Topic: Energy and Environment

The Long Road to Copenhagen

There are two different stories coming from the same political party on global warming, leading to only one conclusion: President Obama is about to (or has) ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mandate some type of cap on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

Harry Reid and other democratic leaders in the Senate have clearly indicated that cap-and-trade legislation will be put off at least, until what they call “spring”, which is long after the upcoming UN climate conference in Copenhagen next month. At the same time, President Obama has said that the U.S., along with China, will announce some type of emissions cap in Copenhagen. Obviously this cannot refer to legislation that has yet to be voted on in the Senate.

President Obama keeps using the language “operationally significant” when referring to what the U.S. will agree to in Copenhagen. The only way that he can get around the Senate and still have a credible position in Copenhagen is for the EPA to announce specific regulations for carbon dioxide emissions between now and the conclusion of the Copenhagen meeting in mid-December.

Short of Funds? Give the Feds More Power

In 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board found that 298 subway cars in the Washington Metrorail system are “vulnerable to catastrophic telescoping damage” and should be replaced or reinforced immediately. They weren’t, which was a major reason why nine people died in a rail collision last June.

In 2007, supposedly fail-safe circuits in Metrorail’s train detection and control system began to “intermittently malfunction.” This contributed to at least one near miss before the fatal crash, and was the other major reason why nine people died in June.

Clearly, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority is short of funds. It still has not begun to replace the 298 cars; instead, it is merely inserting them into the middle of trains so that, in the event of a crash, the will be buffered by newer (and hopefully stronger) cars.

According to the Federal Transit Administration, it will cost nearly $50 billion to bring rail lines in Washington and five other urban areas – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco – up to a “state of good repair.” Current rates of spending are not even adequate to keep these systems in the miserable condition they are in today. As an official with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority says with resignation, “there will never be enough money” to restore New York’s rail system to a state of good repair (see p. 15).

The problem, of course, is that rail transit does not come close to paying for itself out of transit fares. Fares cover about 60 percent of the cost of operating Washington’s Metrorail system, but none of the costs of building or maintaining it – and has one of the highest cost recovery ratios in the industry. Transit agencies have convinced most legislators that transit shouldn’t have to pay for itself – but that leaves them perennially short of funds and their patrons in danger of deadly accidents.

Legislators love to fund “ribbons, not brooms” – that is, new, highly visible projects such as the $5.2 billion silver line to Dulles Airport rather than the cost of maintaining the existing system.

So what’s the solution? How about federal regulation of transit agencies? That won’t solve any of the problems, but at least we’ll have a whole new layer of bureaucracy to blame the next time people are killed in a train crash.

The real solution is to stop building expensive rail transit lines that cities can’t afford to maintain. Transit should be privatized, which will lead transit companies to run vehicles – mostly buses – where people want to go, not where bureaucrats and politicians decide they ought to go.

The Odd Couple

Well, here’s an interesting pair. Today’s Washington Post contains an op-ed on climate change and trade, written jointly by Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute of International Economics, and Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen. 

The authors readily admit, quite early in the piece, that they are usually on opposing sides of the trade debate.  The Peterson Institute scholars are well-known and well-respected advocates of freer international trade. Global Trade Watch, and Wallach in particular? Not so much. She has called NAFTA a “disastrous experiment” and has a special section on her website calling on people to Take Action! on trade (example: by hosting a house party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of ” the historic 1999 Seattle protest victory of people power over corporate rule.”)

Yet here they are, claiming to agree on “a suprising number of aspects of the climate change debate and on the related need to overhaul global trade negotiations.” I am still trying to make sense of the op-ed, because it lurches around a bit, and to work out exactly how deep the agreement of these strange bedfellows really is. But for now, let me comment briefly on what I think is the main thrust of their op-ed: a proposal for launching a new round of trade talks.

The authors point out that a new treaty on global warming would “require new trade rules in intellectual property, services, government procurement and product standards.” So, hey, why not combine that into trade talks?The Obama Round (as if Obama-worship has not gone far enough) “would include, as a centerpiece, addressing these potential commercial and climate trade-offs and updating the negotiating agenda.”

That, quite frankly, would be fatal for the World Trade Organization. Developing countries, now in the majority in the WTO, are in general very resistant to the idea of bringing extraneous issues into its agenda (witness constant struggles over linking trade to labor and environment issues, to name just two). More to the point, we already have a round in progress. The Doha round has been struggling over old-fashioned trade concerns like tariffs and subsidies (remember them?)  since launching in 2001. The risks of overburdening the WTO agenda are, in my opinion, far greater than the possible benefits. It’s fairly clear to me why Wallach would advocate a new round full of poison pills, but not so clear why Bergsten would put his name to such a suggestion.

It’s not even clear to me that such an approach would “help the environment.” Why the optimism about the possibility of agreement under the auspices of the WTO when negotiations in forums designed explicitly and solely for the purpose of halting climate change have been unsuccessful?

( Speaking of which, expectations for a breakthrough at the upcoming Copenhagen conference on climate change are being rapidly scaled back, with talk of an “interim” agreement — likely some anodyne political statement — rather than the final deal that environmental groups had hoped for. The international diplomacy circus rolls on, though: conferences are planned for Mexico and South Africa — talk about a carbon footprint! — next year.)

For my take on the climate change and trade debate, the solution to which does not involve launching an Obama Round, see here.

More Trade News

My colleague Dan Griswold pointed out yesterday some unfortunate editing in the Washington Post. Here are a couple of other trade-related items in the news recently:

  • Sen. Max Baucus (D, MT and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) has seemingly thrown his weight behind the idea of “border measures” (i.e., carbon tariffs).  After paying the semi-obligatory lip service to the United States’ obligations under international trade law – and I say only “semi-obligatory” because some U.S. lawmakers appear not to care about it at all – Baucus goes on to deliver this rhetorical gem:

    I think often the United States has to lead,” Baucus said, noting that what lawmakers come up could be used as a model for other countries to copy.

    So the U.S. would saddle its consumers with higher prices in exchange for little benefit environmentally and in the process risk retaliation and alienating countries who it insists are necessary for global cooperation on climate change?

    Some leadership.

    And it may well be that the Chinese have the jump on the United States here, in any case. They’re proposing to introduce a carbon tax of their own, to prevent double-taxation in the form of carbon tariffs by the developed countries (banned under WTO rules) and to keep the carbon tax revenue – collected, remember, from U.S. consumers! – for themselves, all while seeming to play nice on climate change. I bet those who proposed carbon tariffs are sorry they spoke out now. (HT: Scott Lincicome)

  • Brazil has published a list of over 200 mostly consumer and agricultural goods that would be subject to retaliatory tariffs as part of the on-going dispute over U.S. cotton subsidies (an excellent backgrounder to that dispute is available here).

    I note with sorrow that the list also contains intermediate goods, which of course would mean saddling Brazilian manufacturers with higher prices. Even if the Brazilian government isn’t too concerned about  burdening its consumers with extra taxes, rarely a concern of politicians apparently, you’d think they would hesitate to impose higher costs on manufacturers, who employ people.

    Again, it is important to draw a distinction here between the mercantalist political logic of retaliatory tariffs and the economic insanity of increasing costs to your own people in “retaliation” for the harm another country’s policies have done to you. (And no, I don’t count the “game-theory” argument as an “economic” one here. That is a fancy way of saying that in an international relations, i.e. political, sense, retaliation can bring about the desired change.  I’m talking about the fact that costs to consumers from tariffs – whatever their rationale – far outweighing the benefits that producers derive from protection). But this latest development is a sign that Brazil is serious about getting the U.S. to reform its agricultural policies, something it should be doing anyway.

    Brazil was, it should be noted, given permission from the WTO to suspend intellectual property rights protections as a form of retaliation, a new but increasingly attractive way of exacting retribution, but only after a certain amount of damages had been collected the usual way.

  • Chamber of Commerce Endorses Carbon Tariffs?

    Even though the climate change summit in Copenhagen next month is likely to yield very little, domestic shenanigans continue. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed a bill on Thursday amid controversy, and the farmers’ friends in the Senate (notably Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D. Mich) are looking to send goodies their way by filing an amendment that would pay farmers for not cutting down trees, not farming, and will likely see states such as — well, how about that! —  Michigan “cashing in” (see here).

    Meanwhile, those concerned about the cost of climate change regulations may have lost an ally. Often, but not always, one can depend on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to defend free enterprise, or at least free trade. On climate change, however, they are a little more ambiguous. If anything, they appear to be getting more sympathetic to climate change legislation. Nothing to do with membership defections, they assure us, just good business practice. Maybe it is. I’m not a member of the Chamber so their strategy is not really any of my business.

    What concerns me is the apparent shift in their position toward so-called carbon tariffs (also called “border adjustment measures,” and often spoken of in terms of “international competitiveness,” “negotiating leverage” and other terms that should raise the alarm). My friend, and former Catoite, Scott Lincicome does an excellent job here of parsing through the Chamber’s recent public letter in support of  the Kerry-Graham “framework” (outlined in this New York Times op-ed) and their strange silence on the framework’s inclusion of the need for carbon tariffs, so I won’t repeat his analysis here. Suffice to say, their non-comment on the issue of carbon tariffs is worrying. As Scott points out, they appear to endorse the concept, if in a coded manner.

    Back in June, the Chamber explicitly opposed Waxman-Markey, in part because “It would also impose carbon tariffs on goods imported into the U.S., a move that would almost certainly spur retaliation from global trading partners.” (See here.) I would feel a lot more comfortable if a similarly explicit statement had been repeated in their letter.

    The Church of Global Warming

    Novelist Michael Crichton said that environmentalism had all the trappings of a religion: “Eden, the fall of man, the loss of grace, the coming doomsday.” I never took such claims entirely seriously. But then I heard this statement from a Montana writer, Jim Robbins, interviewed by the “sustainability reporters” of government-funded Marketplace Radio:

    There’s a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I think there’s something along that line happening here. I mean, there are still some people who refuse to believe it. But I think there’s been an erosion of that disbelief and it’s changed pretty dramatically.

    Darned if he isn’t using terms like “atheists” and “disbelief” in a discussion of global warming. Almost as if he were, you know, a theologian.

    Reporter Sarah Gardner, by the way, says that “in my own lifetime, average temperatures in this country have gone up more than 2 degrees.” That doesn’t sound like that much – maybe like moving from Washington to Richmond? But anyway, unless Sarah is about 200 years old, she seems to be exaggerating.

    For a different view of global warming – not that of an atheist or even a skeptic, just a non-fundamentalist or non-apocalyptic – see this short paper or this book by climatologist Pat Michaels.