Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Politics of misplaced priorities

If ever there was a time for U.S. presidential candidates to forgo the "business-as-usual" campaigning and offer up a bold plan for saving ourselves from ourselves, this is that time. I do not believe that Earth is in balance, but It's a pretty good bet that civilization is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Joe Klein writing in the current issue of Time Magazine offers his take on the most pressing issues he believes Americans should demand that field of presidential hopefuls address substantively in the (many) months leading up to next year's election.

"What follows is my dream agenda, the issues I will use, as a voter and as a journalist, to judge how seriously the various presidential hopefuls should be taken in the election to come. There is only one issue area—foreign policy and national security—that I considered to be an absolute, drop-dead threshold test. The next President will have to be far more knowledgeable about the rest of the world than the current one was when he came to office. He (or she) will also have to recognize that the most important global threats we're facing—terrorism, for example—require American leadership but that they can't be solved by unilateral American action. After the past six years, that should be an easy test to pass."
Klein then goes on to list his other priority issues: Energy Independence, Universal Health Insurance, Education Reform, Mandatory National Service.

Climate change is a glaring omission from this list. I suspect Mr. Klein assumes that issue is addressed under "Energy Independence". If that is the case, then I would switch that issue with "Foreign Policy and National Security" as the absolute, drop-dead threshold test. If we effectively deal with climate change by charting a sustainable energy future, I guarantee you that we will resolve our major foreign policy and national security concerns. The consequences of failing to stabilize our climate will, in all likelihood, make every other issue irrelevant.

I am dismayed by the fact that the American press seems as clueless as the candidates with regard to the climate/energy challenge. Mr. Klein's assertion that "no one knows what to do" about our addiction to oil is rather shocking. Even if his reference is to politicians, he should at least point out that folks like Amory Lovins, Herman Scheer, George Monbiot among others have proposed solutions that the candidates need to be considering. He may not like what they have to say, but they certainly have a sense of what we need to do.

Following is what Mr. Klein has to say about energy in the Time Magazine article. I'm afraid it only supports Bucky Fuller's observation that
"humanity's most fundamental survival problems could never be solved by politics." (GW)

Energy Independence

From: "The Courage Primary"
By Joe Klein
Time Magazine
June 2007

Now that the scientific argument about global warming is over, now that defense hawks like former CIA Director James Woolsey are saying dependence on foreign oil is a major national-security concern, now that even the President has, sort of, acknowledged that our "addiction" to oil is real, the question comes: What to do?

The shocking answer is that no one—not even Al Gore—really knows. Not that there aren't solutions. It's just that most of the intellectual energy has gone into diagnoses rather than prescriptions. As a result, you will hear inspiring rhetoric from just about every candidate in the 2008 campaign about how an aggressive assault on global warming will be a test of national greatness—like going to the moon was in the 1960s. You will also hear how an energy-independence campaign will create new industries with tens of thousands of new jobs, plus boon times for farmers who produce ethanol and biodiesel from their crops—all true, by the way—and there will be plenty of talk about tax incentives to encourage people to buy hybrid cars, set up windmills and bring new technologies like coal gasification to scale. There will be plenty of talk about carrots, but very little about sticks.

That's not an excuse for Presidential candidates, however. Any politician who wants to be considered credible on this issue will have to propose some pain—and any pain is likely to fall unfairly on those parts of the country where electricity is generated by coal-fired plants or where urban sprawl dictates long commutes in automobiles. So if you propose, say, a gasoline tax, which hurts the working poor disproportionately, you probably also have to propose something to ease the pain—like spending the gas-tax money on payroll tax relief, which helps the working poor disproportionately. (Gore is the only political figure who has endorsed that sort of tax swap.) Those sorts of discussions get very complicated very quickly.

In his March congressional testimony, Gore laid out a comprehensive series of proposals to combat global warming. With the help of Robert Socolow, a Princeton professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who is a carbon-emissions expert, I've made Gore's general policy prescriptions specific:

— A $30-per-ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions (which comes to 25 cents per gal. of gasoline and 2 cents per kW-h of electricity), with the proceeds going to payroll-tax relief.

— Higher fuel-efficiency standards for auto manufacturers. Socolow's goal is 60 m.p.g. by 2056.

— A $45-per-bbl. floor on petroleum, in order to ensure alternative-energy providers with a stable market.

— A moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, at least until new carbon-scrubbing techniques are perfected.

— A cap-and-trade system of controlling carbon emissions, in which major carbon producers—oil companies, public utilities—would have to pay for the right to pollute above a certain level. Those that reduced their pollution below their quota would be able to sell their excess capacity to companies that exceeded their quotas. The amount of pollution permitted would gradually be reduced over time.

Of this wish list, the cap-and-trade idea and the $45-per-bbl. price for oil are the most likely to succeed politically. All Democrats running for President, several Republicans and even some major industries, including Duke Energy and General Motors, favor a serious cap-and-trade program. The days of $45-per-bbl. oil are probably over, in any case. But buyer beware: the higher energy prices likely to result from these programs will be passed along to you, with alacrity, by the energy companies.

Global warming is, of course, global. But it will be difficult to persuade countries like China and India to do anything about the problem if the U.S. doesn't practice some benign unilateralism and take the first step. In 2008 no Presidential candidate should get away with stumping for "energy independence" without addressing both the carrots and, specifically, the sticks that will be needed. According to a recent Time poll, that will take some courage: only 35% of the public says it is willing to pay higher taxes to fight global warming.


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