oxymoron: a figure of speech by which a locution produces
an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect,
as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly”

Rarely has there been such anticipatory buzz as existed for the unveiling of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill.  In December of last year, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) announced that they had agreed on the “framework” for bi-partisan climate legislation, which they were in the process of drafting and would reveal shortly.  Although the blogosphere has reported snatches of what it was to contain (17 percent reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions within 10 years, aid to nuclear power plant construction, and increased off-shore drilling show up most often), the actual bill language was not released.  April 26 was supposed to be the release date.  But then Arizona passed its immigration law, Harry Reid decided that taking up immigration reform was the best way to energize Hispanic voters (and in doing so perhaps aid his reelection campaign), and Senator Lindsey Graham refused to allow the bill to be released.  The bill has been shopped with various industry and environmental lobbyists, but the actual details remain under wraps to the public at large.  As of April 28, it had been sent off to the EPA for “modeling.”  And unless something changes, it appears to be going nowhere.

Which raises the question of whether climate legislation is now irrevocably locked in the partisan world where Republicans are committed to a strategy of being the party that stands in the way of the federal government dealing with national issues.  Clearly there is a sentiment in the nation that “change” such as the Obama Administration has brought and is seeking to bring on other issues is disturbing and needs to be slowed down or stopped, and the Republican Party intends to offer itself as the party that can stop that change and maintain the status quo.  In that regard, the 41 Republican Senators have shown remarkable willingness to stand united in their threats to filibuster issues on the Obama Administration’s agenda.  And climate change legislation is very much on the Obama Administration’s agenda.  Senator Graham’s willingness to vary from that mold and actually work with Democrat Kerry and Independent Lieberman was a refreshing change, much to be mourned if it evaporates.

The framework for the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill had components that were designed to appeal to Republicans, but which current events will also make more difficult to find Democratic support for.  It started with a premise that is hard to dispute: our dependence on foreign oil is a national security issue.  So long as our economy depends on oil imported from the Middle East, we are inextricably stuck in that region, with all its attendant problems, and we are at the mercy of any number of nations deciding they won’t sell to us.  With that starting premise, Kerry-Graham-Lieberman allowed increased off-shore drilling in the United States.  The tragedy that is unfolding on the Gulf Coast at the moment is going to make it tough to get that passed.

But the real issue is whether we are to be stymied by the partisanship in Washington and thus prevented from actually dealing with global warming and energy independence until it is too late to take effective action.  Clearly there are Republicans as well as Democrats who understand that global warming is a real threat, and that the United States must act to respond to that threat or face serious consequences.  There are Republicans as well as Democrats who understand that energy independence requires using less foreign oil, and that has to mean more than just finding and using more domestic oil.  We need new technologies and new investments that allow Americans to move away from use of fossil fuels.  Republicans know as well as Democrats that the profit motive spurs American innovation, and that government actions can create the opportunities for profit motive and thereby ignite the technological change we are going to need.  It is not something politicians of any party like to talk about, but intelligent people on both sides of the isle recognize that getting from where we are to energy independence and reduced carbon emissions is going to entail some pain.  There will never be a good time to do it.  But sometimes politicians are required to “lead” and leadership means telling constituents straight that there are some hard things that have to be done.

Perhaps bipartisan discussion would be easier if we started with some common premises.  If so, I’d like to offer my own set, as a jumping off point for climate legislation that ought to be amenable to both parties.

Carbon emission has to be more expensive.  So long as the only monetary cost of burning fossil fuel is the cost of pumping it from the ground, refining it as needed and piping it to the place where it is used, other technologies can’t compete.  There are a lot of technologies out there that will get less expensive as they are more widely utilized.  But that won’t happen so long as the cheapest alternative remains burning fossil fuel.  So, call it a cap and trade system, call it a tax, call it whatever.  The price of emitting carbon has to go up.

The money spent on the increased price of carbon has to be used to do three things.  First, it needs to be invested in research and development.  Private industry is good at research – but on things like developing new technologies, government investment can be crucial.  We must have new technologies if we are going to make the transition to a lower-carbon economy without serious dislocations.  Second, it needs to be invested in giving most people alternatives to fossil fuels.  You can travel quickly and comfortably across Europe, or China, without an automobile, because those countries have taxed carbon and the single occupant automobile to build transit systems that make the automobile unnecessary.  Some parts of the United States will never have transit, but many parts should, and that requires levels of investment that are only possible if carbon is more expensive and the money is used to build transit.  Third, the money needs to be strategically used to soften the transition to a low-carbon economy for the middle class and poor people.  The reason TARP is so unpopular is because when the big banks got in trouble lending money to middle class families who should not have borrowed so much, we bailed out the banks but left the middle class families to fend for themselves.  Converting to a lower carbon world is going to be hard on utilities, and hard on companies and hard on families scraping to make ends meet and pay their utility bills.  This time we need to assume that the utilities and the companies will probably make it, and pay more attention to softening the blow to the middle class and the poor.  We need to pursue a “trickle up” strategy, which by softening the transition for families, keeps them as consumers and out of bankruptcy.

It cannot take decades to get permits to develop new sources of energy.  That is true of wind farms off Cape Cod, true of nuclear power plants and true of off-shore oil rigs.  I say that at the same time that I agonize over what is happening on the Gulf Coast.  We will make mistakes.  We need to learn from them.  Some of them will be hugely costly.  Sometimes the permit decision should be “no.”  But we also need to recognize that a strategy that says that we will wait until there can be no more question as to whether there is any risk is a strategy to maintain the status quo indefinitely.  So climate legislation must include processes to get the best information available together promptly, and then allow a decision to be made.