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Real Feasibility: Dividends Relieve Economic Uncertainty

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Visions of Obama arriving triumphant in Copenhagen with a climate bill in hand focused the otherwise fractious environmental community in 2009. But the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House is stalled in the Senate, and environmentalists must now rethink their strategies for 2010.

The old strategy seems to have run its course. That strategy was 1) paying off coal, utilities and Wall Street with giveaways and offsets, and 2) downplaying the costs of a carbon price ("a postage stamp a day"). Criticism from the left was ferociously countered by stating that political feasibility trumped the bill's flaws. Criticism from the right -- that the bill is a tax on middle-income families -- was not effectively dealt with.

The old strategy has two now-evident problems. First, the House bill isn't politically feasible in the Senate. And second, it is succumbing to a populist-style attack that plays into people's economic insecurities and distrust.

In the public's mind, the economy is number one and climate stability is way down the list. Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) victory in Massachusetts was the result of a widespread feeling that the health care bill was loaded down with pork, was impossible to understand, and might hurt consumers in a down economy. The parallel to the Waxman-Markey bill is obvious.

Meanwhile, polls in California have shown that support for the state's climate law goes down when people hear about its potential costs -- and voters will face a ballot initiative in November to suspend it. The lesson is that 'political feasibility' ultimately means support from real voters, not just from industry lobbyists.

For environmentalists still committed to the giveaway-postage-stamp strategy, the way forward remains cloudy. Give away still more to coal, utilities and Wall Street? Throw in more goodies for nuclear and off-shore oil? Lower the targets and add offsets? As Grist's David Roberts notes, the cap-and-trade bill is "already not much more than a mild improvement on business as usual through 2020 -- how much further down can it come?"

Fortunately, a new strategy is emerging behind the bipartisan Carbon Limits and Energy for American Renewal (CLEAR) Act, sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). The 39-page CLEAR Act has a very simple architecture: (1) make all polluters pay; (2) return ¾ of the revenue to the American people (to offset higher energy prices); and (3) spend the rest on climate-friendly public investments. There are no giveaways to powerful corporations, and no funny trading games that let polluters continue polluting while Wall Street reaps billions from carbon derivatives. Most importantly, all but the most polluting households will come out ahead economically -- that is, the money they'll get back will exceed the higher prices they'll pay. In other words, capping carbon won't be a tax on middle-class families. On the contrary, it will pay them dividends.

In a time of economic uncertainty, what could be more reassuring -- and politically appealing -- than that?

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