XIAN, China — Congress should not waste time debating a comprehensive climate change legislation in the coming year.
First, the combination of the natural gas revolution created by fracking and the economic doldrums we are stuck in have already cut our emissions of greenhouse gases dramatically without Congress doing anything at all. If they did jump in, they’d be as likely to screw that up as make things better.
In addition, we should wait because the current proposals on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are all expensive and will be cheaper in the future as technologies improve.
Consider the change in cell phone technology and prices over the past 20 years. When the director of Wall Street wanted to emphasize Gordon Gecko’s power and wealth, he portrayed him holding a brick-size cell phone.
Today, even schoolchildren carry iPhones, which are orders of magnitude more powerful — and much cheaper. That same innovative process will make both emissions reduction technology and mitigation efforts cheaper and better in the future.
The United States alone can do next to nothing about greenhouse gas emissions alone and we should not burden our economy to attempt to do so. China and India are growing so rapidly that their additional greenhouse gas emissions swamp any reductions possible in the U.S. today. For example, Chinese car ownership today on a per-capita basis is not even equal to U.S. car ownership in 1920.
When — not if — Chinese consumers close that gap, they’ll be driving more than 20 times the number of cars they are driving today. Chinese electricity consumption is similarly rapidly too, with new coal-fired power plants opening like clockwork.
Unilaterally cutting U.S. emissions would be pointless and would handicap negotiators in any effort to reach an agreement with developing economies like China and India.
Those nations will certainly insist on reductions from the developed world as part of the price of any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions they agree to. If we’ve already unilaterally cut our emissions in advance of an agreement, we will have to make even more painful cuts to persuade developing countries to sign on. Finally, this particular Congress is going to be unable to reach agreement on any major legislation before the 2014 elections.
The leaders of the House and Senate are barely on speaking terms with each other. There’s plenty of blame to go around, of course, and neither party is innocent.
A serious approach to climate change is going to require legislation touching on many aspects of Americans’ daily lives, since reducing greenhouse gas emissions is ultimately going to require substantial changes in our energy consumption.
Since energy touches every aspect of our lives, this is a subject that requires careful consideration and extended debate. We need candidates putting forward specific proposals and debating their merits on the campaign trail so voters can make an informed choice about the type of approach they want to see. That hasn’t happened yet and debating something this important requires more deliberation than we’ve had yet.
Moreover, as the members of Congress gear up for the 2014 election cycle, their attention will be on fundraising.
Starting a new debate on such a significant issue at this point in the election cycle is a recipe for really bad legislation: to suggest writing a major bill that will touch on virtually every sector of the U.S. economy in an election year will be inviting every special interest in the country to a party where the taxpayers get to play the role of the piñata. Deliberation, not speed, is what we need.
Andrew Morriss holds the D. Paul Jones, Jr. and Charlene A. Jones Chair in Law and professor of business at the University of Alabama.