The Climate Debate Today: Nothing Has Changed; Everything Has Changed

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I’m back. What has changed in the climate debate since I last posted to this blog over a year ago? Nothing. Or maybe everything.

On Monday, President Obama helped kickoff the latest round of international climate negotiations, held this year in tragedy ridden Paris, declaring that “the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it.” (NYT)  But the last such high profile international summit (Copenhagen, 2009) was widely derided as a failure and expectations for progress in Paris have been carefully managed (that is to say, lowered) and the president chose the words “embracing our responsibility” carefully. Obama came into office supporting a market-driven cap and trade program. With congress refusing to act, the administration had to resort to developing its “Clean Power Plan” by relying on administrative actions under existing law. Wanting to undercut the president’s efforts in Paris, Senate Republicans recently orchestrated passage of a resolution disapproving of the Clean Power Plan. Republicans in the House are expected to pass the legislation shortly.

Without any hope that the Senate would ratify a formal treaty, United States representatives in Paris can only offer to meet voluntary emissions reduction targets. Other nations will do likewise. And even these voluntary commitments will almost certainly fall far short of what is actually needed. New York Times reporter Justin Gillis recently put it bluntly, “the negotiators gathering in Paris will not be discussing any plan that comes close to meeting their own stated goal of limiting the increase of global temperatures to a reasonably safe level.”

And yet, whether Paris brings unexpected breakthroughs or merely the voluntary commitments expected, the climate debate has entered a new phase. You can tell by the press coverage. Even The Wall Street Journal has a nice graphic illustrating “The World’s Carbon Challenge.”

You can tell by the rhetoric of conservative Republicans. In an interview on Wednesday, Senator John Barrasso—who represents Wyoming, the nation’s top coal producing state by far, and who has been labeled a “climate change denier”—declared “I don’t debate the science. I debate the solution that the president proposed, which is essentially unilateral disarmament on the part of the United States.” Do you see the change? We are debating solutions now.

And you can tell by talking to other people. Even a majority of Republicans favor action to fight climate change.

Perhaps that last fact emboldened the dozen Republican members of the House who recently backed a resolution calling for action to address climate change. The resolution itself is as meek as can be; the fact that a dozen Republicans are on record supporting it, however, makes for a bold statement indeed. One might even credit divine intervention. Pope Francis published his environmental encyclical in March, and no one can mistake it as anything other than a call for bold action to address climate change, which he calls “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”  Eight of those twelve House Republicans are Roman Catholics—and the resolution was introduced the week before Francis arrived in Washington, D.C.

The momentum has shifted. Everything has changed. Instead of debating whether we need to take climate change seriously, it is time for policymakers and citizens alike to ask what we need to do to put the full strength of the American economy to work solving the climate crisis. A hodgepodge of inefficient subsidies and command-and-control type regulations doesn’t cut it. Not if we want rapid progress. What policy will bring maximum results at minimal cost?  Let’s pick up there, with Pure Cap-and-Dividend.