With the BP oil spill, America has witnessed first-hand the consequences of inaction on climate change and the logical conclusion of the “drill baby, drill” philosophy. Hundreds of millions of gallons of petroleum later, our country has awoken to the looming environmental catastrophes that will be the result of the business-as-usual approach. Today, it is not a question of whether global warming and energy policy must be addressed, but rather how they should they be dealt with.
In the House, a far-reaching overhaul of the nation’s environmental and energy policies was approved last year. The House draft, known as the Waxman-Markey bill, would reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050 and by 2020 require utility companies to meet 20 percent of their energy needs through renewable resources. It would do so by setting up a cap-and-trade system, in which permits to pollute would be bought and sold by businesses on an open exchange, which would promote greater energy efficiency and encourage the use of more environmentally sustainable practices.
In the Senate, action on climate change remains stalled by byzantine parliamentary rules, under which the Republicans have tried to filibuster to death anything and everything the Democrats have proposed. Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and John Kerry (D-MA) are putting together a package that will probably be weaker than the House version — which was already a compromise — and whose passage will be far from assured. While this is disappointing, Democrats must be willing to take a half-loaf and renegotiate, rather than grab for the whole thing and wind up with nothing.
One part of the House legislation that must not be watered down is the mandate for a cap-and-trade system. It is essential that this mechanism be put into place, because it will concentrate market forces on the difficult — and potentially lucrative — task of harnessing the power of the sun and wind to produce clean and reliable energy. Without cap-and-trade there can be no comprehensive energy bill and there can be no solution to climate change.
Congress can do even more to encourage innovation in green technology by ending corporate welfare for oil companies that ravage our waterways and wallets, and giving those subsidies to corporations that seek to move us away from unsustainable sources of fuel. But, the research and development needed to realize the goal of clean energy cannot be funded simply by government grants — it requires the taxpayer to shoulder some of the burden. This can be accomplished through a slight increase in the gas tax to $1, an idea repeatedly espoused by foreign policy expert and columnist, Thomas Friedman.
The largess generated by this new levy could be used to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and jump-start the green jobs industry. Taxes, while they raise money for the government, also modify people’s behavior and spending habits. In this vein, a surcharge on petroleum would push Americans towards more fuel-efficient cars and away from gas guzzlers. And to sweeten the pot, the government could resurrect the highly-successful cash-for-clunkers program.
In the end, any bill addressing climate change and energy policy must deal with not just the symptoms of our addiction to fossil fuels — the Exxon Valdez and BP oil spills — but also the root causes of it. By taking a holistic approach, we can stop petroleum from fouling our shorelines, while slowing and eventually halting the progress of global warming, and at the same time, no longer seeing our foreign policy held hostage to the whims of petty dictators.