3 Viable Paths for Fixing Climate in Obama's Second Term

By Auden Schendler

If we tackle this problem in earnest, the rewards far exceed the pain.

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A tattered flag in front of a home damaged by Sandy in Brooklyn, New York (Reuters)

Two things have happened since the obscure holiday of St. Crispin' day, October 25, this year. First, Hurricane Sandy emphatically reset the American conversation on climate change. A recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek was "It's Global Warming, Stupid!" Second, the presidential candidate who understands climate science and wants to take action has been elected. In his victory speech Obama said: "We want our children to live in an America that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

In history, St. Crispin's day happens to have marked two legendary battles where armies overcame overwhelming odds. The U.S. and Australia's improbable victory, outgunned and outnumbered, at Leyte Gulf during World War II, was one. And in 1415 at Agincourt, Henry V and his men used longbows to defeat the numerically superior French forces. It's worth noting that the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade also happened on St. Crispin's day, reminding us that great boldness often carries great consequences.

Perhaps this year, St. Crispin's day marked another improbable victory against all odds: The date when Americans finally started talking about realistic paths to climate solutions.

Where do we go from here? There are at least three viable options today, and here they are:

The Light Brigade: A Frontal Assault on Climate

It has become abundantly clear that adaptation, the climate solution recommended by Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon, is a joke and a myth. "Adaptation" looks like lower Manhattan under four feet of water. The upside of that harsh truth is that government officials like Michael Bloomberg, Andrew Cuomo, Obama, and maybe even Chris Christie, are beginning to realize what conservative Yale economist William Nordhaus has been saying for years: It's going to cost more not to deal with climate change than to fix it.

With that in mind, and knowing that Obama does see climate as a huge problem, it's possible he could pursue actual legislation to reel in carbon emissions.

The right path wouldn't be tepid support for a wildly complex fraud-incubating cap and trade program. Rather, it would be a creative, bipartisan policy fix supported by the left and by Grover Norquist Tea Partying Republicans.

The approach, proposed by a group called Citizen's Climate Lobby and suggested in similar form by climatologist James Hansen, is a fee on carbon at the wellhead or mine, refunded back to the consumer. "Fee and dividend" looks like your heating, electric, and car fillup costs going up by, say, $50 each month (though the cost could rise), but a check for the same amount arriving at your mailbox every quarter. The idea: create a revenue-neutral market incentive for our economy to decarbonize, without adding a new tax. The right likes this approach because it's not a tax and because it creates a market incentive to fix climate. The left likes it because a carbon fee is the sine qua non of fixing climate change. Will this alone slow the rise of the oceans? Of course not. But it's the first step, it signals intent and creates policy certainty, and China will take notice. A simpler approach -- a straight tax on carbon -- is now gaining traction as part of a deal to fix the fiscal cliff.

Leyte Gulf: Fixing Climate through Tax Reform

Even though the above policy fix makes wonks drool, it would be pretty bold for Obama to go after climate directly, given the insane partisanship in the country, and the outsized bickering around this issue. That's why it's a kind of Light Brigade approach. So perhaps he needs to tackle it obliquely, the same way Americans won the Battle of Leyte Gulf, forced into using smaller, nimble ships to fight more powerful opposition forces. A policy version of this tactic might be to attack climate from the sides, through tax reform, which both John Boehner and Obama see as necessary.

Most economists agree our tax system is broken. It's a Rube Goldberg device that does nothing well and a lot of things badly. Annual compliance costs alone are in the hundreds of billions of dollars, more than the economies of many nations.

Left, right, and center agree with William E. Simon, the former Treasury secretary, who said that "the nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose."

So let's do something everyone agrees we need to do, and in the process, start taxing bads instead of goods: pollution instead of income. Again, a carbon tax won't solve all our problems, but it's the sine qua non of climate fixes, and a market signal and a message to China and India that the U.S. is now moving on climate, and they can follow or be left in the dust.

Agincourt: Campaign Finance Reform

Perhaps tax reform is just too big a lift. Why not go after El Jefe of all problems -- one both right and left have aspired to fix -- the problem of money in politics? As with Henry V at Agincourt, we'd need both luck and strategic brilliance to pull this off. But if we did, as Shakespeare's King Henry said: "From this day to the ending of the world, we in it shall be remembered!"

Currently, politicians can't simply make the right decision, they have to make the decision that will allow the dollars to keep flowing in. This is madness. It means soul crushing 24/7 fundraising, and limited time to actually govern. What if, after the dust settles from this election, both parties asked the question: "Were we happy spending a billion dollars each to achieve nothing?" We've certainly proved the Mutual Assured Destruction of unlimited campaign spending. Publicly financed elections create a better world, allowing our elected officials the time and freedom to actually govern, to make the right decision, not the one that protects fundraising, and allows citizens and businesses to spend their money on things they really care about, like schools and churches, food banks and medicine and children. If you fix money in politics, you start to fix climate, and health care, and energy subsidies, and key problems with our democracy. Money in politics is the great structural failure of our republic.

People on the inside of the sausage factory tell me this is crazy talk, and that campaign finance reform can never happen, because the people who benefit most from the money -- the lobbyists -- are in charge. Perhaps even tax reform and climate legislation are themselves similarly impossible propositions.

But after this awful election, and after Sandy, many of us -- citizens, parents and patriots -- have had enough. We are mobilized for a fistfight, or worse. At Agincourt, a similar point of no return, King Henry V recognized the human willingness to shed blood in a battle worthy of the fighting. Climate is one such battle. If we tackle this problem in earnest, the rewards far exceed the pain. If we do this, as Shakespeare wrote:

...gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/11/3-viable-paths-for-fixing-climate-in-obamas-second-term/265286/