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James K. Boyce: Obama “cap and trade” plan undermined support for action on climate change

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. The election campaign for 2012, American presidential campaign, seems to have started. But one thing that has not started is any discussion about climate change. Of course it’s not on the Republican agenda, but it doesn’t seem really to be on the Democratic Party agenda either. President Obama, during the primary campaign in ’08 and in his early period as president, talked quite a bit about climate change and building a whole green economy in order to deal with the economic crisis and the climate crisis–seems to have lost track of those words, climate change. Well, there’s a growing movement of people that say that it’s not enough just to talk about the climate change crisis. There’s a more profound way to frame it, and that’s the climate justice crisis, or the need for climate justice. Now joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, where he has written extensively about climate justice, is James K. Boyce. He’s director of the Program on Development, Peace Building, and the Environment at the PERI institute in Amherst. Thanks for joining us again, James.


JAY: [snip] what it means to talk about these issues in the context of climate Justice.

BOYCE: Well, I’d say the basic reframing is that addressing climate change is not only a matter of protecting the planet; it’s also a matter of protecting people. It’s not just about protecting future generations; it’s about protecting people who are here and now. I’d say there are four basic pillars of a climate justice program. One is to address climate change sooner rather than later, because it’s the most vulnerable people in our society and around the world who are going to be impacted hardest by climate change. The second pillar is to make adaptation assistance for those problems, those climate-related problems that can’t be prevented at this stage, available to everyone, not just to those with political clout or with the money to pay for adaptation. So the idea there is that adaptation assistance is a basic right, not a commodity that ought to be distributed by the market, and not a privilege that ought to be distributed by the political process. The third piece is to bring into climate policy and into our discussions the importance of what are called co-pollutants, Paul. When we burn fossil fuels–coal, oil, and natural gas–we don’t only emit global warming pollution, carbon dioxide; we also emit a whole slew of toxic air pollutants–particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and others. And when we reduce the burning of fossil fuels, we reduce the emissions of those co-pollutants. And that creates what sometimes are called co-benefits–benefits on top of the benefits of arresting global warming. Now, those co-benefits aren’t randomly distributed. In fact, they will be greatest in the places where the co-pollutant burdens are heaviest. And those tend to be in low-income communities and in communities with above-average percentages of people of color in this country. And so by addressing those co-pollutant burdens and by integrating that into policy, we can both get more bang for the buck from the policy, we can in effect enhance efficiency, and at the same time, we can improve justice by reducing pollution burdens that are disproportionately inflicted on the most vulnerable people.

JAY: Jay, give us an example of co-pollutants and co-benefits, a specific example.

BOYCE: Let me give you a concrete example. Let me compare two major carbon dioxide emitters in Southern California. The first is the La Paloma Power Plant, which is located about 40 miles west of Bakersfield. The second is the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, California, which is not too far from Los Angeles. Both of these facilities emit, according to the California Air Resources Board, about the same amount of carbon dioxide every year, about 2.5 million to 3 million tons. But the La Paloma Power Plant only emits about 50 tons a year of particulate matter, whereas the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance emits 350 tons of particulate matter–seven times as much. Moreover, if we think about how many people are impacted by that within a 6 mile radius of each facility, there is an enormous difference. There are about 600 people living within 6 miles of the power plant in La Paloma. There are about 800,000 people living within 6 miles of the refinery in Torrance. So if you put together both the higher amount of particulate matter coming out of the Torrance facility and the greater number of people impacted, you have co-pollutant impacts in the refinery that are more than 1,000 times bigger than those from the power plant. If you add to that the fact that the people living around the plants in Torrance are also bearing cumulative impacts from a lot of other toxic air polluting facilities, you’ve got an even stronger reason for trying to make sure that you get those emissions reductions in places like Torrance where the co-benefits are biggest.

JAY: Why is one plant so much lower than the other?

BOYCE: It has to do with the technology of what they’re burning [inaud.] sort of pollution control equipment they’ve got installed. And, as I said, it also has to do with how many people are living in the vicinity and therefore being impacted by these burdens, and what else is impacting them.

JAY: Okay. So let’s move to the bigger conversation, which is the whole issue of climate change, climate justice. In the ’08 elections, in the Democratic primaries, even early on in the Obama presidency, there was a lot of talk about climate change. There was a period there where it was the front page of every newspaper and magazine. Now it’s become a completely marginalized discussion. You can have the Republican leadership seriously, most of them, not even believe there is such a thing. The Democratic Party leadership doesn’t want to challenge them on it. And the mainstream discourse or discussion about it has more or less disappeared. So why do you think that’s happened? And for people that believe this is such an urgent issue, what can they do about it?

BOYCE: Well, I think to understand that, you have to understand the sources of not only the Republican opposition to the climate change bill that died in the Senate, but also some of the reservations on the Democratic side about that bill and the strategy that the Democratic leadership–the successful strategy that they pursued. The Republicans weren’t only denying. Of course, some of them were denying that there’s a problem at all. But they also–and this, I think, was a very telling criticism that the Republicans made–said that if the bill passed, it would have been the biggest tax increase in American history. Now, that may be political hyperbole, but on some level the Republicans were onto something. If you put a price on carbon emissions as that Waxman-Markey legislation would have done, you are raising the price of oil, natural gas, and coal, and everything that’s produced with them. So the prices of gasoline at the pump go up. The prices of electricity go up in people’s monthly bills. People are going to be paying more. In fact, they’re going to have to be paying considerably more if the price increases are going to be significant enough for people to notice and firms to notice and to start making the investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency that this whole policy is designed to produce. So the Republicans were right about that, Paul. They weren’t making this up. And the Democratic response, I have to say, was really pretty myopic. What they said is, oh, no, no, no, this isn’t a tax, and besides, the price increases won’t be that big anyway; they’ll only be the equivalent of a postage stamp per person per day. Well, in making that claim, the Democrats were either deliberately or mistakenly confusing two different things. The postage stamp number comes from research done by, among others, the Congressional Budget Office that refers to what’s the cost of the carbon emission reductions that we’re going to experience, in other words, what’s the cost of meeting our energy needs some other way or installing energy efficiency devices, etc. And it’s true. That cost is modest, particularly in the initial years of any program. It doesn’t amount to that much. We can afford it as a country. That’s called the economic cost. That’s the cost of preventing emissions. But then on top of that, in terms of household pocketbooks, there’s the cost of all the fuel that’s still being burned, the cost of the emissions that aren’t avoided, the price increases that push those changes in energy consumption. And those costs are really substantial. Then we’re talking about hundreds of dollars per person per year, maybe even more, as the cap on carbon emissions gets ratcheted down. Now, unlike the cost of installing solar panels, let’s say, that money isn’t actually spent. That money doesn’t get used for anything. It gets transferred around. It gets collected by the people selling the fuels. And then the question is: where does the money go? So this gets to what the Democrats did. They, pursuing what I would describe as business-as-usual politics, they decided they would divide up most of that money amongst the most powerful lobbyists and political players in Washington. A huge chunk of it was going to go to the electric utilities. Coal, oil, others would get a piece of the action. And the strategy was that if you let them harvest that extra money and keep in their own pockets, they won’t oppose your bill, or they’ll let it go through. That was the strategy. Now, what that would have meant if it had passed is that you and me and every household in America would have been paying higher energy costs, and the result would’ve been windfall profits for the people who were selling us those fuels who got to keep the money.

JAY: That’s why you’re favoring a plan which you’re calling cap-and-dividend.

BOYCE: [inaud.] Paul, and that’s not only a plan I favor. That was plan B by the time that Congress ultimately decided not to act on plan A. Plan A was Waxman-Markey with those huge giveaways, and plan B was the Cantwell-Collins bill introduced in the Senate by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins, a Democrat and Republican respectively, which would have recycled–it would have auctioned all the carbon permits off, wouldn’t have given them away to the corporations, and would have recycled the bulk of that money straight back to the American people in the form of cash monthly dividends. Right? This would have meant that for the majority of the people, they would’ve actually come out ahead at the end of day, and it would’ve meant that we have a policy that recognizes that we all own our share of the atmospheric commons equally, together, in common and equal measure, that it’s not the property de facto of ExxonMobil or a coal company or any other big corporation. That was the plan that the Democrats chose not to pursue. And I think that’s the plan that ultimately will prevail if and when we get a serious discussion in climate policy in the United States. It’s a plan that the American people would support.

JAY: James–. Right. James, we’re going to put a previous interview we did with you, which gets into the whole cap-and-dividend plan in more detail, and we’ll put that interview just below this one in another video player. But just quickly before we finish, there seems to be another reason why, other than taxes and the cost of all of this, this science debate itself seems to have swung to the skeptic side, the idea that the climate-change science isn’t real, that it’s being promoted just by, you know, various sections of capital that just want to make money out of going green. The scientific debate, if you believe the majority of scientists who say there’s an urgent problem of climate change, they seem to be very much on the defensive. In fact, even the climate debate itself from a scientific point of view seems not to be out there, and if anything, the skeptics seemed to have the upper hand.

BOYCE: Well, Paul, I mean, to call this a debate is to glorify what’s really, I think, a pretty well understood set of issues. Right? Now, of course there’s uncertainty about exactly what’s going to happen. When you’re talking about the future climate of the planet, nobody can say precisely what’s going to happen. But what is very clear is that things are going to happen, and those things are going to be big, and potentially they’re going to be hugely costly to many people around the world, particularly to the most vulnerable people in the world, but really costly to us all and our children and our grandchildren and so on. There’s no debate about that in the scientific community. The scientists are clear that things are going to happen, that they’re going to be difficult to cope with. They just can’t say exactly that in this place the temperature’s going to go up by x degrees and in that place the sea level’s going to rise by y inches. That’s a difference between uncertainty and debate. The debate you’re talking about is not in the scientific community. It’s in the media. And what that reflects is the fact that we’ve got a media in this country where corporations have an extraordinary stranglehold on the information that’s presented to the public, and they’ve used that stranglehold in ways that filter the news, that give people the idea that there’s a debate where there is no debate, and at the same time obscure the real debates that ought to be taking place, like who will get the money if we do raise the price of fossil fuels. So the problem you’re describing is not a problem about science; it’s a problem about public information and the media and the way in which what we get over the news on television, on radio–Real News Network is an honorable exception–is very heavily biased against true information and, to use a pun, so to speak, blowing a lot of smoke in people’s faces.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, James.

BOYCE: Thank you, Paul. Nice to be with you.

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

End of Transcript

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James K. Boyce is a Professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the Director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at PERI - The Political Economy Research Institute.