The Politics of Climate Change Legislation

Cap and trade may not be dead, but it now looks unlikely that Congress will pursue emissions regulation this year, which no doubt frustrates Michael Livermore, who makes the case for acting quickly over at TNR‘s The Vine. The gist of his case is that passing it now will give businesses and other interested parties more warning, and thus thus allow them to prepare better: “The more time that companies have to adjust and prepare for a cap, the more investment opportunities and jobs we can create now, when we really need them,” he writes.

But as William Galston explains, the politics of cap and trade just don’t look favorable:

One reason is public opinion: a Gallup survey released last week revealed that “for the first time in Gallup’s 25-year history of asking Americans about the trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth, a majority of Americans say economic growth should be given the priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.” Just four years ago, protecting the environment enjoyed a 17-point edge; today, the advantage goes to the economy, 51-42.

The second reason is regional politics. Support for environmental legislation is strongest on the coasts, weakest in the interior areas that depend more heavily on coal-fired power plants. The Midwest, which has already been hit hard by the collapse of manufacturing, would take a second blow. This matters because the Democratic Party is an uneasy coalition between the coasts and the interior, symbolized by bitter fight between Henry Waxman and John Dingell for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It is hard to imagine Midwestern Democrats voting for cap-and-trade in current economic circumstances, and perhaps not in any economic circumstances—that is, unless they receive credible assurances of dollar-for-dollar offsets against the higher costs their constituents would have to bear.

Brad Plumer points out some poll numbers that perhaps slightly counterbalance Galston’s assertion that the public isn’t interested in cap and trade, but even still, those numbers suggest two things: 1) Although the public is generally in favor of regulating emissions, it’s still a fairly low priority and 2) legislation that raises the price of gas at the pump, even if it provides for rebates, is toxic and will be fiercely opposed.

Given this political reality, I can’t see how cap-and-trade could possibly pass without a major change in the political environment. Other big-ticket legislation — financial bailouts, etc — has benefited from complexity. Health-care reform, despite its cost, looks great to a lot of people because it promises to provide something tangible in return for, at worst, a relatively painless adjustment in taxes.

But for most people, cap-and-trade offers nothing besides the feeling of virtue. You can’t take it home with you. You can’t use it, spend it, rely on it, except in the most abstract long-term sense. It’s an upkeep cost on the environment, promising a high cost in exchange for nothing more than maintaining the status quo.

And the debate over it will almost certainly be conducted on terms unfavorable to its backers. As soon as cap-and-trade looks at all like a possibility, Republicans and conservative activists will push back hard with a simple, politically powerful message: Obama and Congressional Democrats want to raise prices at the pump — and, they’ll add, raise your utility bills, food prices, etc., all in the midst of a serious recession. The rest of the details won’t matter, really, except to the wonks and deal-makers; amongst the general public, the debate will be over gas prices first, followed by utility and food prices. Conservation is a nice ideal, but few people see it as a short-term priority. In flush times, perhaps such legislation could prevail, but these days, with the economy spiraling further downward, it seems rather unlikely.

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy Flickr user Aussiegall.