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Climate Bill Cacophony

With so much back-and-forth on news pages, papers need more editorials
May 27, 2009

Last week, the House Energy and Commerce committee approved energy and climate legislation that could put the first national cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. Many news reports called the decision a “landmark” and “historic.”

Indeed it was. But the best adjective for the legislative wrangling—as employed by The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle—is “messy.” And it’s likely to get worse. Since House Democrats released a “compromise” (i.e. watered-down on most key provisions) version of the bill two weeks ago, coverage has focused on shifting battle lines on the Hill and off. As such, hard news articles have featured a high degree of balanced, pro/con commentary, highlighting the need for more papers to provide arbitration in staff editorials.

In Congress, the divisions are simple in one respect—the GOP is almost universally opposed to the American Clean Energy and Security Act authored by Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Edward Markey. “Republicans stuck largely to a single script: The bill is too expensive and will wreck the economy,” Keith Johnson noted in a Wall Street Journal blog. California representative Mary Bono Mack was the only Republican to vote for the bill in committee last week.

The more important and complicated division exists within the Democratic majority in Congress. On the energy committee, opposition to the climate bill came from “moderate” legislators from regions that depend upon coal and manufacturing. E&E Publishing, which shares content with The New York Times, did an exemplary job of cataloguing that tug-of-war, and continues to do so as the bill moves on for wider scrutiny in the House. Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn had a particularly useful description of the “maneuvering” that is likely to take place this summer, explaining how agriculture and healthcare interests are expected to join the fray.

Off the Hill, the disagreements among environmentalists and others on the left are just as complicated as they are among Democrats. Grist has an excellent breakdown of those who adamantly support and oppose the bill, as well as those who fall somewhere in the middle (meaning, usually, grudging support that could be withdrawn if key provisions are further weakened).

So far, political compromise has meant weakening the bill’s near-term emissions reductions targets as well as the national renewable electricity standard, giving away the vast majority of emission permits rather than auctioning them, and allowing polluters to meet a large share of their targets through the purchase of international emissions offsets. On the left, battles rage around all of these points.

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The crux of the debate is whether the bill can be both politically viable (read: economically benign) and make a meaningful reduction in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s certainly a bewildering jungle of argument and opinion—much thornier, even, than the coverage climate science, where sources of qualified insight are much more limited. Part of the problem for hard news reporters is that there is no consensus-generating body for economic and political predictions, as there is for scientific ones in the form of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This was a subject that I discussed with journalist Eric Pooley in January after he authored an excellent Shorenstein Center report arguing that reporters had failed to recognize an “emerging consensus” among economists that a cap-and-trade scheme would have only a “marginal effect on economic growth.”

While there is still no consensus generating body like the IPCC, a new Web site overseen by almost twenty environmental economists from academia and various advocacy organizations,, is dedicated to aggregating peer-reviewed literature supporting Pooley’s point. New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin called it a star for reporters “navigating the fog of climate policy.” But he cautioned that, “In this realm, I will keep recommending that those seeking a real-world course forward do their navigation — however hard this makes the task — by tracking a variety of voices.”

Two important voices that Revkin pointed out (while noting that “both will probably be unhappy” he’d put them in the same sentence) are Climate Progress’s Joe Romm and the Breakthrough Institute. These two think tanks typify the debate on the left—they agree on the need to address global warming (and that doing so need not wreck the economy), but clash angrily over the best approach.

Romm recently lashed out against two Breakthrough Institute analyses that criticized the Waxman-Markey climate bill. One, published at the group’s blog, argued that the offsets contained therein would allow “business as usual” growth in U.S. emission until 2030. The other, published at the online magazine Yale Environment 360 (e360), argued that making carbon emissions expensive is not as important as direct investment in making clean energy cheap and widely available. Both are perspectives worth considering, despite Romm’s pompous dictate that journalists should ignore them.

The essay in e360, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, is especially worthwhile because it attempts to end a debate that has now gone on ad nauseum—that is, whether a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax is a better mechanism for pricing emissions. Anybody who looks will find reams of material on the advantages and disadvantages of each, but Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a powerful case that this is a “false debate” because “no society has been willing establish high carbon prices, regardless of the mechanism.”

Indeed, with voices at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post still making eleventh-hour calls for a carbon tax, pundits might consider spending their time on the details of the legislation at hand rather than swapping it out for something else.

Of course, that’s not what Nordhaus and Shellenberger do. They still don’t support the Waxman-Markey bill, arguing instead that: “environmentalists must shift from looking to high carbon prices to drive private sector energy innovation to using low carbon prices to fund public sector research, development, and deployment of clean energy technologies.” That’s not a totally unreasonable argument, but it does have a disappointing “aim-low!” tenor about it.

Despite his unwarranted attempt to shut Nordhaus and Shellenberger out of the debate, Romm still has the upper hand in his support for making the most out of Waxman-Markey. “Many people have asked me how I can reconcile my climate science realism, which demands far stronger action than the Waxman-Markey bill requires, and my climate politics realism, which has led me to strongly advocate passage of this flawed bill,” Romm wrote at Climate Progess. “The short answer is that Waxman-Markey is the only game in town.”

That position puts Romm in line with columnists like Paul Krugman, who made one of the most cogent and influential arguments anywhere in the media that, “The legislation now on the table isn’t the bill we’d ideally want, but it’s the bill we can get — and it’s vastly better than no bill at all.”

The New York Times, which publishes Krugman’s columns, made a similar argument in an editorial. So did the The Washington Post (sort of), the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, the Waco Tribune, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Salt Lake Tribune, and the Toledo Blade in Ohio (not to mention a column there by Tom Henry, who looks at the bill from a wonderful Great-Lakes point of view).

These editorials are incredibly valuable to readers trying to make sense of the myriad voices ringing out on the news pages. Unfortunately, it seems that only a handful of papers have weighed in. More should, especially as the debate (and lobbying efforts) surrounding Waxman-Markey intensifies as the bill moves toward the House floor and then, potentially, on to the Senate.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.