Monday, July 20, 2009

Cap-and-Trade: A Failure of Democracy?

The Economist has a special report on business in America that provides some interesting insights into my favorite issue: how to deal with climate change.

One of the main points I took from this report is that climate change seems to be, in many ways, the natural result of living in a democracy. Why? Climate change requires policymakers and citizens to simultaneously make long-term commitments to lifestyle changes. For example, citizens will only put up solar panels if they can sell surplus electricity to the electric company, otherwise it is not cost-effective for the average citizen to switch to solar. However, electric companies can reduce bills to zero, but cannot buy electricity from citizens. Change this policy - allow citizens to sell to the electric company - and you'll see more people, especially in places like Arizona or New Mexico, switching to solar power.

Is this the kind of idea that will get people elected and re-elected? Well, probably not. Solar energy is expensive and requires subsidies to be cost-effective, as the Economist points out. So it very well could be that a politician is forcing the majority (middle class) to pay for the minority (upper class) to use solar power and reduce his/her energy costs. This is not an electable position and politicians realize they will be better off pursuing pork in a cap-and-trade bill.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the short terms served by most politicians make it much more difficult for them to adapt the long-term policies needed to solve the climate crisis. It seems the only way to fix this is to suspend the rules of democracy for a while or have the solution come from the Supreme Court (who are unlimited by problems such as elections and terms). Neither one seems imminent, unfortunately for us all...

1 comment:

Pete Abbate said...

In a distantly-related article, James Surowiecki says the problem is federalism, not democracy.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty