How to cap-and-trade (away) climate-change legislation

Justin Kintz Contributor
Font Size:

I must give the climate change lobby credit: they almost got away with it.

They had public opinion on their side, overwhelming majorities in our legislative bodies, a White House eager to deliver a striking blow on climate skeptics and their big business and industry cronies, and huge amounts of money and influence to make it all happen.

So why did their efforts falter? What derailed the previously untouchable scam of the century? Undoubtedly the “Climategate” scandal, hesitation from moderate Senate Democrats representing heavy industry states, and a legislative hangover from failed health care reform all play a role. Many will also point to a certain truck-driving politician from Massachusetts who so rudely crashed the party.

But the true story lies within: the battle for comprehensive legislation and the greater environmental climate change agenda was lost not because of GOP opposition, but because they lost control of the message. While Beltway analysts will correctly nitpick the political elements of the Waxman-Markey House bill and the Kerry-Boxer Senate bill for reasons why support is lacking, I believe the greater strategic error made by climate change drivers was to expose American voters to the idea of cap-and-trade, thus shattering the tenuous mythology of global warming and bringing a much needed dose of reality crashing down upon their heads.

Milton and Rose Friedman, in their 1978 book “Free to Choose,” nailed the true connection between special interest and major legislative viability: “When a special interest seeks benefits through highly visible legislation, it not only must clothe its appeal in the rhetoric of the general interest, it must persuade a significant segment of disinterested persons that its appeal has merit.”

The environmental special-interest lobby would have been wise to heed the words of the Friedmans (though that thought is laughable). This is because by pushing the cap-and-trade message, they not only lifted the veil of panic-inducing rhetoric and fluffy polar bear imagery to expose the gritty downside of environmental government controls and regulation at a time of precarious economic conditions, but they also failed to persuade a significant segment of disinterested persons (non stakeholders) to truly buy into Al Gore’s magic weather-control fantasies.

Traditionally, the general electorate is apathetic towards proposed federal government policies that do not directly involve their specific individual interests, such as climate change. (The health care reform attempts are an example of one that does engage individual voter interests.) This is perfectly normal, because most people do not have the time to review and comprehend the massive amount of federal regulation and legislation that takes place each year (oddly, many members of Congress seem to suffer the same affliction). Apathy of the electorate can be a good indicator of a healthy sociopolitical system. If voters are relatively unconcerned with political actions, chances are good that the government and economy are probably running smoothly.

A downside to apathy is that it presents a very handy tool for a political party or special interests with an aggressive agenda (see: environmental lobby). Tiptoe past the guard dog before he has a chance to wake up, and you can make your way out with the jewels. And this is where the critical mistake was made—the environmental lobby and progressives had the jewels in-hand, stopped by the guard dog on the way out, lifted his ear and screamed, “Cap-and-trade!”

Greenhouse gases, melting ice caps, and dying penguins are an easy sell to most people undereducated on the specifics of the issues, but the messaging push that made the Waxman-Markey bill and subsequent efforts synonymous with cap-and-trade allowed cooler heads to prevail and explain the real insidious nature of the bill to the public—a toxic cocktail of massive taxation, redistribution of wealth, and the squelching of innovation. The more people learn about the legislation, the less they like it.

And why should they like it? The bill contains enough pork to cause atherosclerosis, creates new government administration on top of old administration, and provides even more reason (as if there were not enough already) for our heavy industry and business to move overseas to friendlier circumstances. Shouldn’t environmental groups be desperate to keep these industries in America? They lose all influence as their favorite targets steadily move outside our borders while continuing their evil, polluting ways. For a coalition constantly touting sustainability, doesn’t this approach seem like a very unsustainable business model? Does it not also counter President Obama’s drive to create and sustain American jobs?

So while the legislative effort will likely go down due to the absence of a few key votes, the true contest for a national mandate of the people has been lost by the mishandling of the message and a growing recognition of its ridiculousness.

I should clarify that I am a strong advocate for reliable, sustainable energy and environmental preservation, and don’t want to imply that we should sell our environment’s health to the highest bidder—far from it. However, America does need to go about the transition in a responsible, tactical manner that is guided by the free market and not by heavy-handed bureaucrats.

Ultimately, the future of energy discovery and production will rest in the hands of our nation’s innovators, and those innovators walk the halls of GE, Exxon/Mobile, and thousands of other private businesses—not the halls of the Department of Energy or the EPA. It is the public’s responsibility and the media’s duty to not fall victim to flowery rhetoric without demanding facts, clear science, and clear legislative language on the matter. Don’t forget: we have time on our side; because despite what you have heard from Chicken Little and friends, the sky is not falling after all.

Justin Kintz is a former Bush administration appointee to the U.S. Department of the Interior and is currently the Manager of Special Projects at the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association in D.C.