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Views from the Center


Here’s a classic reductio ad absurdum:  The current global population is about 6.8 billion, all threatened by climate change.  The U.S. population is about 310 million, 4.6% of the global total.  In my just-posted working paper, Confronting the American Divide on Carbon Emissions Regulation, I identify 15 states that have consistently undermined carbon emissions regulation by the US Congress.  These states have 26.5% of the US population, or 1.2% of the global population.  So, for want of this 1% nail, the Congressional shoe has been lost, the U.S. horse has been lost, and the battle for a global climate accord has been lost.  Meanwhile, millions are already suffering from the impact of climate change in poor countries and the situation will only get worse.

Numerous assessments of the Congressional impasse on climate change have cited the power of big coal, worries about emissions mitigation costs, scientific illiteracy, public distraction during the recession, and conservative fears of encroaching world government.  In Confronting the American Divide and a previous CGD working paper, I have focused on concerns about emissions mitigation costs, particularly in poor U.S. states.  While these concerns are certainly credible within the narrow confines of U.S. politics, they strain credulity from a global perspective because even “poor” U.S. states are enormously richer than countries such as China, India and South Africa that have begun aggressively promoting clean energy.

Something else is afoot here.  For more perspective, let’s look at maps that summarize the last formal Senate vote on cap-and-trade, in 2008, and last week’s Senate vote on food safety regulation in the United States. The food safety vote was an excellent litmus test, because it reflected widespread popular anger over clear safety violations that killed and injured many people, along with long-standing majority support for regulation by the Food and Drug Administration.  And it was not affected by any of the previously-cited concerns that may have affected the cap-and-trade vote.  The Senate vote was indeed overwhelming:  73-25 in favor of new food safety measures.  But, as the map shows, even these measures confronted a phalanx of opposition in the South and the intermountain West.  For those states, the rubric for proposed regulation of any kind is clearly “Just say No.”

Now consider the map of votes for cap-and-trade in the Senate.  Remarkably, it is nearly identical to the food safety map.  The phalanx of resistance is again in the South and the intermountain West, with even more uniformity in both regions.  And, as I document in Confronting the American Divide, the regulatory naysayers succeeded in undermining cap-and-trade by recruiting Senators from carbon-intensive states bordering the South and intermountain West.  Carbon regulation didn’t command the same public passion as food safety reform in those states, so cap-and-trade failed.

The implication?  The naysayers in the food safety map will vote No to regulation, even in the face of obvious, widespread death and injury from a readily-identifiable domestic source.  So we can count this 1% of the world’s population out for carbon emissions regulation.  And that will seal its fate in the Senate, with its minority-blocking provisions, absent an outbreak of climate catastrophes in the United States so terrifying that climate safety reaches coequal status with food safety in the border states.

Obviously, the other 99% of the world’s people can’t and shouldn’t count on this.  So, given the stakes, a paramount task is to ensure that in global climate affairs, the power of the Southern and intermountain naysayers is reduced from global preemption to the 1 percent that is their due.  There are basically two ways to do this:  The global community can find ways to accommodate U.S. Green states that support carbon regulation in a global accord on emissions reduction, with the eventual threat of global sanctions against the naysayers (per Nick Stern’s recent comments).  Or the U.S. Green states can circumvent the domestic naysayers and level the playing field by unilaterally adopting sales taxes proportional to the carbon embodied in all products marketed within their borders.  See my previous blog for more discussion of these carbon added taxes (CATs).

Either way, the handwriting is now on the wall.  The global community must move forward, the 1% dissolution must end, and the means are at hand to accomplish this.  So it will end.  As the Good Book says, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.