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Contemplating "Climate Security"
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June 27, 2008

On Friday, June 6th, 2008 the Liberman-Warner Climate Security Act — the first climate change bill to be debated in Congress — died a procedural death on the Senate floor when the Democratic leadership couldn't rally the 60 votes necessary to move the bill from debate to a vote.

Republicans overwhelming opposed the bill and made their opposition felt in several ways. Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, forced the entire text to be read aloud, a process which took more than ten hours. McConnell, of Kentucky, opposed the bill as a "tax" that he claimed would raise fuel prices even more. Senator Boxer disputed labeling it as a tax and told BILL MOYERS JOURNAL that the act will raise trillions of dollars that can be used to off-set increased prices for consumers:

We take those trillions of dollars that come in, and we say to people who need it, "You're going to get a tax rebate. You're gonna get help on your power bill." And we have a deficit reduction trust fund. And that's half. The other half of the money goes to help find the new technologies of the future.

Some Democrats, like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, also opposed the bill because they worried that it would harm their states' industrial economies and send jobs overseas.

But what was the essence of the disputed legislation?

Increasing the Carbon Price
The Climate Security Act would use "cap and trade" policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 70% below 2005 levels by mid-century. At its heart, a cap and trade policy seeks to reduce pollution by increasing the price of carbon. In a recent review for the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Freeman Dyson quotes the economist William Nordhaus at length, and concludes that the public would greatly benefit from understanding Nordaus's words:
Whether someone is serious about tackling the global-warming problem can be readily gauged by listening to what he or she says about the carbon price. Suppose you hear a public figure who speaks eloquently of the perils of global warming and proposes that the nation should move urgently to slow climate change. Suppose that person proposes regulating the fuel efficiency of cars, or requiring high-efficiency lightbulbs, or subsidizing ethanol, or providing research support for solar power — but nowhere does the proposal raise the price of carbon. You should conclude that the proposal is not really serious and does not recognize the central economic message about how to slow climate change. To a first approximation, raising the price of carbon is a necessary and sufficient step for tackling global warming. The rest is at best rhetoric and may actually be harmful in inducing economic inefficiencies.
The "cap" is a mandatory limit placed on polluters. If polluters need to exceed the limit they may purchase permits from the Federal government. The theory is that if polluting becomes more expensive, companies will begin to innovate and find ways to cut back.

The "trade" provides further incentive to reduce pollution below the cap. Once a polluter cuts back to below the cap, they can begin selling their left-over carbon allowances on the open market.

Proponents say that charging for carbon would raise trillions of dollars for the Federal Government, money that could then be split between subsidizing consumer energy purchases and investing in research into more sustainable energy. Both presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama favor the cap and trade legislation, but do differ on alternative energy policy. McCain would like to see significant investment in nuclear power and Obama opposes nuclear power until the waste disposal issue is worked out.

Developing New Technologies
Marrying a carbon price increase to investment in new technology is an increasingly popular policy. In the journal DEMOCRACY, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus point out that climate change is a fundamentally different problem than acid rain — the problem which cap and trade was first developed to solve — and argue that the demise of the Kyoto Treaty would be a good thing, because Kyoto doesn't address the energy development problem:
At bottom, global warming is not so much a pollution regulation challenge as it is an energy development one. To understand how different this challenge is from past pollution quandaries, consider that by 2050 global energy consumption will more than double, even as we face the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent. This transformation will not be accomplished by affixing scrubbers on smokestacks or catalytic converters on tailpipes — technical fixes that required little change to the underlying processes and technologies that they mitigated. Rather, it will require fundamental changes to the underlying technologies and fuel sources that power the global economy.

The problem with Kyoto, cap and trade, and most other policies aimed at enacting this transformation is that they focus primarily on the pollution problem, not the energy supply problem. As such, they attempt to enact the necessary transformation of the global energy economy through the indirect mechanism of pollution regulations and carbon markets, rather than through the direct deployment of new clean-energy technologies.

Senator Boxer was unable to get a majority of Senators to support the Climate Security Act, but is committed to seeing a climate change bill through the Senate.

I believe we will overcome the special interests. I have to say, there are a few special interests who are on our side, cause they know, they want to do business in other places. And they don't want to have different rules. And they know this is coming. So it's not as clear cut as you know all the special interests versus global warming. It's a little bit more of a different kind of lineup here. So it makes it very interesting. But look. Change is coming. We're gonna fix this problem because we have to.

It would be legislation a long time coming — scientists first theorized that human civilization could affect the climate in the 1960s.

>>Read a climate change science timeline.

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Published on June 27, 2008.

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References and Reading:
Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act

The Climate Security Act on OpenCongress.org
OpenCongress.org lets users track and search bills, and see what others are tracking.

"After Verbal Fire, Senate Effectively Kills Climate Change Bill"
by David M. Herszenhorn, for the NEW YORK TIMES, June 7, 2008.

"Senate warms to a climate policy"
by Gail Russell Chaddock, for the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, June 8, 2008.

Climate Change

NOW: The Political Climate
NOW list of resources to explore Climage Change, as well as links to other great NOW online resources.

"Scrap Kyoto"
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argue in DEMOCRACY that climate change is an energy production problem.

"The Question of Global Warming"
Freeman Dyson reviews two new books on climage change in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.

"Carbon Emissions Across the United States"
This NEW YORK TIMES interactive map illustrates the where and what of carbon emissions.

"Climate Change May Challenge National Security, Classified Report Warns"
"The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has completed a new classified assessment that explores how climate change could threaten U.S. security in the next 20 years by causing political instability, mass movements of refugees, terrorism, or conflicts over water and other resources in specific countries. The House Intelligence Committee is scheduled to be briefed Wednesday, June 25, on the main findings."

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