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The politics of what is possible

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re in Washington, DC. We’re continuing our debate on climate-change strategy and legislation. Joining us again is Daphne Wysham, from the Institute for Policy Studies, and Daniel Weiss, who’s a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. So we left off the last segment, and we kind of wind up with this issue of the politics of the possibility, or this old standard "politics is the art of the possible". But the debate really is: what’s possible? If we look at the health-care bill, yesterday, apparently, Howard Dean came out and said, "Let’s stop this completely and bury this"—not bury this process, but let’s stop it for now and kill this bill and start again, that if you get a health-care bill with so weak or no public option, it’s better not to have anything and let’s begin again. And the argument on the energy bill is that cap-and-trade is perhaps so—has so little real effect, it’s better not to even go there. So what’s your—what do you [inaudible]

DANIEL J. WEISS, DIR. CLIMATE STRATEGY, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Let me start with an analogy. When the Social Security Act was first passed, it excluded domestic workers and restaurant workers, which means it primarily excluded African Americans who were domestic workers and Hispanics who were restaurant workers. But slowly over time, those groups of people were added to the Social Security program, those kinds of occupations were added, and now we have the program that we have today. If this crisis is so urgent, why would anyone want to put off something that will get us a 28 percent reduction from where we were a couple of years ago just because it’s not perfect? If this crisis is so urgent—. These opportunities don’t come around that often. It’s important to note that history tells us in 2010 the Democrats are likely to lose seats. Given that we only got eight Republicans to vote for the bill in the first place in the House this past June, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we can get more Republicans to vote for it in 2011 than we got today, whether it’s a carbon tax or some other system. So the reality is we are where we are today, and we need to take as many steps as we can today. There’s always the opportunity in the next Congress or the Congress after that to come back and get more. One of the things we’ve seen with other energy policies is that we establish them at a certain level, and once they’re in place a couple of years and people get used to the change, then we can make them much more aggressive. The same thing could happen here, but it won’t happen if we kill it because it’s not perfect.

JAY: What do you say?

DAPHNE WYSHAM, BOARD MEMBER, THE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: There’s nothing to prevent us from acting now. The Cantwell-Collins bill is a far superior—.

JAY: Well, before you go there, just will there be any real reduction out of this cap and trade if it does go through? ‘Cause, like, 28 percent is the number Daniel said. Do you agree with that, that 28 percent’s a real number?

WYSHAM: Twenty-eight percent, that’s a new number.

WEISS: It’s from WRI [World Resources Institute].

WYSHAM: Just a few minutes ago it was 14 percent. Where did you come up with [inaudible]

WEISS: No, that’s 14 percent below 1990. Twenty-eight percent below 2005.

WYSHAM: Fourteen percent is not a number that I agree with, and we’ve run these numbers by people at Stanford University as well. Based on the number of carbon offsets in the bill, it would result in somewhere between 3 and 4 percent emissions reductions below 1990 levels by 2020.

JAY: Okay. Just for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s 3 or 4 percent. Is that not better than nothing?

WYSHAM: Well, what I’m saying is architecturally we would get a far superior bill in the Cantwell-Collins bill, because there would be no offsets, period. You talk about getting something in place and improving it. I’d rather get in place the Cantwell-Collins bill, which has zero offsets, 100 percent auctioning of the pollution permits, and giving a dividend back to the average Americans than giving it to the polluters.

JAY: And do you think—in this Congress, is that a passable bill?

WYSHAM: Absolutely. [Lisa] Mankowski’s behind it. [Susan] Collins is behind it.

WEISS: Well, but that is a complete untruth. Murkowski is not behind it. She said it’s an interesting concept that she’d like to take more look at. This bill has two cosponsors: Collins and [Maria] Cantwell. The only other bill on the table right now, by [John] Kerry and [Barbara] Boxer, has gotten at least 11 votes in the Environment Public Works Committee. Neither are near a majority, or even 60, which is what you need to get passed. So let’s—.

WYSHAM: And yet the American people voted Obama into the office on a promise of 100 percent auctions, and that’s what the Cantwell-Collins bill delivers. Now, if Obama were to throw his weight behind it and try to get the rest of the Senate behind it, we may actually—and if the environmental community would come out in favor of this (I think) far superior bill architecturally than the Kerry-Boxer bill, we may actually get there. But the fact that they’re not showing any support for it—in fact, some environmental groups are coming out and actively saying this isn’t good enough because it doesn’t have carbon offsets in it. Why? What’s that about?

WEISS: The reality is is that the Cantwell-Collins bill, regardless of what one thinks of the architecture, is not going anyplace. It’s got two supporters right now.

WYSHAM: It was introduced last week.

WEISS: It’s got two supporters. Senator Kerry, working with Senator Graham, a conservative from South Carolina, is putting together a bill that is going to be market-based. It hasn’t been unveiled yet, but it sounds like it’s going to use the same kind of mechanism—setting a declining limit on carbon pollution—that is in the House-passed bill and is in the bill that passed the Senate Environment Committee. That is where the possibility for action lies.

JAY: How concerned are you, in your heart of hearts, that if this gets passed, cap-and-trade gets passed, that much of it becomes a Wall Street kind of derivative scheme and that so much of this becomes more financial shenanigans and not much about carbon [inaudible]

WEISS: That’s a legitimate—.

JAY: You’ve got to have your own concerns about this.

WEISS: That’s a legitimate concern. One of the reasons why people complain about the House bill, saying it’s 1,400 pages long, is about one-third of the length of the House bill are rules establishing limits to try and avoid that kind of market manipulation. We need to make sure that we reform our financial markets as well. One of the reasons why we had the meltdown that we did is because there were no cops on the beat. Under President Bush, they let Wall Street run wild. Well, sure, that’s going to happen under this system if another George Bush is president, but this time they’re going to put in other safeguards, and then we’ve got to make sure that they’re enforced.

JAY: We haven’t seen them yet. We haven’t seen much other safeguards.

WEISS: Understood. They are in the Waxman-Markey bill.

JAY: But we haven’t seen much on Wall Street in general. These safeguards are pretty weak. So—.

WEISS: Well, they haven’t been enacted yet. They’re—you know, they just passed the [inaudible] So the reality is is that, sure, no system is perfect and every system can be gamed. Okay?

JAY: Okay. I want to shift gears here for a sec.

WEISS: If you have cops on the beat making sure that the law is enforced, you’re going to avoid a lot of the problems that many people are concerned about. One of the reasons why we had financial collapse is the cops were asleep at their desks.

JAY: Okay. So I’m an independent voter, and I’m deciding to myself: well, what what would it look like if the Democrats could actually have 65 votes in the Senate, or some Republicans who really believe in the urgency of climate change, and now there’s 65 votes in the Senate in favor of real climate change, strong action? What would you like to see? What then would be legislation that—?

WEISS: I think what we’d like to see is—.

JAY: Would you still be for cap and trade?

WEISS: Yes, because it’s a proven mechanism.

JAY: So it’s not just about what’s politically possible.

WEISS: That’s right, because the problem with a tax is: you can put a tax on it; it might not reduce the pollution. Let me give you an example. Last year, gasoline prices were up 30 percent higher than they were the year before. The amount of driving went down 3 percent. You can make the price of something higher. It doesn’t always guarantee that people [inaudible]

JAY: But what about regulation? Jim Hansen says start with regulation on coal. This should be the starting point. Are you in favor of strong regulation of coal?

WEISS: Yes. Here are some of the things—.

JAY: ‘Cause Congress is going the other way.

WEISS: No, here is the things that can be given right now that would help make coal, the cost of coal-fired electricity, reflect its cost on society. Let’s regulate mercury pollution that comes from coal-fired power plants. Let’s regulate the ash that’s produced when you burn coal that, you know, escaped and spilled and destroyed that Tennessee town last year. Doing those things would increase the price of coal. Having a cap-and-trade system would put a price on the cost of coal-fired electricity and would drive people towards cleaner, cheaper, now more affordable alternatives. The problem right now is that our system is based on coal, and the average age of a coal plant in this country is 35 years old. Unless you can add more costs to it, people are going to continue to use it.

JAY: Go ahead. Okay. Two questions. You can start with the coal, and then end with if I gave 65 votes. Let’s start with the coal.

WYSHAM: Well, Greg Boucher, who’s from coal country, said cap and trade makes the case for continued use of coal. He understands, as do a lot of coal state representatives, that cap and trade is yet another giveaway to the coal industry in the form of subsidies for carbon capture and storage, in the form of all sorts of other giveaways that basically will ensure that coal, which is the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels, continues to be the cheapest form of electricity for American consumers. People don’t want to use coal because they choose to burn coal; it’s because it’s cheap. We need to make these things more expensive. But we also need to remove the subsidies for fossil fuels. We have tons of subsidies for these industries.

JAY: So let’s imagine there’s now 65 votes in favor of strong legislation of some kind. What do you want to see?

WYSHAM: I’d like to see, first of all, subsidies removed for dirty energy industry, and have those subsidies shifted towards both clean energy, clean transportation, public transportation. People want these things. They just aren’t accessible. They aren’t affordable. People would love to have solar panelson their roofs if they were affordable. We need to make these things affordable for people. So that would be one thing is shifting the subsidies. The other is that, you know, Obama can act now, in terms of setting a cap on greenhouse gas emissions through the EPA that could be reviewed every five years and declined every five years as science requires it. We don’t need a cap-and-trade. We don’t even need to necessarily raise the price of electricity, per se. If we make things affordable, people will choose to opt for—

JAY: Alternative [inaudible]

WYSHAM: —yeah, for the alternative forms of energy.

JAY: But what do you right now about coal? I mean, [James] Hansen has said and many people are saying the issue right now is coal. What do you do about coal? Daniel’s saying cap and trade would show an effective reduction in coal. You’re saying—what is the ideal?

WYSHAM: If this is an emergency, the emergency requires emergency measures, and emergency measures could be something on the order of, as part of the transition, retrofitting coal burners to burn gas. It’s not an ideal transition, ’cause, of course, gas has all sorts of environmental problems, but that’s one way of cutting emissions by something like 20-30 percent right—.

JAY: Done by regulation.

WYSHAM: Immediately. Just say: we are not going to burn coal anymore; we’re going to make these changes because it is an emergency. Basically, we could increase our investments in wind. We could get roughly 20 percent, 25 percent of our energy from wind by 2020. The American Wind Energy Association says we can do this. If we made it into an emergency investment approach, like we are with the war, like we did with the bank bailouts, like we did with all the other things that we’ve been dealing with in the last few years, we could actually address this, and far faster emissions cuts, and in a record time, compared to what any kind of—.

WEISS: Here’s the problem with that approach. Daphne may think it’s an emergency. I may think it’s an emergency. Scientists may think it’s an emergency. But you don’t have 60 senators who think it’s an emergency. In fact, you’ve got at least a third of senators who don’t even believe global warming exists, who don’t believe it’s a problem. So take those 30 off the top. Then you’re left with 70 senators. Anywhere from a dozen to a dozen and a half, depending on how you count, come from either coal-dependent states or heavy manufacturing states. If you don’t, if you say we’re going to have a system where we’re going to stop using coal tomorrow, you’re never going to get the support from those senators, never ever. What—the genius of the bill that has passed the House is that it provides a smoother transition than one would like, and maybe a smoother transition than what we need to do, but it starts to move from dirty, cheaper fuels like coal, to make them more expensive, and shift to cleaner fuels, natural gas in the interim, renewables in the long run. The way the bill works is it basically puts it back—there’s technology out there that can capture and store carbon from coal-fired power plants, store underground. It hasn’t—.

JAY: [inaudible]

WEISS: Yes, it has never been used.

JAY: But it’s never been proven, if I understand it.

WEISS: Never used—no, it’s never been used commercially. There’s one large plant in Germany that’s using it. The bet in this bill is we’re going to give you lots of money to see if you can—.

JAY: No, hold on. This is another—.

WEISS: Let me finish.

JAY: But this—.

WEISS: We’re going to give you money to see if we can capture and store carbon underground from coal-fired power plants. If we can, great. If we can’t, then coal’s going to be a thing of the past. But because we’re able to provide this transition, we’re able to get the support from coal-state representatives and senators, without which we would not be able to accomplish anything. You could not pass the tax bill—. Let me finish. You could not pass the tax bill she’s talking about, because you’ve got 30 senators who—.

JAY: No, no. But I did say to her—I was giving her—

WYSHAM: You said 68. You told me what—

JAY: —I was giving you 65.

WYSHAM: —I wasn’t talking about [inaudible] And this is part of the problem is we’re creating a self-—.

WEISS: Understood. But you can’t get to 65—but you can’t get to 65 if you punish coal.

JAY: Well, you can get to 60 if—.

WYSHAM: No, no, no, no, no, no. If we had 68—I was answering a question, a theoretical question, and that’s why I put that forward.

JAY: That’s right.

WYSHAM: In the current political dynamic, that’s why I’m saying a Cantwell-Collins bill is far preferable. But, you know, part of the problem, I think, is that we’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. By saying this is impossible, that is impossible, we’re feeding into that [inaudible]

JAY: Well, that’s why I asked the question. I think [inaudible]

WEISS: With all due respect [inaudible] Senator Rockefeller that to oppose a bill that actually has a lot of things in it for coal. Senator Rockefeller opposes the very bill that would actually benefit coal a great extent by smoothing this transition. He’s from a coal state. That’s not something anyone made up. That is how he feels. And President Obama is not going to be going over to his house and twist his arm behind his back and say [inaudible] going to support this, then I’m going to let go. That’s not how politics works in America anymore.

WYSHAM: No, no, no. But the way politics works is that we actually are supposed to be reaching out to the American people, not to Rockefeller and Obama.

JAY: Here’s where I’d like to end it. We need to do this again. I hope you’ll join us again.

WEISS: I’d be happy to.

JAY: And what I’d like is for you watching, write us: Where would you like this debate to go? What did you get out of this debate? What would you like answered in the next time we get together? And we’ll try to narrow the range even further so that we can take a piece and try to somehow come to some kind of resolution about it, at least on the basis of facts. So we’ll do this again soon. You write us about this debate and what questions you would like discussed next time. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network

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