Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

A Fitful and Timely Compromise?

Perry Recker


February 8, 2013

By Perry Recker

On a Saturday morning last December, I joined a handful of other concerned citizens in writing a short note to President Obama, urging him to make climate related energy policies a top priority in his next term. I was gratified to hear of his intentions to seek a “path towards sustainable energy sources” in his Second Inaugural Address. While I hold no illusions that my letter by itself had any impact, it was empowering to know that I was not acting alone, and perhaps together our voices were heard. This was also confirmation for me of the value of civic and political engagement that goes beyond the voting booth and focuses on engaging political leaders in a respectful yet assertive manner.

In the wake of the November elections, I pray that Republicans and Democrats in the House will replace partisan bickering with compromise—for the sake of the common good—in at least on a few of the policy areas key to addressing the causes and consequences of climate change: energy policy, of course, but also tax and tariff policies, as well as transportation and agriculture.

Although in his first term, President Obama advocated an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, the words “all of the above” did not appear in his Second Inaugural.  The term “sustainable” was included, even while the need for a sensible and balanced (if not difficult and painful) transition is clearly implied. This, too, gives me some hope for the development of legislation that can both address the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that can at least be neutral, if not healthy, for the ever vital energy sector of the economy. 

Few seem to question that the U.S. D.C. Appeals Court decisions in June and December, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a green light to regulate carbon dioxide as a form of pollution, now give the administration a stronger regulatory tool to use. In fact over 80 environmental organizations, led by the Sierra Club, and others, have been planning a “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington, D.C. in February to urge the Obama administration to “reject the toxic Keystone XL tar sands pipeline” and “tell the EPA to set carbon standards for power plants.”

These organizations have proposed a five point plan for the president, which seems to be founded on the premise that given a gridlocked Congress, “[o]nly the President of the United States has the power to lead an effort on the scale and with the urgency needed to phase out fossil fuels and fire up both energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy sources.” But how wise is it, really, to mix a hopeless fatalism about the ideological rigor mortis of Congressional partisanship with a naïve exaggerated belief in the power of the executive office to work effectively through regulatory control?   

Certainly no liberal, Stephen Stromberg wrote perceptively, “the future of the climate hinges on policies and technologies that discourage demand for coal and oil no matter where it’s from and no matter how it gets to market, either by making fossil fuels more expensive or clean sources of energy cheaper.”  And a growing number of voices from across the political spectrum, such as James Hansen. Shi-Ling Hsu, Bob Inglis and a host of citizens in the Citizens Climate Lobby, are arguing that the most effective means of sustainably reducing our seemingly insatiable demand for fossil fuel energy is to put a steadily increasing price on carbon.

Therefore, Republicans in Congress who wish to avoid increased government interference in the energy marketplace, whether through stronger EPA regulations or subsidies for solar, wind, geothermal, and other greenhouse-gas-free sources, would do well to consider the implementation of a revenue-neutral carbon tax on all fossil fuels at the well-head, or port of entry. On the other hand, Democrats and people concerned about the growing climate and environmental crises should seriously consider the strategy of dropping regulatory opposition to the pipeline plans in exchange for a carbon tax package that includes border tariffs. With such a new cost structure in place, various experts would be able to run their numbers to (re)evaluate the costs and benefits of such a pipeline, and my guess is that the costs could very well outweigh the potential profits. This could well be an artful compromise whose time has come.

Although I will be unable to attend the rally on the 17th, my hope is that somehow it will result in more awareness of the need for solutions to the climate crisis that recognize the positive roles of both government and the marketplace in relationship to our human responsibility to maintain a healthy environment as well as a healthy economy.  So I plan to write my political representatives on both sides of the aisle urging them to pass a revenue-neutral carbon tax policy in order to provide a more just framework for the transition from a distorted, damaging energy market to one that is cleaner, and more environmentally friendly. Such a transition may lead to a slower rate of economic growth, but this policy will be better for the U.S. economy in the long run, while also preserving and protecting the global environment for future generations to enjoy and sustainably develop.

—Perry Recker serves as a librarian for the City Colleges of Chicago. He participated in the Civitas program in faith and public affairs of the Center for Public Justice in 2006 and 2008. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”