Talking Past The Bill


E.D. Kain joins the Waxman-Markey debate:

Like cap and trade itself, the passage of Waxman-Markey is an example of legislation as indulgence.  Carbon credits, like papal indulgences, don’t actually limit carbon emissions anymore than indulgences sped one’s soul to heaven.  Perhaps in theory they do, but in reality the concessions to industry are always too great, the compromises entrenching industry status quo and crowding out innovators and alternative energy start-ups.  But meaningless legislation does wonders to ease a guilty conscience – the conscience of a liberal, perhaps, who sneers that opponents of Waxman-Markey have a “contempt for hard science” that is “unforgivable.”

Perhaps doing nothing is not, in fact, the worst course of action, when doing something is little more than an expensive illusion.

It seems to me that if the current legislation is only about appeasing a guilty conscience, then ED is right. But if it is a start on grinding down the incentives for carbon energy and ramping up the incentives for other forms of fuel, then it could prove useful down the line. I take all of Manzi's points and would prefer a simple tax, but as a start to a less carbon-based energy future, I'd vote for this flawed and anemic bill. And my main reason are the known unknowns: the potential for much greater climate change than is currently envisaged.

In weighing all these issues, I have to say that in the end, the moral question does hang heavy on me.

In pure economic terms, I'm not sure this bill is worth it (if it accelerates new energy technology, it still could be). But in reflecting on this, I do believe that my generation of humans should not be responsible for altering in unknowable ways the eco-system that sustains us and so many other forms of life. We have a responsibility not simply to advance our own material welfare, and weigh costs and benefits, but also to conserve our natural inheritance as much as we can. I reach this from a religious perspective, but it is easy to reach it from other grounds. And if this bill is the beginning of a process we can improve on and tweak and finesse in the coming years, then I think it's worth the loss of economic growth. Some things count for more than money or our own species' well-being. And climate change could take on a momentum impossible to impede if we carry on the way we are.