Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Climate policy as diplomacy

Posted by Daniel Hall on June 3, 2008

Ryan Avent has been doing a lot of good blogging about cap and trade recently. Today he assesses the political environment — the combination of near certain defeat for the Lieberman-Warner bill this summer with likely election returns this fall — and argues:

Congress is almost certain to be more Democratic next year, and the White House will be more friendly to climate bills whoever the president is (but substantially more so if Obama is the victor). … Democratic leaders are watching now to see how their opponents plan to fight, so that next year, they’re prepared to use their majority to effectively counter opposition en route to a truly good climate bill.

I thought this was a bit optimistic about how smoothly Democrats would operate next year, a point I made (rather sarcastically) in the comments.

In response, Ryan offers up a pitch-perfect response:

Ah, but you failed to take into account the fact that Obama is going to CHANGE WASHINGTON WITH CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN YES WE CAN.

This is still making me chuckle after repeated reads.

I happen to agree that among the presidential candidates Obama would get a climate bill with the least amount of political wrangling and infighting. But relative to what? There is going to be pork all over the floor before this thing gets done and that is just the facts. The domestic political machine has to run its course and President Obama is not going to be able to strong-arm Congressman Dingell into rolling over on Detroit or Senator Reid into greenlighting Yucca Mountain.

So why do I think that Obama could get a bill with less partisan hackery even while I’m pessimistic he’ll do much to change Washington? I think it’s because I view Obama as being most concerned among the candidates about America’s standing in the world and with reaching out to our partners. Having America perform an about-face on climate policy could be a key part of a broader diplomatic strategy of engagement and cooperation. This could then put indirect pressure on Congress to deliver a well-designed bill.

In the end I guess I am agreeing that Obama does have the best chance of getting legislators to work with him on climate policy but I am positing a different channel through which this works.

I think the challenge he will face if he chooses this strategy is to simultaneously be realistic about the domestic policy constraints he faces and not promise allies things that he cannot deliver, while at the same time having a clear set of goals that do indeed signal American leadership on global climate policy along with concrete strategies for how he is going to get people on board with his goals.

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