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Boyce: People must vote for candidates willing to take on fossil fuel industry or solution not possible

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. A couple of days from now, the election will have been held, and one set of words you almost don’t hear at all are “climate change”. The whole issue of climate change crisis and the environment is practically not on anyone’s agenda—perhaps some from the Green party, maybe a few individual candidates here and there, but from the Democrats and Republicans barely a word. So what will be the consequences of this, the new Congress, likely to be certainly more Republicans, if not controlled by them? What will this mean in terms of climate change and environmental policy in the United States? Now joining us to discuss this is Professor James Boyce. He is the director of peacebuilding and the environment at the PERI institute in Amherst, Massachusetts. Thanks for joining us, James.


JAY: So if you believe the polls, we can fairly well predict now that there will be a lot more Republicans in the House. There’ll be a few more in the Senate. They might control the House. They might, who knows, even control the Senate. What will this mean in terms of environmental and climate change policy? And, I must add, not to say or suggest that the Democrats were so vigorous about it anyway.

BOYCE: Well, I think in the short run, at least for the next couple of years, it probably means that we’re not going to see a lot of action on climate policy or energy policy more broadly. And the two are obviously connected together. Over the longer haul, I’m not sure, Paul. I think it could mean down the road that we see the formulation of climate policies that in certain ways are different from the failed efforts to establish cap and trade that went down for the third time now this past summer in the Senate. I think it’s time to step back and look at that experience and think about what lessons we can learn about what it would take to put in a climate policy that actually could enjoy bipartisan support in Congress and therefore be durable over the years, as control of the White House and control of the legislatures shift back and forth between the parties, and also that it’ll be durable over time in terms of commanding support from the American public, because in the end that’s going to be crucial. This isn’t a policy that’s going to be passed one year and then it’ll be taken care of. These are policies that will have to endure for a generation or more, and so they’ll have to be built with sustainable political support.

JAY: But what if that isn’t possible? I mean, right now, if you listen to most of the Republicans—and many Democrats, but certainly the majority if not all the Republicans—they don’t even believe climate change is an issue. They don’t see this as a pressing question. They don’t think we’re facing some apocalyptic moment. So, first of all, let me ask you: do you think we are? I mean, if you listen to the various scientists that work on this issue, we’ve been told we have a very small window to try to stop hitting that magic 2 degree number—I should say black magic—the number where the world warms to such a point that it becomes almost irreversible, the effects, for the rest of this century. Some people are saying we’ve already passed the point of no return. And the predictions of what this will do to the globe are really apocalyptic if you listen to the majority of the scientists, including from the UN. So, number one, are we really facing such a crisis? If we are, how come no one’s yelling about this? And how would you ever get bipartisan support that would actually be effective if the Republicans don’t believe in any of this?

BOYCE: Good questions, Paul. First of all, I think that the risks of very major changes in temperatures and ecosystems on Earth is real. I don’t think there’s any serious question that this is a problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an apocalypse. I think some of the apocalyptic thinking is actually counterproductive in terms of mobilizing people to do something about the real problems we face. It’s not going to be the end of the world. The world will survive. The planet will survive. Life on the planet will survive. What’ll really be problematic is adjusting human economies to deal with a planet that’s unlike anything we’ve ever known before. The costs to human beings are going to be huge. Life will survive. The planet’ll survive. So it’s not exactly an apocalypse. It’s an economic disruption on a scale we’ve never experienced before.

JAY: It will certainly be apocalyptic for people from Bangladesh and to whole sections of Africa and so on. The poorest of countries anywhere near the equator could—life as we know it would change. Are those predictions realistic, do you think?

BOYCE: I think it’s undoubtedly true that the effects will hit hardest on the poorest people in the world. And it’s not just a question of where they happen to live; it’s the fact that they live really close to the margin of survival already. So shocks, changes that disrupt economies are clearly going to have a bigger impact on those who are barely keeping their heads above water, so to speak, now, than it would have on people like you and me who are relatively well off and relatively able to take steps to adapt to and cope with the problems that we may face down the road. That’s all true. But let me add one more thing, Paul, which is that although there has been this problem of denial on the Republican side amongst many Republicans, including many Republican Senate candidates now, at the same time I think there’s been a kind of denial on the Democratic side of the aisle as well. This is denial not of the realities of climate change or the need for an energy policy that weans us away from dependence on fossil fuels, which as you know is the main thing driving the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and resulting changes in global climate; it’s denial of what those kinds of policies are going to mean for the American people, for our own livelihoods. The tendency has been to in a way suggest that there’s kind of a free lunch here, that we can substantially raise the prices of fossil fuels so as to discourage their use and provide incentives for the development of new energy technologies and for—in energy efficiency investments, while at the same time those price increases really aren’t going to hit people in a way that diminishes their wellbeing. And a lot of the people on the Republican side of the aisle, I think even if they are in their heart of hearts not convinced that climate change is a myth, if they think there really may be a problem here, what they are convinced of is that any policies that hit their constituents in the pocketbook, especially in these difficult economic times for so many American working households, any such policies are going to be deeply unpopular, and they don’t want to be associated with those policies. So the challenge of devising a policy that is going to be politically acceptable on both sides of the aisle and is politically going to get support from a broad spectrum of the American public, that challenge is to figure out a way that on the one hand you’re really going to wean our country from dependence on fossil fuels, and on the other hand you’re not going to sock it to middle America in the pocketbook. You’re going to figure out a way to create the incentives for a change, a profound change in our energy structure, while protecting people from the impacts on their incomes that would result if all you did was raise the prices of carbon, and you didn’t find some way of recycling that money that comes from those higher prices of carbon back into people’s pocketbooks. That’s going to be the key challenge. And that was where I think the cap and trade legislation that passed the House last year and then failed in the Senate, I think that’s where it fell short. You know, it fell short of developing mechanisms that would in a very transparent and visible fashion recycle the money to the American public.

JAY: This is an idea you’ve proposed, I think, in an earlier interview that we did with you, if I remember correctly, essentially is if you have forms of carbon tax, what you do is use that money to subsidize people to buy alternative energy and develop alternative energy.

BOYCE: It’s even simpler than that, Paul. It’s to use most of the money that comes from higher carbon prices, to capture that money by auctioning the permits to bring fossil fuels into the economy rather than giving them away, and by taking that money and recycling it to the people on an equal per person basis. So it doesn’t tell people what they should do with the money. People look at the changed structure of prices, and of course most people are going to decide to try to conserve on their use of fossil fuels ’cause they’re more expensive now. Industries, businesses are going to see an incentive to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, ’cause they can see the writing on the wall in terms of where the prices of fossil fuels are going. But it’s putting that money back into the pockets of the American people on an equal per person basis, on the basis of the principle, really, the philosophical principle that we all equally own our country’s share of the carbon absorptive capacity of the atmosphere. This principle was embodied in legislation that was actually introduced, the only bipartisan climate legislation that was introduced in Congress, which was introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, in something called the CLEAR Act, introduced last December. Unfortunately, the leadership on the Democratic side never really took this seriously. They saw it as a diversion from the deals that they had worked out, which basically involved capturing that money and recycling it not to the American public but to the usual suspects, to the energy companies, especially to coal and electric utilities, with handouts to nuclear power and others, as a way to try to buy in support from the people who deploy big, well-paid lobbying organizations in Washington. They weren’t looking out for the wellbeing of the American family. They weren’t looking out for the wellbeing of the middle class. And somehow they thought that if instead they simply bought support from the usual suspects, they’d be able to ram through a climate bill. Well, it didn’t work, and the main reason it didn’t work was the Republicans weren’t willing to go along with it. Will the Republicans be willing to go along with an alternative policy that recycles that money into the hands of the American people? We’ll see. I don’t know if they will or not, but if they’re smart, that’s what they’ll do, ’cause this is not a problem that’s going to go away, and building a solution is going to win political support in a way that just saying no and denying problems in the long run can never do.

JAY: Well, that will mean people are going to have to elect some candidates in both parties willing to take on big oil, the nuclear industry, and so on, and coal. And we’ll have to see whether that’s the case, because I think of most of the candidates running right now, we’ve yet to see very many that have a chance of getting elected that are willing to take on the fossil fuel industry.

BOYCE: You’re right, Paul. I mean, in the end what it comes down to is are we going to live in a democracy or are we going to live in a place where government offices and government policies are basically for sale to the highest bidder. If that’s what we’re going to have, which is what we’ve been having, unfortunately, in the world of climate policy for the last few years, then I don’t think we’re going to get a solution to the problem.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, James.

BOYCE: You bet, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the Donate buttons, which are somewhere around this player. Thanks for joining us.

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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.