Who Killed Cap-and-Trade?

In a recent article in the New York Times, John Broder asks “Why did cap-and-trade die?” and responds that “it was done in by the weak economy, the Wall Street meltdown, determined industry opposition and its own complexity.”  Mr. Broder’s analysis is concise and insightful, and I recommend it to readers.  But I think there’s one factor that is more important than all those mentioned above in causing cap-and-trade to have changed from politically correct to politically anathema in just nine months.  Before turning to that, however, I would like to question the premise of my own essay.

Is Cap-and-Trade Really Dead?

Although cap-and-trade has fallen dramatically in political favor in Washington as the U.S. answer to climate change, this approach to reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is by no means “dead.”

The evolving Kerry-Graham-Lieberman legislation has a cap-and-trade system at its heart for the electricity-generation sector, with other sectors to be phased in later (and it employs another market-based approach, a series of fuel taxes for the transportation sector linked to the market price for allowances).  Of course, due to the evolving political climate, the three Senators will probably not call their system “cap-and-trade,” but will give it some other creative label.

The competitor proposal from Senators Cantwell and Collinsthe CLEAR Act — has been labeled by those Senators as a “cap-and-dividend” approach, but it is nothing more nor less than a cap-and-trade system with a particular allocation mechanism (100% auction) and a particular use of revenues (75% directly rebated to households) — and, it should be mentioned, some unfortunate and unnecessary restrictions on allowance trading.

And we should not forget that cap-and-trade continues to emerge as the preferred policy instrument to address climate change emissions throughout the industrialized world — in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan (as I wrote about in a recent post).

But back to the main story — the dramatic change in the political reception given in Washington to this cost-effective approach to environmental protection.

A Rapid Descent From Politically Correct to Politically Anathema

Among factors causing this change were:  the economic recession; the financial crisis (linked, in part, with real and perceived abuses in financial markets) which thereby caused great suspicion about markets in general and in particular about trading in intangible assets such as emission allowances; and the complex nature of the Waxman-Markey legislation (which is mainly not about cap-and-trade, but various regulatory approaches).

But the most important factor — by far — which led to the change from politically correct to politically anathema was the simple fact that cap-and-trade was the approach that was receiving the most serious consideration, indeed the approach that had been passed by one of the houses of Congress.  This brought not only great scrutiny of the approach, but — more important — it meant that all of the hostility to action on climate change, mainly but not exclusively from Republicans and coal-state Democrats, was targeted at the policy du jour — cap-and-trade.

The same fate would have befallen any front-running climate policy.

Does anyone really believe that if a carbon tax had been the major policy being considered in the House and Senate that it would have received a more favorable rating from climate-action skeptics on the right?  If there’s any doubt about that, take note that Republicans in the Congress were unified and successful in demonizing cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax.”

Likewise, if a multi-faceted regulatory approach (that would have been vastly more costly for what would be achieved) had been the policy under consideration, would it have garnered greater political support?  Of course not.  If there is doubt about that, just observe the solid Republican Congressional hostility (and some announced Democratic opposition) to the CO2 regulatory pathway that EPA has announced under its endangerment finding in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA.

(There’s a minor caveat, namely, that environmental policy approaches that hide their costs frequently are politically favored over policies that make their costs visible, even if the former policy is actually more costly.  A prime example is the broad political support for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, relative to the more effective and less costly option of gasoline taxes.  Of course, cap-and-trade can be said to obscure its costs relative to a carbon tax, but that hardly made much difference once opponents succeeded in labeling it “cap-and-tax.”)

In general, any climate policy approach — if it was meaningful in its objectives and had any chance of being enacted — would have become the prime target of political skepticism and scorn.  This has been the fate of cap-and-trade over the past nine months.

Why is Political Support for Climate Policy Action So Low in the United States?

If much of the political hostility directed at cap-and-trade proposals in Washington has largely been due to hostility towards climate policy in general, this raises a further question, namely, why has there been so little political support in Washington for climate policy in general.  Several reasons can be identified.

For one thing, U.S. public support on this issue has decreased significantly, as has been validated by a number of reliable polls, including from the Gallup Organization.  Indeed, in January of this year, a Pew Research Center poll found that “dealing with global warming” was ranked 21st among 21 possible priorities for the President and Congress.  (It should be noted some polls are not consistent with these.)  This drop in public support is itself at least partly due to the state of the national economy, as public enthusiasm about environmental action has — for many decades — been found to be inversely correlated with various measures of national economic well-being.

Although the lagging economy (and consequent unemployment) is likely the major factor explaining the fall in public support for climate policy action, other contributing factors have been the so-called Climategate episode of leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia and the damaged credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) due to several errors in recent reports.

Furthermore, the nature of the climate change problem itself helps to explain the relative apathy among the U.S. public.  Nearly all of our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly-publicized environmental events or “disasters,” ranging from Love Canal to the Cuyahoga River.

But the day after Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire in 1969, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that “the cause was uncertain, because rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes.”  On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries.  A direct consequence of the “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different.  Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable.  You and I observe the weather, not the climate (note the dramatic difference of opinion about the reality of climate change between climatologists and television weathercasters).  Until there is an obvious and sudden event — such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a disastrous sea-level rise — it’s unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that has inspired previous Congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

Finally, it should be acknowledged that the fiercely partisan political climate in Washington has completed the gradual erosion of the bi-partisan coalitions that had enacted key environmental laws over four decades.  Add to this the commitment by the opposition party to deny the President any (more) political victories in this year of mid-term Congressional elections, and the possibility of progressive climate policy action appears unlikely in the short term.

An Open-Ended Question

There are probably other factors that help explain the fall in public and political support for climate policy action, as well as the changed politics of cap-and-trade.  I suspect that readers will tell me about these.

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.