Five years ago, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham joined a handful of senators traveling to the Yukon territory to view firsthand the effects of climate change. Witnessing melting ice caps and permafrost, and Inuit communities struggling to cope with a transforming environment, Graham was “moved.” “Climate change is different when you come here, because you see the faces of people experiencing it,” he said. In the following years, he asserted that “climate change is real” and promoted a cap-and-trade bill in the Senate.
Today, Graham is sprinting in the other direction. In April, he abandoned his climate bill when Democrats decided to focus on immigration reform first. He remained opposed even when they ultimately agreed to take it up. These days, he is refusing to acknowledge that carbon-dioxide emissions cause warmer temperatures. “I think they’ve been alarmist and the science is in question,” he says. Graham no longer sounds especially moved by the plight of the Inuit, who may be facing a threat to their way of life but are not facing the threat of a right-wing primary challenge.
The canary in the coal mine is a classic metaphor for the science of climate change. For the politics of climate change, Graham is the canary. Once the sole Senate Republican supporting cap-and-trade, he’s keeled over in his cage, his limp corpse a sign that Congress can’t handle this issue. There’s only one solution at hand: Let the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) impose regulations to stop climate change.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act compelled the EPA to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. Hardly anybody thought the agency would actually do so. The threat of regulation was considered leverage to force Congress into passing legislation. But, while Congress would like to see carbon-dioxide emissions reduced, it also shows no sign of willingness to handle the job itself. So it is up to the EPA.
The widespread assumption that Congress would act arose from a consensus among economists that an elegant legislative solution would work better than blunt regulatory fiat. It’s certainly true that a cap-and-trade system would reduce carbon more efficiently in theory. The Clean Air Act only provides for setting a single, across-the-board standard for emissions. Some industries would undergo great expense by dropping their emissions below the standard. Others could drop their emissions far below the standard at minimal cost, but they have no incentive to do so.
A cap-and-trade arrangement would bring market forces to bear on the problem. Congress would define the total permissible level of emissions. Companies that could cheaply reduce their emissions a great deal would sell allowances to those that could only do so at great expense. Thus, we would achieve the maximum reduction in carbon emissions at the minimum cost.
But you probably need to write a new law to set up cap-and-trade. And that’s proven messy. The House filled its cap-and-trade bill with sundry exemptions and special permits, significantly dampening its efficiency. The Senate, with its self-imposed 60-vote threshold, probably can’t pass any cap-and-trade bill at all. Whatever the inefficiencies imposed by the regulatory approach, they pale before the inefficiencies imposed by the legislative system.
In 1997, economist Alan Blinder made a provocative case for putting problems in the hands of unelected experts. Writing in Foreign Policy, Blinder recalled his experience at the Council of Economic Advisers, where, he wrote, “a policy’s merits can quickly get buried under a mountain of political detritus even before the policy emerges from the White House pressure cooker. Then it goes to Congress, where things only get worse.” Blinder left to work at the Federal Reserve, where decision-making, while imperfect, followed policymakers’ sense of the public good.
Blinder did not argue for dictatorship by wonk. (Wonktatorship?) Instead, he suggested that certain kinds of policies better lend themselves to government-by-expert rather than government-by-Congress. Blinder did not mention carbon emissions, but his three criteria turn out to describe the issue to a tee.
First, it’s a technical issue requiring specialized knowledge. (Anybody unfortunate enough to witness the blustering assaults on climate science by meatheads like James Inhofe or Joe Barton can easily grasp the pitfalls of allowing Congress to adjudicate science.) Second, the issue requires long time horizons. Congress is not designed to minimize the risks of catastrophes that might take place decades hence. Nor is it prone to consider the interests of potential future industries, like renewable energy, alongside existing ones. And third, the issue requires imposing short-term pain in order to avert long-term costs, a trade-off most pols are loath to make.
The obvious objection to EPA regulation is that it’s undemocratic: Removing an issue from “politics” is a nice way of saying you’re removing it from accountability to the people. The objection has some truth, but less than meets the eye. While Congress never dreamed of limited carbon dioxide emissions when it passed the Clean Air Act four decades ago, the legislation did authorize the agency to set regulatory standards limiting air pollutants, “which in [the administrator’s] judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” The Supreme Court has correctly ruled that greenhouse gases qualify as such a pollutant.
And, while EPA regulation would distance the issue from democratic accountability, it would not remove it entirely. If the public objected strongly enough, it could vote for a Congress to overturn the EPA regulation.
In practice, we accept this kind of rule-by-expert routinely. Monetary policy, once the most political of issues—i.e., William Jennings Bryan denouncing the “cross of gold”—is now formulated with little regard for public opinion. Congress could overrule a decision by the Fed, but it never does. Likewise, few of us would like Congress to seize control of setting food and drug standards from the FDA.
If that doesn’t satisfy you, there’s the blunt reality that the current Senate may be the most liberal one we have for a long time, and it probably isn’t liberal enough to pass a climate-change law. On most issues, I’d wait until Congress can act. But are you willing to take a chance of sustaining irreversible climate damage for the sake of maximal democratic accountability? I’m not.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.