California’s Global Warming Dodge

This article appeared in the San Diego Union‐​Tribune on September 15, 2006.

With great fanfare, California is about to pass a law mandating a 25 percent cut in state greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. While AB 32 appears to be a big development at first glance, closer examination reveals that it is little more than a sophisticated political dodge; a convenient vehicle by which politicians can appear to do something about global warming without actually having to do much of anything concrete about it. If past is prologue, environmentalists are in for a big disappointment.

AB 32’s environmental promise comes due 14 years hence – that is, long after the politicians who would enact it leave office. Accordingly, they will not be around to face the music if the promise is broken or if the costs associated with the promise triggers a political backlash.

The bill, moreover, provides no hint whatsoever of how California will achieve these greenhouse gas cuts. Will emissions be cut via a carbon tax, an emissions trading regime, direct command‐​and‐​control regulation, an elaborate series of subsidies for non‐​carbon energy alternatives, “make a wish” energy efficiency programs, or some combination of the above? Who knows?

The legislature deputizes the California Air Resources Board to come up with some ideas, allowing politicians to take credit for the promise but to disavow responsibility for whether or not it is kept.

Nor does the bill makes any real attempt to bind future legislatures to the promise made. To be fair, that’s a nearly impossible task to begin with. But if you ask “What happens if the state falls short of these goals?” the answer is “not much.”

Taken together, this suggests something other than “bold, courageous action.” On the contrary, it suggests that promises to stop global warming are politically popular (at least in California), but programs to actually accomplish this aren’t. That’s because there’s no way to hide the costs. Honest parties on both sides of this debate recognize that the only way to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to significantly reduce fossil fuel consumption, and the costs associated with that enterprise cannot be buried out‐​of‐​sight and out‐​of‐​mind.

Hence, they are nowhere to be found in the legislation. The fact that the bill’s proponents are quick to argue that AB 32 represents a “free lunch” for the state’s citizens tells us all we need to know about how seriously politicians intend to take this promise. In short, there is no indication that anyone is prepared to impose any direct costs on consumers. Instead, we’re told that relatively popular but generally ineffective subsidies for renewable fuels, energy conservation, and the like will get the job done. Well, as they say, good luck with that.

This should come as no surprise, as legislative promises to meet dramatic environmental goals some time in the future have historically amounted to little. The 1970 Clean Air Act stipulated that states eliminate air pollution as a public health risk by 1982. Yet 24 years later, over a hundred localities still violate federal air quality standards for various pollutants. The law also required a 90 percent cut in automobile tailpipe emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide by 1975 (1976 for nitrogen oxides). Those deadlines, however, were repeatedly extended and only partially met by cars rolling off the assembly lines in 1995.

The 1972 Clean Water Act offers another example. Few remember that the law required “the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters of the United States be eliminated by 1985.” Yet we hear from reliable sources that pollution is still somehow finding its way into our nation’s lakes, streams, and coastal areas.

The California legislature is no stranger to this practice. Back in 1990, it created quite a stir back when it mandated that 2 percent of the cars sold in California in 1998, 5 percent of the cars sold in 2001, and 10 percent of the cars sold in 2003 be “zero emission vehicles.” The mandate was abandoned, however, when automobile companies simply couldn’t come up with a saleable vehicle that comported with the legislature’s wishes.

Students of regulatory history are quite familiar with this phenomenon: politicians compete mightily to out‐​promise the opposition, but they also struggle mightily to ensure that those promises entail no costs that might be traced back to them. Promises of future action are kept only when regulatory costs can somehow be buried. If costs cannot be hidden, the promises are broken.

Were we environmentalists, we’d be annoyed that politicians were being let off the global warming policy hook so easily. But we’re not, so let’s just say that it’s the political cynicism – not the economic consequences – that bothers us the most.