Change We Hope to Avoid

Obama's appointments suggest climate change is a top priority

Democrats have a weak environmental track record. They are long on lip service but short on action. Republicans tend to be even worse, favoring easier and accelerated exploitation of natural resources. Opposing such efforts is important, but a far cry from actually improving environmental law and policy. Virtually all significant environmental legislation was passed in the 1970s.

With President-elect Obama naming former EPA head Carol Browner as his "climate czar," it looks certain that we will get legislation on carbon emissions in the coming year or two. This is a good thing, but it should have happened when Al Gore was vice president. The delay deprived us of phase-in time and an adjustment period, making it critical that we take the right approach.

Fortunately, the rest of the world has not been so slow to act. Europe instituted a cap-and-trade system years ago, but they created too many credits, undermining the resulting market. We must avoid that mistake. Credit trading has worked well for us in controlling sulfur and nitrogen emissions, but carbon emissions are a different beast. They come from diverse sources, and whereas elimination of sulfur is a fairly practical goal, with carbon gases it is not. We can no more eliminate them than we can stop cows from farting.

Complexity in the problem demands simplicity in the solution. A carbon tax offers predictability where credit trading instead offers volatility. Too many lawyers and bureaucrats will spoil the broth, and it will be a challenge keeping the attorney's club known as Congress from turning carbon legislation into a legal make-work program. Lisa Jackson, incoming head of the EPA, is a chemical engineer with experience tackling emissions in New Jersey, and she may be just the person to steer us toward a practical and effective solution. Likewise, Obama's surprise choice of physicist Steven Chu to head the Department of Energy suggests a welcome embrace of science in the new administration.

Bush's disregard for science was part of the disconnect from reality that came with his rigid ideology. Republicans are in intellectual foreclosure and deserve little say in forging climate legislation, not that they have much to say beyond, "No, no, no!" A few, including our own Lamar Alexander, have shown the maturity to recognize problems caused by emissions and work toward solutions, but most remain mired in juvenile fundamentalism. Their eager embrace of Sarah Palin is ample evidence of hormonal imbalance, and their whimpering about socialism shows short circuits in the brain.

Socialism involves public ownership of market assets, and when it comes to natural resources, U.S. policy has long been socialistic, whether we care to admit it or not. Dumping waste into our waters and pollution into our air is the worst kind of socialism—treating public assets as if they have no market value. A carbon tax would cure this, and the same principle needs to be carried over to other resources before they become too depleted to conserve.

Clean air and water have real value, but that value is external to many of the markets that should be sensitive to it. Studies show a dollar's worth of air pollution can trigger up to $20 in healthcare costs in the form of respiratory ailments. The link is real; you can feel it in your lungs. Economically, the link is weak to nonexistent. Sporadic fines or lawsuits occasionally push health costs back onto polluters, but not in any predictable fashion. Despite all the rhetoric about the power of free markets, we refuse to give our economy the freedom to be a good steward.

If Obama can bring our markets in line with America's strong conservation ethic, he will leave an enduring environmental legacy comparable to Teddy Roosevelt's creation of the National Park system. As of this writing, he has yet to name his Interior Secretary, perhaps the most critical environmental post. Californian Mike Thompson would bring change we can believe in.