If you want to pin a group of green wonks down for a few hours, casually ask the question, "which do you favor, carbon tax or cap-and-trade?" They've been having that debate in earnest for the past few years, always hoping to one day apply the solution to law. But if reforming health insurance by insuring 30 million people and reducing the cost of health care is a political loser, addressing carbon emissions has become a punchline. ("A snowball's chance in Alaska!" har har.)
Maybe Maria Cantwell has cracked the nut. She is offering door number three:
She is pushing a simpler, more voter-friendly version of cap-and-trade, called “cap-and-dividend”. Under her bill, the government would impose a ceiling on carbon emissions each year. Producers and importers of fossil fuels will have to buy permits. The permits would be auctioned, raising vast sums of money. Most of that money would be divided evenly among all Americans. The bill would raise energy prices, of course, and therefore the price of everything that requires energy to make or distribute. But a family of four would receive perhaps $1000 a year, which would more than make up for it, reckons Ms Cantwell. Cap-and-dividend would set a price on carbon, thus giving Americans a powerful incentive to burn less dirty fuel. It would also raise the rewards for investing in clean energy. And it would leave all but the richest 20% of Americans—who use the most energy—materially better off, she says.
Politically, it has far greater prospects. Maine's Susan Collins is a co-sponsor, and other Republicans have also apparently expressed interest. There's nothing like offering the folks back home a nice check to grease the wheels. As policy, it's getting cautious thumbs up from the environmental folks (with caveats about the sausage-factory process). At this point, anything that keeps the issue of substantial carbon reform on the table gets my thumbs up, too.
Note: since we've had many, many battles over the science of global warming, I'll be watching the comments to make sure we don't have that debate again. This post is about Cantwell's bill.