director of the AEI Press
President Bush has always been clearer on what he doesn't like about some climate policies than he has been about what alternatives he prefers. Such remained the case last week, when all the weaknesses--and a few of the strengths--of the president's approach to climate policy were on display. The timing of the speech itself was a little strange, coming on the same day as the Pope's visit to White House, ensuring that the climate speech would get second billing in the news. Given the president's desire to influence the Congressional and international debate over climate policy, it was an unusually muted way to deliver a major policy address.
If there was one way President Bush could have put a strong, constructive, conservative stamp on America's climate policy, it would have been a major speech on the ineffective European experience with GHG-emissions trading and the reasons why a carbon tax would be a better way to accomplish emissions reductions while protecting the economy.
The speech offered some valid insights into important aspects of the challenge that policymakers face when considering climate change--but no coherent policy, or anything approaching a rigorous analysis of the policy options before us. The debate over climate science was acknowledged--but the president's own position on it was barely articulated. New goals for American climate policy were offered--a gradual slowing of emissions from electric power plants, leading up to a halt in the growth of America's total emissions by 2025--but not a single syllable was devoted to explaining why those were the right goals, or how we ought to go about achieving them.
Speaking with only nine months left in office, knowing full well that the critical decisions on both domestic and international climate policy will be made in 2009 and 2010 by someone named either McCain or Obama, President Bush seemed to believe he could still influence the climate debate by offering 18 minutes of general observations about his aspirations for climate policy. What did he say? The president opened with this observation.
Climate change involves complicated science and generates vigorous debate. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change on our environment. Many are concerned about the effect of climate change policies on our economy. I share these concerns, and I believe they can be sensibly reconciled.
After seven years of being tagged--fairly or not, we hardly know--a skeptic on the science behind warming, the president now tells us that he "shares the concerns" of those who believe warming is having an effect on the environment. This platitude should please no one. If the president believes that the science behind warming justifies action, he could have made real news explaining that belief and the evidence that supports it. With Senator McCain's nomination secured, we now know for certain that the next president will not question the science behind warming. This was Bush's chance either to anticipate--and therefore potentially influence--his successor's position on climate science, or to oppose it. His vague expression of shared "concern" did neither.
Far more problematic is the concluding sentence of the president's opening paragraph, in which he assured us that he believes the tension between concerns over the environment and the economy can be "sensibly reconciled." This is, of course, the core question of climate policy. So far, no policy, at any level of government, has met that challenge. We simply do not know how to cut emissions quickly enough, by a large enough amount, at a cost that is sufficiently affordable as to be politically viable. We aren't even close. The technological, economic, and political constraints on emissions reductions are enormous--considering that the U.S. and other industrialized countries would need to transition rapidly to a zero-emissions economy in order to actually stop warming. The president believes that the proposals Congress is currently considering are much too expensive--yet scientists consider them environmentally insufficient. How, therefore, are we to understand the president's assurance that these competing concerns can be "sensibly reconciled"?
The president provides no real answer to that question. He took credit for having "taken a rational, balanced approach to these serious challenges," before announcing that, as the result of some unstated (but presumably rational) re-balancing of his approach, he has decided that America should set a "new national goal: to stop the growth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2025." To reach that goal, he called for unspecified actions that would "slow the growth of power sector greenhouse gas emissions so they peak within 10 to 15 years, and decline thereafter."
These two goals were the only specific, tangible elements of a speech that quickly moved into a lengthy list of philosophical observations about "the right way" or "wrong way" for Congress "to approach reducing greenhouse gas emissions." So one might have expected there to be some discussion of those goals: Why freeze emissions by 2025? Why not 2015--or 2035? What would the environmental benefits of meeting the president's target be? Is there any reason to believe that the president's plan is the most economically efficient pathway for emissions reductions? Why the focus on emissions from electric power plants only, rather than the whole economy? What would this policy cost--and what would it cost to cut emissions either faster or slower? Why are the proposals before Congress now too expensive? If we are to even begin to assess whether his new goal really does "sensibly reconcile" the economic and environmental tensions in the climate debate, most if not all of those questions have to be answered--yet not one of them seems to have crossed the president's mind.
The other most glaring absence in the speech was any tangible proposal for a means to achieve his new goals. The scope and level of emissions targets are hotly debated issues--but so is the question of what policy tool should be used to achieve them. It has been reported that the president was going to speak in favor of an emissions-trading system, but dropped that from the speech in the face of criticism when administration officials briefed allies in advance of the speech. (His press secretary, in advance of the speech, explained that the administration was no longer opposed in principle to a cap-and-trade system--but did not support any of the bills in Congress. Again, no explanation for this "balancing" was offered.) Whatever the reason, the absence of any position on this critical question cannot be excused if the president really aspires to be a leader in this debate.
And once again, the president passed up the opportunity--probably his last--to really influence the debate over policy mechanisms by declining to discuss the merits of a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a superior alternative, both economically and environmentally, to emissions trading. If there was one way President Bush could have put a strong, constructive, conservative stamp on America's climate policy, it would have been a major speech on the ineffective European experience with GHG-emissions trading and the reasons why a carbon tax would be a better way to accomplish emissions reductions while protecting the economy. This idea has been very actively discussed among a number of leading environmental economists, particularly in the last year, and the administration is well-staffed with people who could do an admirable job developing a solid proposal for a carbon tax--yet the president won't even discuss the concept. (In fact, his speech even implied opposition to this idea, arguing that raising taxes is the "wrong way" to reduce emissions.)
So how should we go about cutting emissions? The president correctly notes that there "are a number of ways to achieve these reductions, but all responsible approaches depend on accelerating the development and deployment of new technologies." That is true, of course--but it begs the question. Environmental advocates believe that the best way to accelerate technological development is through strict emissions limits. Does President Bush? We don't really know, although the president assures us that he wants America "to set realistic goals for reducing emissions consistent with advances in technology, while increasing our energy security and ensuring our economy can continue to prosper and grow." Indeed.
I would like to set some realistic goals for reducing my weight--consistent with advances in my time-management and motivational skills, while increasing my food security and ensuring that my family economy can continue to prosper and grow. Don't hold your breath. If I really want to get in shape, I'll need to sacrifice something--and the president does us no favors by suggesting that emissions reductions on an environmentally meaningful scale can be accomplished without real costs. Real leadership on this issue demands a thoughtful evaluation of our goals, the merits of different methods of achieving them, and the costs we should be willing to bear in pursuit of them. We can only hope we will hear that from the next president.
Perhaps on Earth Day 2009.
Samuel Thernstrom is the director of the AEI Press.