Some pretty important decisions that will affect generations to come are being made right now.
The new regulations on carbon emissions announced this week are, as Brad Plumer writes, the “most sweeping policy yet to address global warming.” States and utilities will need to cut carbon emissions from power generation in order to rein in the gases that cause climate change.
As predictably as morning follows sunrise, these rules are drawing fire in a number of ways.
In a lot of cases, these excuses are meant to mask the underlying issue: that many Republican politicians and voters don’t understand why the new carbon rules should happen at all. If you don’t think that there’s a problem these standards are aimed at, it stands to reason that they are illegitimate, a sort of power grab meant to hurt the economy. But as I’ve noted, the debate over climate change is over. (Check out the latest episode of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s new COSMOS series for a remarkably good 45-minute summary of the facts of climate change.)
It’s not worth trying to confront people who refuse to believe there’s a problem to solve; they’re as relevant to the debate, and as dangerous to public health, as anti-vaccine activists. Instead, we should look at the arguments made by people who will acknowledge the point of the new rules.
The Economic-Disruption Argument
This is the main argument Republican politicians are deploying. Speaker John Boehner gave the argument in its purest form:
“I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change…But I am astute enough to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs. That can’t be the prescription for dealing with changes in our climate.”
Boehner is offering a false choice between “job-killing” regulations and some sort of unspecified solution that fixes everything without any disruption. But the fact is that our economy is heavily dependent on energy from fossil fuels, and fossil fuels — especially coal — are where climate change comes from. Without at least some disruption in the way we currently generate and use energy, we are not going to fix the problem. And a new Washington Post poll suggests that, at least in theory, people are willing to bear some cost to fix it.
Boehner and others who make this argument also seem to be suggesting that the choice is between disruptive changes and no disruption at all. It’s not. The choice is between smaller, deliberate changes now and devastating, ongoing impacts imposed on us by climate change later.
The Political Argument
Political coverage being what it is, a lot of reporters skipped right over the substantive impact of the new rules and went straight for the analysis of how it will affect elections. (Jonathan Chait catches a few of them in the act here.)
For Republicans, a party looking to make gains in November, and one with a near-religious devotion to fossil fuel extraction as the only acceptable jobs policy, this is obviously an opportunity to trot out attacks. It’s to be expected. But it doesn’t have to be at the center of the story about climate regulations, and it’s not really an argument against putting new carbon rules in place
Avoiding a tough fall for congressional Democrats, in what is guaranteed to be a tough fall either way, is vastly outweighed by the need to move on climate.
Reporters who make this the story are very helpfully doing Republican political operatives’ work for them.
The Overreach Argument
The obvious argument for Obama-loathing Congressional Republicans — and even coal-state, red-state Democrats — is that “he can’t do that!” You can ignore this one outright. Not only are these regulations being carried out under the authority of the duly-Congressionally-passed Clean Air Act, but, as Rebecca Leber points out, they’re required by Supreme Court decisions on the Clean Air act.
The Interests Argument
One of the more distracting arguments in the debate over the new rules is about “picking winners and losers,” the notion that trying to address climate change is mainly about government distorting markets to reward favored industries. Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner offers an example of such an argument here.
There’s plenty of room to ask who benefits and who loses from any policy change. But the narrow focus on companies that might benefit from these new regulations is like arguing against seat belts because they just serve as a way to fund companies that make seat-belt fabric.
The primary beneficiaries of climate change regulation aren’t some set of corporate lobbyists: they’re the people in the future who will be less likely to have to deal with sea-level rise, food shortages and extreme weather events.
This argument is also made as though the corporate interests who benefit from inaction aren’t also large, monied actors whose position of strength has been made possible by policy choices. Going along with the energy status quo is also a case of picking winners — incumbent energy interests — and losers — basically everybody starting in about 50 years. Compared with the scale of the problem, the cronyism argument is small and petty.
The Carbon Tax Argument
“This is the wrong method to approach the problem,” you might hear. A better method of ratcheting down climate-changing carbon, many argue, is a carbon tax. This may very well be true, but what are we going to do to make this happen? Is there a carbon tax proposal that Obama is just refusing to sign? Arguing for a carbon tax given the current political climate is exactly the same as arguing for inaction.
The Slow-Down, Calm-Down Argument
Let’s once again turn to Tim Carney, who, to his credit, takes the position that we should stop debating over the reality of climate change. Unfortunately, he seems to be arguing that climate change is real and there’s just nothing we should do about it. Yes, climate is unpredictable. but what we do know is that for most of human civilization — during the centuries over which we built today’s agricultural practices, settlement patterns and economies – the climate and the carbon concentrations in the air have stayed within a very narrow range. That’s a range we’re poised to leave in the near future.
Ultimately, all the arguments against these new standards — whether offered earnestly or in bad faith — are arguments for inaction, and we’ve been trying inaction for decades, squandering time with major consequences. The point is that climate change is real, it’s happening already, its consequences are huge, and we need to be addressing it, now.
Indeed, the real compromise here is between what we are doing and what we should be doing. These new rules are at best a good start in a long process of moving to a cleaner, lower-carbon economy and keeping the climate change we’ve already begun in check.
John Boehner says these new rules aren’t the answer. There’s an easy alternative for him, if he means what he says: he should start proposing his own solutions, and put them up for a vote.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.