Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Is state climate policy “inappropriate”?

Posted by Rich Sweeney on February 26, 2008

Yesterday Congressmen John Dingell, Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rick Boucher, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, released a White Paper on “the appropriate roles of different levels of government” in legislating climate change controls. Most of the stuff in here is old news. However, the congressmen did manage to take one previous conventional wisdom, turn it on its head, and effectively man-slap states like California that aim to push the national envelope on climate change.

One of the most problematic aspects of pollution in general, and carbon emissions in particular, is that there’s not much room for “personal virtue” (to quote the Vice President). What I mean buy this is that what really matters is the total stock of CO2 in the atmosphere, regardless of where it comes from. If I cut my carbon footprint in half, but Evan doubles his, I essentially sacrificed for naught (or perhaps, for Evan). However, climate policy is most likely going to take the form of some sort of national carbon cap, which all involved parties will be aware of, and will be stringent enough, one presumes, to be binding. Now lets say California goes ahead and imposes an additional cap on its own emissions, above and beyond the national target. National carbon emissions will remain unchanged. However, the burden that the rest of the country feels is a lot lighter as a result of CA’s environmental piety. Californians’ presumably get some sort of utility from doing this, and everyone is in theory better off. In this context, maybe the Penguin was right after all.

Enter Messrs Dingell and Boucher. Invoking interstate commerce and static job figures, they seem to be arguing that any additional climate policy on the part of the states might be “inappropriate”. The argument is that CA’s policy will affect jobs in Michigan, even though Michigan workers didn’t get to vote on the law. Given the authors’ positions, this could be a signal that they’re going to recommend that a national climate policy completely subsume state policies. Now I’m no expert on federalism, nor have I really analyzed the impacts of additive state climate policies. I’m sure both of those issues will will be discussed at length in the coming months. Actually I think I’ll leave it at that for now. Thoughts?

2 Responses to “Is state climate policy “inappropriate”?”

  1. Daniel Hall said

    If I cut my carbon footprint in half, but Evan doubles his, I essentially sacrificed for naught (or perhaps, for Evan).

    Actually, if you start with the same footprint, you’d have to eliminate yours for it to actually be as good as for naught.

    However, the burden that the rest of the country feels is a lot lighter as a result of CA’s environmental piety.

    True, on average. But I don’t think Dingell is so concerned about California doing more than their share as he is worried they’ll put the squeeze on a certain manufacturing sector that is disproportionately located in his home state. Figure 4 on page 24 of the white paper basically says it all: “Hi, California, this is Congressman Dingell, calling for Detroit. STEP THE %&!# OFF!”

  2. Evan Herrnstadt said

    If I cut my carbon footprint in half, but Evan doubles his, I essentially sacrificed for naught (or perhaps, for Evan).

    I hope that’s a promise, because I think I left my lights on today.

    “Hi, California, this is Congressman Dingell, calling for Detroit. STEP THE %&!# OFF!”

    I think Daniel hits it right here. As long as climate and environment are issues primarily pushed by the Democratic party, and as long as Democrats represent Michigan, there will continue to be tension and more poorly-veiled jabs at climate policy. To quote South Park: climate policy “took ‘er jerbs!”

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