Will the changing political climate in Washington affect the congressional debate on climate change and global warming? Host Steve Curwood discusses the politics of climate change with Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Steven Hayward, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
CURWOOD: Washington is home to an army of lobbyists who champion everything from environmental protection to free markets - two approaches, by the way that are often at odds. But the trends linked to this year’s elections seemed to have shaken some of those predictable line-ups, as well as the legislative majorities. Joining us to discuss climate change and the changing political climate is Steven Hayward, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a free market-oriented think tank. He writes AEI's Environmental Policy Outlook.
Welcome to Living on Earth, Mr. Hayward
HAYWARD: Good to be here.
CURWOOD: And from San Francisco, Carl Pope he is the executive director of the Sierra Club. It’s the nation’s oldest and largest grass roots environmental organization. Welcome Mr. Pope.
POPE: It’s great to be back.
CURWOOD: Carl Pope let me ask you specifically with a Democratic majority in the House with a razor thin majority in the Senate, what happens in terms of climate change at the federal level from your perspective? And what would you like to see happen?
POPE: Well let me distinguish between what happens on climate change and what happens on the things that help solve climate change. I think we’re likely to see some substantial forward progress at least in the House perhaps in both houses on renewable energy and efficiency. I think that is part of the agenda that is not as controversial. And that I was going around the country this year you saw all over the country you saw political ads featuring wind turbines. So I think we’ll see some substantial forward progress at least in Congress and I hope the President will go along on renewable energy. I think on the question of an ultimate national climate change policy, the House may pass a strong piece of legislation. The senate I think with the 60-vote rule is unlikely to do so. I think the remaining global warming deniers in the Senate will be willing to filibuster anything meaningful that establishes an umbrella national policy on global warming. So my guess is we don’t actually see that happen. But you might well see a bill pass the House. Henry Waxman has a good bill in and of course there’s now the California bill signed by a Republican governor that will serve as a bipartisan model, which is somewhat different than Waxman’s bill. So I think you’ll see some real action in the House. But what I really want to see is some action in both houses on the solutions to global warming, especially the relatively non-controversial issues like efficiency and renewables.
CURWOOD: Steven Hayward this administration really has played down the need to respond to the threat of global warming. So how much do you think the administration might move its position in light of these election results?
HAYWARD: Well, there was an interesting straw in the wind 2 or 3 months ago reported by Mike Allen in Time Magazine. It raised a lot of eyebrows and generated a lot of buzz in Washington. Mike Allen reported that he was talking to a senior White House official who said that Bush was getting ready to do a 180 on climate change and describe it as in the old cliché as a Nixon in China moment. The actual quote that appeared was that only two oil men could get all the players to the table, including the oil and auto industry, to broker some large and grand compromise on this.
And I’ve heard separately from people who have had casual lunches or dinners with Bush recently that one of the things he’s changed his mind about was environmental issues. And I’ve asked for details and mostly people say we were there to talk about Iraq so we didn’t ask for details. Now this has been controverted by a number of named people in the White House saying , “no this is an exaggeration, it bears the hallmarks of possibly a trial balloon by a faction perhaps in the White House trying to push things this way.” But there’s still some thought that you may be seeing some large initiative proposed in the state if the union address next year. And if that’s the case then it might be a whole new ball game.
CURWOOD: We’ll continue our conversation with Steven Hayward and Carl Pope in a just a few moments. Keep listening to Living on Earth on PRI, Public Radio International.
[MUSIC: Crystal Skulls “No Room For Change” from ‘Blocked Numbers’ (Suicide Squeeze Records – 2005)]
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CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Back now to our post-election conversation with Carl Pope from the Sierra Club and Steve Hayward, from the American Enterprise Institute. So let’s turn now to the nuclear industry. Some environmentalists have joined industry saying we should give nuclear power another look because of climate change and greenhouse gases. Carl Pope, what kind of traction do you think that’s going to get in this Congress and what kind of traction do you think it should get?
POPE: Well, if somebody wants to build a nuclear power plant with their own money, God bless them. Nobody does. Everybody wants to build nuclear power plants with somebody else’s money; usually the American taxpayers. I mean the subsidies contained in the last congressional energy bill were so bad that the Wall Street Journal denounced them and the Bush Administration declined to support them. So I think that the difficulty with nuclear power is you can make it safe then it’s not cheap. You can make it cheap but then it’s not safe. And so far, so far, but I’m an agnostic on the future, nobody’s figured out a way to do both. But at the same time we shouldn’t throw all of our investment dollars in things which don’t show much sign of penciling out economically. When we have a ton of stuff in the efficiency and renewable areas that is extremely promising economically and in many cases would be happening in the free market if government wasn’t getting in the way. And Steve probably even agrees with that.
CURWOOD: Well Steve Hayward, let me ask you in your organization the American Enterprise Institute looks to market based solutions whereever possible. What about the argument that maybe nuclear would be ok as long as the private markets do it?
HAYWARD: Yeah, Carl’s right. I am in substantial agreement with him. In fact I passed around the op-ed article he wrote with Ed Crane in the Washington Post a couple years ago saying let’s have a level playing field for all energy technologies and get rid of all the subsidies.
POPE: That deal is still on the table.
HAYWARD: Well see, by the way, I mean I tell my environmental and liberal friends this shows in some respects our essential powerlessness of our two different camps. That we can’t seem to push that very far down the field because we could get together on that one. I do think if we go to, as I think ought to be thought about, a carbon tax down the road, as a way of leveling the energy playing field and adjusting our energy portfolio in this country, then the economics of nuclear power and other alternative energies begins to change quite a bit. I mean Carl’s right about nuclear subsidies. I was against them, still am against them. But some alternative energies, like wind power also have some large subsidies and tax breaks. So yeah, I think I could reach a large agreement with Carl that we ought to get rid of all these things and try and level the playing field and stop a lot of the special interest gaming of this business.
CURWOOD: And what I hear from you is a new tax, a carbon tax.
HAYWARD: Yeah, I don’t think either party is going to go there. Democrats will be afraid of being the tax accusation from Republicans and they’re always right to be. And I don’t think Republicans are going to lead with that either. But a lot of economists will tell you that would be the best way forward on this issue and so I think a few years down the road that may unfold.
CURWOOD: So let me ask you about this….
POPE: Can I…can I just really reach across the ether to shake his hand. I completely agree.
CURWOOD: If we’re not careful here you guys are going to get together and start singing Kumbaya or something. How can this prevail in the halls of Congress? What are your plans to in fact have the Congress come together where there is consensus, say around renewable energy and such, the need to address these issues and have something that comes out as a product of consensus rather than you know, the bloodied remains?
POPE: Hey, I’m the executive director of the Sierra Club, not Plato’s philosopher king. I don’t think I know how to do that. More seriously though, what’s interesting is what’s happening at the state level. You are seeing it at the states. I mean it is a remarkable thing that it is easier for the Sierra Club, which frankly is not very popular in Idaho, but it is easier for us to walk in to the Idaho legislature and sit down with the Republican caucus in the Idaho legislature and talk common sense about energy than frankly it is to talk with either party in Washington DC. There is something profoundly broken at the federal level that is not profoundly broken at the local and state level. And I’m not sure I have the precise answer about why, but I think the solutions to what ails Washington lie in trying to understand what is the dynamic that enables states as disparate as California and Georgia to work out these issues in a relatively non-partisan way with very different local politics. And yet the same thing cannot seem to happen in Washington.
HAYWARD: Well we don’t seem to have a national climate policy we can point to with bullet points saying we’re doing X,Y and Z. But there’s a lot going on. Carl pointed to some things on the state and local level, which I think part of that is show, but part of that is real. And then you have a lot of industries taking the lead trying to become more energy efficient for their own purposes. So, I’m actually more optimistic than a lot of the gloomier projections that the curves are going to start bending in a more favorable direction a lot faster than people think.
CURWOOD: Steven Hayward is resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. Thank you both gentlemen.
HAYWARD: Thanks for having us.
POPE: Thank you.
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