The Good, the Bad and the Dirty: Climate, Congress and Carbon

A recent Center for American Progress article noted that, although the new Congress “has cast more roll call votes on energy and environmental issues than on any other legislative area,” voting on such critical issues as “the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, efforts to block action to reduce carbon pollution, proposals to sell America’s public lands; and other fossil-fuel and energy-related legislation,” there are "no results to show.” A CAP analysis of roll call votes found that the 114th Congress has "instead focused on divisive anti-environmental proposals that, according to public opinion research conducted by Hart Research Associates for CAP in December, the American public widely opposes."


I had a chance to ask Greg Dotson, the vice president of energy policy at CAP about the new Congress as well as his thoughts on a number of important environmental issues, including fracking, carbon pricing, the Clean Air Act, Earth Day and the recent pledge by President Obama and President Xi Jinping to reduce CO2 emissions in the U.S. and China.

Reynard Loki: While the CAP analysis of Congress points out that there haven't been any actual legislative results on the environmental front, do you consider the fact that lawmakers have spent so much time debating issues that impact the environment to be a good thing? The Republicans are often called the obstructionist party, but aren't both parties to blame for not passing new meaningful climate change legislation?

Greg Dotson: The last time the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives, they passed legislation requiring an 80% reduction in carbon pollution. On the other hand, since the Republicans took control of the House four years ago, Congress has engaged in a counter-productive debate about the environment and climate change. I wish the parties were much more united in their desire to address climate change, but at this point, the record is pretty clear that there is a big difference between them.

In recent years, the debate has not been about how to better protect our air, land and water, nor about how to move our energy system away from the fossil fuels of the past to the cleaner technologies of the future. Instead, the House—and now Senate—leadership agenda has focused on gutting the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, defending tax breaks and subsidies for dirty energy sources, slashing funding for clean energy development, and passing bills to block any action on climate change. That’s a disturbing development and not a political dynamic that allows members of Congress who are concerned about climate change to move meaningful legislation.

RL: China said it would end its rapid CO2 emission rise to peak around 2030, but many scientists say it will be too late by then if the world is to keep average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, the goal adopted at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks. How significant is the pledge President Obama and President Xi Jinping made in November to reduce or limit CO2 emissions in the U.S. and China?

GD: Both President Obama and President Xi demonstrated historic leadership in the fight against climate change. President Obama’s domestic policies to cut carbon pollution from vehicles and power plants gave him the leverage to secure a major commitment to act from the Chinese. China committed to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest and to do everything it can to peak even earlier. In the coming years, the Obama administration will hold China’s feet to the fire on the latter half of that promise.

Notably, China also committed to doubling the amount of energy it obtains from non-fossil sources, such as wind and solar energy, by 2030. For the first time ever, leaders from the developed and developing world stood together and articulated a vision for a low carbon future. This unprecedented leadership from the U.S. and China could have a profound effect, leveraging truly global action.

RL: A majority of economists in general and all ecological economists call the failure to price carbon a market distortion, and addressing this would level the playing field for a host of technologies. What method of pricing carbon do you favor: cap-and-trade, a fee-and-dividend approach, a carbon tax or something else?

GD: Given the urgency of the climate problem facing us, we have no time to waste in organizing and developing a strategy for what comes next at the federal level. It seems inescapable that we must put a price on carbon pollution. My personal view is that trying to make a decision about which one of these policies to pursue would be a mistake. Instead, we need to coalesce around a desired outcome and promote a conversation that creates excitement and keeps options alive while building support for action. We need to support state-based programs, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast, and encourage their expansion. We should be supportive of states that want to establish a carbon tax. We should help Oregon and Washington with their initiatives to address carbon pollution. We need to rally around EPA’s Clean Power Plan. This plan doesn't price carbon, but it does achieve significant pollution reductions and that can only help. All of these are productive actions and will help forge a path forward.

RL: For many environmental activists, fracking has become public enemy #1. Does the shale boom put the country off the renewable energy track and dampen the shift to a low-carbon economy?

GD: Burning natural gas instead of coal for electricity can help us achieve important carbon pollution reductions in the short term. But natural gas cannot form the core of a successful long-term climate mitigation strategy. After all, natural gas is a fossil fuel. The end goal cannot be more natural gas power plants instead of coal-fired power plants. At best, that is a starting point for the real transition to a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy based on renewable energy. Policy-makers at the state and federal level need to recognize the real risks—to the climate and to consumers—of over-committing to natural gas and should develop a strategy to ensure that doesn’t happen.

RL: President Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy ignores the scientific imperative to slash greenhouse gas emissions and continues George W. Bush’s policy of leasing millions of acres of public land for oil and gas development, rather than investing predominantly in game-changing clean energy technologies.

Do you support this strategy, and if not, what kind of energy strategy would you advise the next president to have?

GD: The science is clear: to the extent an “all-of-the-above” approach means status quo fossil fuel use, it is not compatible with the carbon pollution reductions we need to achieve to avert the worst impacts of climate change. The IPCC concludes with “high confidence” that delaying efforts to mitigate climate change until 2030 will make it even harder to limit dangerous levels of warming by requiring countries to cut emissions much more quickly, steeply, and at greater cost. If world leaders want to limit warming to no more than an increase of 2°C, or 3.6°F, above pre-industrial levels—a target that many countries have accepted as a shared goal—then they must phase out the uncontrolled use of fossil fuels for power generation by 2100 and dramatically increase power generation from zero-carbon sources. Within this context, the only strategy that makes sense is a clean energy strategy.

RL: Many Republicans, and Senator Ted Cruz in particular, want to take away the EPA's authority to combat climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Just a few days before Sen. Cruz became the first official 2016 presidential candidate, he introduced a bill that seeks to forbid the federal government from fighting climate change under the Clean Air Act and four other laws. What are your thoughts on this?

GD: The EPA absolutely has authority under the Clean Air Act to cut carbon pollution. And that’s not just my opinion—that’s the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases qualify as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act, triggering EPA’s responsibility to determine whether or not greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health or welfare. In 2009, the EPA officially determined that greenhouse gas emissions endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations. In 2011, the Supreme Court confirmed that EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other stationary sources. The D.C. Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals again upheld EPA’s authority in 2012.

It is critical that EPA retains this authority. Given the inability of Congress to pass climate legislation, the EPA is the best chance we have to achieve meaningful reductions in emissions from power plants, the oil and gas sector, and other sources of greenhouse gases.

RL: If you could enact one federal environmental law, what would it be?

GD: President Obama has been heroic in his efforts to use his authority under existing law to cut carbon pollution from power plants and other sources. But to achieve the economy-wide emissions reductions we need to avert catastrophic climate change, we need to do more. The best way to do that would be to pass climate legislation that puts a price on carbon.

RL: With all the corporate greenwashing on Earth Day, skeptics say the event has become watered down. What do you think?

I wouldn’t expect Earth Day to solve all of our environmental challenges any more than I would expect Mother’s Day to resolve everyone’s issues with their mothers. Earth Day does, however, provide an annual opportunity for a national focus on the environmental challenges we face, and that’s a good thing. Americans in every community across the country use Earth Day to get together and clean up their parks and rivers and to unite over their support for clean air, clean water and a sustainable future. For many children, it’s the first time they are exposed to the idea that a community can address pollution together, and that can be empowering.

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