Balmy congressional climes

Trigger Warning: racism, colonialism, climate change

President Obama began this month with a coordinated political message about climate change. Over the course of his presidency, he has emphasized the need for action on that environmental issue among others and been criticized for it. Until this point, however, he has had difficulty directly confronting the US’s responsibility for the warming climate. Instead, his most visible policy action has been inaction – his mild mannered blocking of the Keystone Pipeline. More quietly, his administration has dramatically increased federal investment in environmentally friendly power sources, but that seems like a mild alteration of policy rather than a concrete effort to change the environmental impact of the United States.

The newly released climate plan builds on the expected returns from that increased federal funding of wind, solar, and other more or less carbon-neutral energy sources. The expected fruits of those investments are to be harvested with a reduction in electricity producers’ carbon outputs to just over two thirds of 2005’s levels by 2030. The regulatory system is merely an expansion of existing limits on other chemical pollutants, namely Mercury, Sulfur, and Arsenic. It also incorporates guidelines in public planning, anticipating increasingly destructive climate conditions to existing infrastructure, which will be implemented with a task force of state, local, and tribal leaders. In short, it avoids almost every major pitfall to the Republican statements on climate change during the 2012 election from the bafflingly unrealistic expectations to open disregard for indigenous communities and other specific populations particularly at risk of existing climate change impacts.

Is that enough though? The pragmatic nature of the climate plan sets distant goals, deliberately to provide the private industries significant time to comply with the announced regulations. There is a history of that sort of long term program ending up derailed, as the US’s backing out of the Kyoto Protocol (and that plan’s other failures) demonstrates. Careful, meditated action has its strengths, but on this particular issue it has a history of justifying apathy and further kicking the can down the road. While something of a defining characteristic of Obama’s technocratic style, as with other issues (such as health care reform), his measured reforms fail to damper Republican and conservative hostility to solutions on this and other problems.

Almost immediately after Obama’s announcement, former congressional representative Bob Inglis critically stated his regulation-minded program was anathema for Republicans. Instead, he floated a vague “fix” of the economics, which he finally specified would mean a carbon tax matched with a corresponding tax cut would be what Republicans could support, or at least not vote block. Alex Wagner, hosting the program he was a guest on, called him out on the duplicity almost immediately – “If we’re talking about you know poison-pills or language that is just kryptonite, do you think this President would have more success saying the word ‘tax’? Or Republicans for that matter would have more success pushing for a tax, rather than regulation?”

Inglis, who has been out of office since 2011, didn’t skip a beat and immediately had an alternative for Wagner, Obama, and anyone else motivated to address climate change. He offered, “How about this deal. [Obama or another democratic leader should say] we’ll give you the votes for pricing carbon dioxide, and you, Speaker Boehner, choose the corresponding tax cut.” Shifting the discussion from regulations to direct taxation doesn’t really make sense, especially since a commodity tax is difficult to predict the revenue of, so creating a predicted counter-revenue tax cut will actually be near impossible. Of course, that’s not the point, which is gaining leverage. In essence, what can the demand for action on climate change do for congressional Republicans?

Residents of Kiribati piling stones and sandbags to stave off rising ocean waters, from January 2015Kiribati residents have taken as of the past year to piling stones and sandbags to stave off rising ocean waters in the low-lying nation of islands in the Pacific, from here.

It’s fitting that the wealthy in the industrial world can not only economically profit from the putting of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere but also reap political capital from almost any and every plan to reduce that output. The rhetorical context that makes that possible has its own history. Any and all responses to the looming threats of climate change have to responsible, reasonable, and essentially adult. They have to emphasize, as Obama’s announcement did, that they will act on that problem while also “lowering energy bills, ensuring reliable service, and paving the way for new job-creating innovations”. There has to be no objectionable element, no cost, no difficulty, no discomfort. Even when that is promised, it won’t be believed, and another, new, slightly tweaked version of the same sort of policies can be held up as the actually feasible policy.

Inglis’ new idea is to push for other policy desires (for more tax cuts, in this case) to be fulfilled at the cost of each and every action on the threat of climate change, but expect to see that bog standard congressional Republican tactic (recall the government shutdown) increasingly applied to desperately necessary action on climate change.

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One thought on “Balmy congressional climes

  1. […] prioritizing action on global climate change, and have even seen some response from among others, the Obama Administration itself. As I’ve noted before, both colonized people living within those parts of the world and […]

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