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"We’re going to get nothing"

December 7, 2009

Under the amusing headline, “Politics Ruins Everything,” Andrew Sullivan has posted two quotations that form an interesting dialog about the political viability of cap and trade policies vs. a carbon tax.

Yglesias makes a fair point:

Their basic point, that the kind of carbon tax proposal that policy wonks would dream up would be superior policy to the kind of cap-and-trade plan that would result from the compromises necessary to get 60 votes in the Senate, is very true. But by the same token, the kind of cap-and-trade proposal that policy wonks would dream up would be superior policy to the kind of carbon tax plan that would result from the compromises necessary to get 60 votes in the Senate.

Drum interjects:

In the near term, no serious carbon tax will ever pass the U.S. Senate.  Period.  If you believe otherwise, you’re just not paying attention to things.  A big part of the surge in interest in a carbon tax is purely cynical, coming from special interests who are afraid a carbon cap might actually pass and want to muddy the waters with pseudo-liberal arguments in order to build an anti-C&T alliance and keep anything at all from passing.  There are plenty of carbon tax advocates who are perfectly sincere, but I gotta tell them: you’re being played by people who are the farthest thing imaginable from sincere.  If you win, we’re not going to get a carbon tax.  We’re going to get nothing.

I imagine the same dynamics exist here in Australia (correct me if I’m wrong!). The Opposition is now hinting at all sorts of alternatives (e.g. nuclear, green tax credits, and “biosequestration”) to Rudd’s ETS, and it is hard to tell whether these proposals are sincere, or simply meant to (further) weaken the Labour policy (the ETS).

The dialog above is flawed in that it constrains our choices. The types of targets and carbon trading schemes recently proposed in the US, UK, and Australia are toothless, unrealistic, or both. If we’re choosing between nothing and these policies, then our choice is really between “nothing” and a more complex and expensive “nothing.”

Sullivan concludes that “when nothing is revealed as insufficient, maybe a better solution will emerge.” But there are already other choices which involve adopting a different perspective. For example, the Breakthrough Institute argues that we need to do away with these complex attempts at reaching abstract targets, and focus on direct investment in the kinds of technology that will actually help with the problem:

Forget 80% by 2050 and 17% by 2020. Time to stop fixating on 450 ppm vs 350 ppm. As UN climate talks kick off today in Copenhagen, Denmark, there’s only one number really worth the world’s attention: $10.5 trillion.
That’s the additional investment required between now and 2030 to put the world’s energy system on a lower-carbon path, according to the world energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency.
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