Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The time window for a revenue-neutral carbon tax is 2017-2018, so get cracking

My theory that our time for serious climate legislation is the two years after the 2016 election relies on the following reasons why up to 2016 won’t work:
  • Before 2014 is no good because the current House majority would never pass it (and the Senate minority would filibuster).
  • 2014-2016 is no good because the president’s party almost always loses seats in the House in the off year.
Then there’s 2016, the counterpart of the lucky fate of 2012 Senate elections. The Senate gets elected in three separate waves, with a few more Ds than Rs. Fate decreed an uneven distribution with a large minority of Ds up for election in 2012, 23 Ds versus 10 Rs, a big reason why this election was supposed to be bad in the Senate, until the Rs pulled out their unregistered pistols and shot up their own feet. Fate said 2014 would be somewhat closer in distribution between parties, so Math said that 2016 is the vulnerable year for Rs, with 24 Rs up for election compared to 10 Ds.

While far from certain, it’s possible that for two years after the 2016 election, and only for those two years, Ds will have somewhere in the vicinity of 60 votes in the Senate. That’s the chance. The 2018 election puts the Ds back on the defensive, 25 D seats versus 8 R seats.

I suggest two alternatives for explaining climate politics. One is Roger Pielke Jr.’s so-called Iron Law:

When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time.

The other is the acronym BOSO, or Brian’s Obvious Statement of the Obvious:

Getting 60 votes in the Senate is hard.

Only one of these is likely to display true insight into climate politics. The Iron Law appears to be unfalsifiable because it’s not applied where it doesn’t work, so you can probably guess which way I lean. If you go with the Iron Law though, then you make a few bets on technology and just hope for the best (and please don’t annoy Godwin by pointing out that was Hitler’s end-game strategy too). If by contrast you’re just a BOSO, then look for the best strategy to get to 60.

I’m assuming the president will be a Democrat, or a Republican who favors action, and that the House will pass a bill like they were able to in 2010. Getting Republican and possibly squishy Democratic support is the reason, really the only reason, to do a revenue-neutral carbon tax. A revenue-generating tax could do positive things for climate mitigation and adaptation, or a cap-and-trade law could provide similar incentives. It’s the possibility of getting a few Republican votes and the difficulty of BOSO that makes me think we should explore a revenue neutral tax.

And I’m saying “possibility,” not probability for all the above. On the hopeful side, science will continue to beat over the heads of the ignorant, and not-hopeful tragedies like Sandy may do the same.   Renewables will continue to expand while costs decrease, and shale gas can cut into the stranglehold that coal has over electricity politics in swing states like Ohio.  Demographics also favor reality. On the other hand, two election cycles between now and 2017 aren’t that many to get reality into Republican politics, which is actually getting more ideologically rigid at the state and local level.

Still, it’s an opportunity that we should plan for as much as possible, and revenue-neutral carbon tax might be the best way to do it. Meantime, stick with Eli’s strategy of regulating our way through this via the Clean Air Act (and I expect eventually through the Clean Water Act for ocean acidification).

 If the Republicans don’t bend in 2017 and there aren’t enough votes to get around them, then their rigidity will eventually make them a national version of the California Republican Party, a group so unpopular and powerless that it will have less than one third of the seats in both houses of the state legislature. That, however, will take even more time before it happens.