Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Waxman Markey Draft Part IV: Transitioning to a Clean Energy Future

                Transitioning is in the title of the fourth title, and it’s absolutely critical to making any of this work – in terms of mitigation of climate change, and adaptation to it.  This title is unique in that it calls for significant development of groups focused on adaptation to climate change, and being aware of what policies will be necessary as the climate does change. 

                The first subtitle of the draft works to assuage fears of America losing its competitive edge as producers have to pay for their carbon emissions.  Ideas that are floated include rebates for producers in the short term, to make up some of their increased costs; the exact source of these funds – and indeed, the amount that it will really cost – is rather unclear, and likely to be opposed by Boehner and Cantors’ people.  Additionally, a “border adjustment” is proposed by which products imported to the United States must be charged for their carbon emissions.  This provision will be called protectionist by some, and is likely to lead to legal conundrums and the development of loopholes, as free-trade continues to try to persist.  China is the obvious loser from such a policy, insofar as the United States provides a large market for Chinese products; having to pay the costs of the carbon associated with their products will disadvantage Chinese companies, and may lead to international tension.  At the same time, this is an assurance that American companies cannot simply shift production overseas where carbon is still perfectly externalized, and sell their product back to Americans.  Of course, as throughout this bill, the consumer remains as a stakeholder and will feel a shock from the draft in terms of prices, despite these efforts to ease the transition.

                While consumers are left rather out of the transition loop from the last sub-title, the second sub-title focuses on workers.  In advocating bailing out the auto industry, the threat to thousands of American jobs was used as a primary argument.  The President has been fairly honest in his rhetoric, about the state of American jobs.  He has expressed in interviews and town hall meetings the understanding that many (most?) outsourced jobs are not coming back – and that new jobs need to be created.  To this end, the draft authorizes extensive training in green jobs, via the secretary of labor.  It remains to be seen what such training might entail, because we aren’t yet sure what green industries will be the “winners” when the costs of carbon are internalized; naturally, the bill stops short of picking winners (save for the loser that is nuclear). 

                Finally, the draft gets to adaptation.  The adaptation/mitigation debate is an interesting one, the ethical and practical subtexts of which this blog will not fully explore.   While the effects of climate change are uncertain but surely dependent on our actions now and into the future, there is also data to suggest that climate changes have been initiated in an irreversible way, and adaptation to these changes will be necessary.  The draft takes this up by directing NOAA to form a National Climate Service.  This organization will evaluate the actual changes to the climate, and from their impacts can be assessed and policy alternatives can be considered.  The draft goes on to outline a variety of organizations relevant to adaptive policy in some detail; there are groups set up to investigate vulnerability, some set up to examine health impacts, and others made to consider the impact of climate changes on natural resource use.

                All of these effects of climate change are real, and it is commendable that adaptation has a place in climate change rhetoric.  To the extent that we are obligated to avert a full upheaval of Earth’s climatic systems in the medium term, mitigation must be pursued; however, it is important that the most vulnerable people on Earth are not sacrificed in the name of future generations.

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