Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

David Roberts Headshot

Cap-and-Trade vs. Carbon Tax: A Bird in Hand Is Worth Two on Alpha Centauri

Posted: Updated:

grist.org

I find it really hard to believe, but the perennial "carbon tax vs. cap-and-trade" debate is still going on. It goes on and on and on and it never changes. It's like everyone's following a script now.

I've been over this territory so many times that I hardly know what to say any more. So here's what some other people are saying:

Joe Romm started this off by asking James Hansen to drop his quixotic and politically toxic campaign against the Waxman-Markey climate/energy bill. Kevin Drum chimed in, supporting Romm.

Michael O'Hare responded with a heated defense of carbon taxes (or as he calls them, carbon charges), premised mainly on a basic misunderstanding of Romm's post. (Joe wasn't defending cap-and-trade as such against the carbon tax alternative -- he was defending Waxman-Markey, including all its complementary policies, against the tax alternative.)

Ryan Avent says taxes and caps are not that different in effect and only one has a chance of passing, so carbon taxers should STFU. Andrew Sullivan responds that he thinks the tax will work better, and so no, he won't STFU. Kevin and Ryan both respond to Sullivan, pointing out that he seems to be suffering from some serious misunderstandings about cap-and-trade systems. (In this he has, to put it mildly, plenty of company).

Meanwhile, Yale 360 has rounded up a group of "experts" to weigh in on the issue, though several of the purported experts seem to understand very little about the policies and/or the politics at hand. The submissions from Jeffrey Sachs and Roger Pielke Jr., in particular, are so poorly argued as to defy explanation. Michael Tobis says that Jeffrey Sachs' argument for a tax "makes sense" to him, but Kevin points out that Sachs' argument is somewhat hampered by the fact that virtually every single sentence is head-slappingly false.

Is that it? I think that's it. For now, anyway. I'm sure the entire roundelay will repeat itself soon enough.

Rather than tread all this ground yet again, here are what I take to be the three key points:

The policies are, or can be made, roughly equivalent. With a tax you get certainty about prices but uncertainty about emission reductions; with a cap you get the inverse. You can tweak a tax to shift the balance; you can do the same to cap-and-trade. Both can be weakened with loopholes and favors for special interests. Political reality being what it is, either is likely to impose a fairly low price on carbon for the first decade or so. Which means ...

In the short-term, complementary policies will spur the most action. The never-ending, chin-stroking carbon pricing debate perpetually overlooks this basic fact. (See: “Cap and Trade is Not Enough: Improving US Climate Policy” [PDF] from Carnegie Mellon.) What's going to knock us off the status quo path in the next decade is, above all, new targets and standards for energy efficiency. Also: a renewable energy standard, a low-carbon fuel standard, smart-grid standards and funding, government procurement policies, direct government investment, etc. etc. These are the policies that could get things rolling immediately. And guess what?

The Waxman-Markey bill contains those complementary policies. Also, it exists. Both these characteristics set it apart from the Alternative Universe Carbon Tax Pony Bill. Carbon taxers seem blinded by a misguided obsession with the specific mechanics of carbon pricing. By bashing Waxman-Markey, they are aligning themselves with people who want to block the best opportunity for climate/energy action in a generation. They're aligning themselves with people who want to block it not in favor of a pony alternative, but in favor of doing nothing, to protect corporate donors. In many cases, they are adopting the exact same rhetoric as conservative obstructionists.

If taxers want to engage productively, they should advocate for tax-like features in the cap-and-trade provision of the Waxman-Markey bill -- price floors and/or ceilings, fully auctioned permits, expanded banking and borrowing, etc. Bashing the whole bill in order to argue endlessly and fruitlessly in favor of a hopeless alternative, the advantages of which exist entirely in the whiteboard fantasies of economists, is politically daft.

The focus should be twofold: a) get complementary policies up andrunning quickly, and b) get some kind of carbon pricing scheme inplace, which in future years -- as the depredations of climate changebecome clearer to the public -- can be tweaked and improved. Passingthe Waxman-Markey bill would achieve both.