believe there’s a problem; it was also this proposed policy is going to be bad for our constituents and bad for the American people, because it’s going to raise the price of gas, electricity, heating oil, etc.

And on the Democratic side, the response to that charge was another kind of denial. It wasn’t climate change denial, it was kind of climate policy economics denial. The claim was that oh, no, no, this isn’t really a tax, it’s not really going to cost that much money; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost is less than a postage stamp a day; etc. Well, that was quite a disingenuous response. I think on the Democratic side they were either confused or they were trying to fool people, because it’s very clear that although the cost of reducing fossil fuel emissions is small, as the Congressional Budget Office said, the price that people will be paying, the higher price people will be paying for the fossil fuels that they still consume is a significant hit in the pocketbook. That’s the part that’s like a tax.

And I think that had the Democrats chosen to go with an alternative proposal which was on the table in the House–. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland had introduced a bill, and in the Senate, senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins introduced a bipartisan bill, both of which would have given the result of higher prices but would have insulated the vast majority of the American people, including working people and the middle class, from the impact of higher prices by recycling the money straight back into their pocketbooks in a very clear and transparent fashion, so they’d know that they’re getting the money back.

You know, political viability is more than getting a bill through Congress; it’s also getting a law in place that’s going to stay long enough for us to make the clean energy transition. We’re not talking about just one session of Congress here; we’re talking about a 40-year period. Regardless of who controls Congress, regardless of who controls the White House, this legislation has to be durable. It has to command the enduring support of the American people.

And I personally think that had the Democrats taken a different tack and had they gone for a cap and dividend policy that would have auctioned the permits, rather than giving them away, and would have used the money to protect the real incomes of American families, I think the bill might have had a better chance of getting through this Congress, and certainly would’ve had a better chance of enduring for the 40-year energy transition. It’s my hope that when this comes back on the agenda, this is the way we’re going to go.

JAY: Joe?

ROMM: Yeah, it’s not–I appreciate everything that’s been said, but it isn’t–it just isn’t really true. I mean, at some point, at some level the question is moot, since we’re not going to see either bill this decade. But there’s no possibility that a cap and dividend could have even gotten 10 percent support of the House or the Senate. The thing to remember is that the obstacle to passing a climate bill was never the American public. The American public always supported a climate bill, a price on carbon, a big push on clean energy. The big obstacle was always industry. And if you did not set up the system to minimize the impact on industry, then industry would have opposed the bill across the board. And the only reason that we don’t know with 100 percent certainty that the cap and dividend bill would have been killed by business is because no one ever–everyone realized it was never going to go anywhere.

The Republicans were going to demagog this bill no matter what. They would have called a cap and dividend a “cap and tax”. They just opposed action. From the perspective of the people who didn’t want a climate bill, there is no difference whatsoever between the bill that the House did pass and this so-called cap and dividend bill. And I must say that I don’t–I’m not opposed to people looking at counterfactuals and alternative histories, but the reason we didn’t get a climate bill is because of the 60-vote requirement in the U.S. Senate and because the Republican Party decided to double down on really a self-destructive policy of embracing the most extreme wing of their party and opposing what 97 percent of climate scientists know, what the world government knows. I mean, you have to understand, the U.S. conservative movement is almost unique in the world in its denial of the reality that the planet is warming, weather is getting more extreme, glaciers are melting, and humans are the primary cause, and that if we don’t take action, things are going to get considerably worse in the future. And I just don’t think most–. Most of the public had no deep knowledge of the differences of these bills, and the Republicans, frankly, were just taking advantage of the fact that the Democrats are not very good at communicating.

And the big failing, if one wants to pin the blame on the Democrats, is that they simply didn’t ever take the case to the American public about (a) the urgent need for action and (b) the economic benefits of passing this bill, something that Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, talked about a great deal, which is the need to get businesses to start investing again. They’re sitting on over $1 trillion of cash in this country and they’re not creating jobs, and clean energy is clearly going to be one of the biggest job creating sectors of the future. So I am a big–I’ve spent a lot of time on faulting the administration for not making an aggressive push for a climate and clean energy bill. And I think in that regards Obama has been a massive failure.

JAY: Yeah. James, is part of the issue here that market mechanisms themselves are simply not panning out, that either you can’t pass something that’s effective, or you can’t pass something that doesn’t wind up actually benefiting energy companies more than it’s actually controlling carbon emissions? And if you’re going to try to get the public behind something, does it need to be that you get the public behind, one, the urgency, and two, a need for just straightforward regulation?

BOYCE: Well, I don’t think it’s exactly about market mechanisms is the problem, Paul. You need to have a higher price on carbon. That’s what’s going to motivate individuals and businesses and local governments to invest in energy efficiency and renewables. There’s no way around that. We live in an economy in which prices matter. So that’s not the problem. The problem is: how do you build that mass popular base for climate policy that Joe was referring to? I agree with him that, you know, the fact that the public wasn’t fully engaged in this was a major part of the problem. It allowed Congress, it allowed the Republicans to get away with torpedoing this legislation. The strategy that the government Democrats followed, frankly, was not one of public engagement. Joe’s right on that, too. The strategy was business as usual. And business as usual means you make backroom deals with industry to try to win over some of them to support your legislation. That’s what they tried to do; that was the political calculation.

Now, you know, reasonable people can differ about, you know, what might have happened if, what would have happened had the Democrats taken another strategy, you know, two, three years ago. That’s not a battle really worth fighting. The battle worth fighting, or at least what’s worth thinking about, is what’s going to happen in the future if and when climate policy gets back onto the political agenda. When that happens, I hope we’ll learn a few lessons from this experience. And one of the lessons is that the public engagement is central. And if that’s going to be central, it means that we need to think about the economic impact of the policy on American households. We need to make damn sure that no one’s going to be able to say that this is going to make people economically worse off by forcing them to pay higher prices for energy for which they don’t get anything back. We’ve got to make sure that money comes back into their pockets. I think if we package a future policy in that way, we have a possibility of really building a broad-based support across the American public, and even across the political parties.

I don’t think the climate change denial thing is going to prove to be a lasting strategy, because guess what? Climate change is real. You can only deny this thing for so long. And if and when we’re going to do something about it, we need to make sure that it happens in a way that isn’t going to pit people’s economic interests against their environmental sense of responsibility, but rather is going to marry the two, so that they can both help to wean the country off fossil fuels and not torpedo their own pocketbooks in the process. It’s possible [incompr.]

JAY: Joe, final word?

ROMM: Well, we learned this year that the climate situation is getting more severe. And I think in particular it’s starting to show up in the extreme weather that we’ve been seeing, the droughts, the floods. And we’re seeing it in particular affecting the agricultural system. And food prices are at levels not seen since the 1970s. And I think [incompr.] article in Nature that the great challenge of this century is going to be feeding 9 billion people by midcentury in this globally warmed world. And I think if we don’t act soon, it’s just going to be one of the great tragedies of all time. And I think it’s incumbent on people to become informed on climate change. It is real. It is going to affect everyone’s lives, and it’s going to affect Americans a great deal. And the opportunities, the technologies exist to solve it. It’s just a matter of having the political will to start acting.

JAY: And do you see any signs of that will from within the Obama administration? I don’t know that he’s mentioned the words “climate change” in the last year.

ROMM: No, I do not see any political will from the Obama administration, and it is–you know, I think on the matter of climate, Obama has been a failure, and I would give him an F, and history’s going to judge him very harshly. It’s going to judge all of us harshly if we don’t quickly get on a sustainable energy path.

JAY: Thank you both for joining us.

BOYCE: Thank you.

ROMM: Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Joe Romm is a fellow at American Center for Progress and the editor of Climate He was the acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997.

James Boyce is the director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at the Political Economy Research Institute and a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts. He is also author of The Political Economy of the Environment, published in 2002.