In an article about healthcare earlier this month, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the New Yorker,
On May 20, 1962, at Madison Square Garden, John F. Kennedy spoke to some twenty thousand people at a rally in support of a bill to provide hospital care for the aged [Medicare], one of forty-five such rallies around the country. In his speech, President Kennedy acknowledged that his bill would fall short of meeting every need. “We’ve got great unfinished business in this country,” he said, “and while this bill does not solve our problems in this area, I do not believe it is a valid argument to say, ‘This bill isn’t going to do the job.’ It will not, but it will do part of it.”
Somehow, the validity of climate change – an issue which will impact conservatives and liberals, developed and developing nations, alike – has become a divisive left vs. right issue. And so a failure to pass a climate bill prior to the 2010 elections when the Democrats will probably lose seats in the U.S. Congress, means that a robust cap and trade bill – with a target of more than 17 percent reductions in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020 – is unlikely.
While 17 percent seems like a respectable number at first glance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2007 that catastrophic climate change would result unless developed countries, including the United States, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25- 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80-95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. However, the goal of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 translates to just a 4 percent reduction below 1990 levels.
A cap-and-trade program would be a crucial part of any federal climate bill because history shows that industry can cost-effectively adapt to market-based systems that help to mitigate emissions of harmful pollutants in the atmosphere. For example, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990 – which provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with authority to set a national cap-and-trade scheme for emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides (that result in in acid rain) – the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the program would cost U.S. industry $6 billion each year. However, the annual cost was a fraction of that estimate – $1.1 to $1.8 billion "because the program enabled emitters to choose their own solutions to the problem."
Since a Republican carried the U.S. Senate election in Massachusetts last week, thus spoiling the Democratic party’s ability to use their 60 seats to vote by party lines and break a filibuster in the Senate, commentators and Congressmen alike have projected a certain death for the cap-and-trade provision in the Senate’s climate bill.
This argument, which assumes that a super-majority is necessary to pass major, economy-wide legislation in the Senate, fails to recognize that some of the most important legislation in U.S. history passed the Senate without the controlling party enjoying a super-majority. For example, the Federal Reserve Act passed the Senate in 1913 with the Democrats 8 seats shy of the ability to break a filibuster.
Two other major issues might stand in the way of senators hoping to pass a climate bill that includes a cap-and-trade program. First, the Democrats might exhaust whatever political capital remains in their arsenal in an attempt to pass health care reform. Second, the cost of the climate bill is viewed as prohibitively expensive. However, to quote an editorial in the New York Times from earlier this week, the first hurdle "is defeatist, the second greatly exaggerated" because numerous government studies have shown that the cost of the bill will be minimal for U.S. households and, although cliché to state at this point, it is nonetheless true that studies have shown time and again that the climate bill will create more jobs than it will send overseas.
An administration that often paraphrases Voltaire, "let not the perfect be the enemy of the good" – and that showed a willingness to compromise in order to achieve some semblance of progress in Copenhagen – perhaps might also lead Congress to reach a bi-partisan compromise on a climate bill that "isn’t going to do the job" but that will "do part of it.”