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Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now | The Nation

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Kabuki Democracy: Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, for Now

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The results are far more devastating for the fate of Obama's most significant environmental promise: to curb carbon emissions in the fight against global warming; a challenge so significant that even John McCain once called climate change "a test of foresight, of political courage and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next." The president proposed a complicated cap-and-trade scheme to encourage industry to undertake the necessary reforms. The version that passed in the House could have been read as a gift to certain sectors of the energy and financial industries, rather than a serious attempt to control climate-producing emissions. Nevertheless it died in the Senate, the victim of a thousand well-funded cuts.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Obama's cap-and-trade proposal put a ceiling on the amount of carbon to be emitted each year, and would force electricity providers and other polluters to purchase permits directly from the government or from each other for their emissions of greenhouse gases. The system, if successful, would have had the effect of reducing carbon emissions to 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. This would not, even by administration calculations, have been sufficient to prevent the 2º C temperature rise that a consensus among climatologists insists is the maximum level the planet can sustain without dire effects taking place. But the cap-and-trade plan was chosen over a straightforward tax on carbon production in part because it enjoyed the support of not only of the likes of McCain but also major corporations such as Shell Oil and Dow Chemical, who stood to profit from it.

This cap-and-trade plan resulted from a lengthy debate over the various advantages of different market-based trading regimes as opposed to a simple tax on carbon or a system that produced refunds to US residents on a per capita basis to allow "those with below-average carbon footprints come out ahead," according to former NASA climatologist James Hansen. (While the current cap-and-trade scheme does contain subsidies for the poor, it offers few benefits or incentives for those just above the poverty level.) The plan, which was based on a regime created by the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1990s to deal with acid rain, enjoyed McCain's support, but (more significantly, no doubt) even Shell Oil, Dow Chemical and the coal-burning American Electric Power, often termed "the nation's dirtiest utility," signed on.

Not so surprisingly, the House bill contains all manner of gifts bestowed by Congress to those with well-funded offices of "government relations." The Peterson Amendment, for instance, named after the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson (D, Minnesota), exempts big agriculture from many of the emissions standards set by the bill. You should not be shocked to learn that the top three donors to Peterson's 2008 campaign were the American Farm Bureau, American Crystal Sugar and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Overall, crop production, agricultural services/products, dairy and food processing donated $628,687 to Peterson's campaign and PAC, more than 41 percent of all the money he raised for the 2008 election. (Agriculture Committee members took in nearly $23 million in that election cycle alone from people and organizations with financial, insurance and real estate affiliations, more than double what they've gotten from anybody affiliated with actual agriculture.)

Like a manure pile at an Iowa factory pig farm, this stuff adds up. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had risen by more than 400 percent since 2003, to a total of 2,810—giving lobbyists a five-to-one advantage over the combined membership of the House and Senate. (This is in contrast to an estimated 138 working on behalf of alternative forms of energy.) Targets for improving renewable energy resources were roughly halved as the EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions had been gutted. And rather than auction off pollution permits, as candidate Obama had proposed, the legislation offered 85 percent of them to polluters for free. All told, according to one analysis by Stanford University economists, polluters earned themselves $134 billion in taxpayer-funded gifts as they reduced the overall goal of a reduction in carbon emissions from 20 percent to 17 percent. Strongly supported by the financial industry, which stood to make billions on its proposed carbon credit markets, this awful bill barely squeaked through the House by a 219 to 212 vote. Alas, it died there.

As a result, now, even under what now looks to be an unrealistically rosy scenario, according to a report prepared by the Guardian's Alok Jha for the Copenhagen summit, we can expect the Amazon to turn into desert and grasslands, "while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world's oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine life forms. More than 60 million people, mainly in Africa, would be exposed to higher rates of malaria. Agricultural yields around the world will drop and half a billion people will be at greater risk of starvation." That's in the near term. As the world's sea level begins to rise by seven meters over the next few hundred years, one can expect glaciers to recede and thereby reduce the world's fresh water supply. As many as a third of the world's species will likely become extinct as the 2° C rise changes their habitats too quickly for them to adapt.

With another degree of warming, Jha notes, we can expect: "After a 3C global temperature rise, global warming may run out of control and efforts to mitigate it may be in vain. Millions of square kilometers of Amazon rainforest could burn down, releasing carbon from the wood, leaves and soil and thus making the warming even worse, perhaps by another 1.5C. In southern Africa, Australia and the western US, deserts take over. Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30-50% less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean. In the UK, summers of droughts are followed by winter floods. Sea levels rise to engulf small islands and low-lying areas such as Florida, New York and London. The Gulf Stream, which warms the UK all year round, will decline and changes in weather patterns will lead to higher sea levels at the Atlantic coasts."

And finally, should we stay on the path we're on, we can expect a 4° rise in the earth's average temperature and, Jha explains, this likely scenario: "At this stage, the Arctic permafrost enters the danger zone. The methane and carbon dioxide currently locked in the soils will be released into the atmosphere. At the Arctic itself, the ice cover would disappear permanently, meaning extinction for polar bears and other native species that rely on the presence of ice. Further melting of Antarctic ice sheets would mean a further 5m rise in the sea level, submerging many island nations. Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey become deserts and mid-Europe reaches desert temperatures of almost 50C in summer. Southern England's summer climate could resemble that of modern southern Morocco."

As Bill McKibben has argued, the 1,400-page collection of "offsets and sweeteners and bailouts…was an ugly deal—but nowhere near ugly enough for the Senate," where it was left to shrivel up and die. It may or may not be resuscitated into something else, as senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham have proposed, but whatever it turns out to be, it sure won't do much to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere. (For instance, the bill, as passed, forbade the EPA from regulating carbon, and prevented states from trying to implement tougher standards on their own.) McKibben notes that an alternative bill, proposed by Maine Republican Susan Collins and Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, sought to curb emissions by inviting energy companies bid each year for their permits to put carbon in the atmosphere instead of merely giving them away. The money earned would be used "to write a check to every American every year." Gas prices would go up as the price of these permits was passed onto customers at the pump, but seven out of ten Americans would come out ahead in the end. (And if you didn't you're probably using up too much energy, anyway.) "Cap and dividend" is a much simpler, easier and more efficient way to regulate carbon emissions than cap and trade, and much easier to sell to the average voter. So why isn't it being seriously considered? As the climate blogger Joe Romm told McKibben, "It's energy-intensive businesses that hate [cap and dividend], and I'm afraid they drive the process more than the public. If public support mattered, we'd have passed a bill a long time ago!"

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