Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Indy Star Editorial Page

Today, the Indianapolis Star published an editorial (here), which argues that the US EPA should not regulate climate change, nor should Congress do so unless and until an international agreement is obtained that commits other major emitting countries, such as China, to enforceable emissions reduction targets. This is not an untenable position, although I do not agree with it. However, the editorial board's arguments in support of its position range from dubious to disingenuous.

First, they claim that the timing of the EPA's endangerment finding for greenhouse gases is a "blatantly political" maneuver designed to put pressure on Congress to enact climate legislation. This is certainly correct - one would have to be naive not to appreciate the timing - but, then, what large-scale policy decisions in Washington are not blatantly political and politically timed?

Next, the editorial writers argue that a unilateral US commitment to reduce emissions would be akin to unilateral disarmament. But nothing would prevent the US from "rearming" (as it were) in the event that other countries did not soon follow suit. Moreover, other countries, including China, are not likely to follow suit until the world's #1 contributor (by far) to the existing stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere shows some leadership on the issue. Just as it is easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar, so it makes more sense for the US to make a substantial, but modest, emissions reduction commitment, with a promise of further cuts if other countries follow suit. This is the approach the European Union already has taken, promising 20% cuts by 2020, rising to 30% in the event of commitments from other countries.

Speaking of the European Union, the editorial in the Star asserts that the EU's own unilateral cap-and-trade program "is widely viewed as a failure." By whom? It is true that in Phase I of that program, from 2005-2007, emissions increased on net, but that was actually foreseen from the start. Phase I was simply a "pilot" phase, in which the EU was establishing institutions that would lead to actual emissions reductions, in accordance with the EU's Kyoto targets, in Phase II (2008-2012). To label the program a failure because of the outcome of Phase I is like arguing that a steak is too rare after it's been cooked for only 5 minutes.

As for the positions of Senators Ethanol, I mean Lugar, and Bayh, both of whom the Star lauds for their sensible positions on climate policy, one only has to examine a list of their campaign contributers to realize that their positions are no less "blatantly political" than the timing of EPA's endangerment finding.

Finally, the Star editorial board must know better than to argue that the cap-and-trade legislation currently before Congress should be defeated because environmentalists, including NASA's James Hansen, would prefer a carbon tax. As I noted in another blog posting just yesterday, I too would prefer a carbon tax, if I thought that there was a realistic prospect that such a tax could be enacted. But there is no real chance of Congress enacting any kind of carbon tax. The alternative to existing cap-and-trade legislation is nothing, and I find it difficult to believe that the members of the Star's editorial board do not know that. If they do know it, then basing their argument against existing legislative proposals based on the preference of many environmentalists (and economists) for a carbon tax is disingenuous. One might even call it "blatantly political."

Bottom line: If I subscribed to The Indianapolis Star (which I don't), I would cancel my subscription. If I regularly read the Star's editorial page (which I don't), I would stop doing so immediately. No one's opinion on climate policy or any other issue should be influenced by editorial conclusions that are based on such shoddy arguments.

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