The Second Term: Robert Stavins on Energy and Environmental Policy

January 16, 2013
By Doug Gavel, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

President Obama's second term in office began on Inauguration Day, January 21st, and the list of policy challenges facing his administration is daunting. Aside from the difficult task of addressing the nation's economic woes, the president and his administration will also deal with the increasing complexities of global climate change, a rapidly changing energy market, entitlement and tax reform, healthcare reform, and the repercussions from the still simmering "Arab Spring." Throughout this month, we will solicit the viewpoints of a variety of HKS faculty members to provide a range of perspectives on the promise and pitfalls of The Second Term.

We spoke with Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government Environment and Natural Resources Program, about energy and environmental policy issues the president will face in the next four years.

Q: What are the top priorities for a second Obama administration in energy and environmental policy?

A: The Obama administration faces a number of impending challenges in the energy and environmental policy realm in its second term, which I would characterize – in very general terms – as finding balance among three competing factors: (1) demands from some constituencies for more aggressive environmental policies; (2) demands from other constituencies – principally in the Congress – for progress on so-called “energy security;” and (3) recognition that nothing meaningful is likely to happen if the country’s economic problems are not addressed.

Q: What will be the potential challenges/roadblocks in the way of implementing those top priorities?

A: The key challenge/roadblock the administration faces in its second term as it attempts to achieve some balance among the three competing objectives above is the reality of a very high degree political polarization in the two houses of Congress. The numbers are dramatic. For example, when the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 that established the landmark SO2 allowance trading system were being considered in the U.S. Congress, political support was not divided on partisan lines. Indeed, environmental and energy debates from the 1970s through much of the 1990s typically broke along geographic lines, rather than partisan lines, with key parameters being degree of urbanization and reliance on specific fuel types, such as coal versus natural gas. Thus, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 89-11 with 87 percent of Republican members and 91 percent of Democrats voting yea, and the legislation passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 401-21 with 87 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats voting in support.

But, 20 years later when climate change legislation was receiving serious consideration in Washington, environmental politics had changed dramatically, with Congressional support for environmental legislation coming mainly to reflect partisan divisions. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454), often known as the Waxman-Markey bill, that included an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill passed by a narrow margin of 219-212, with support from 83 percent of Democrats, but only 4 percent of Republicans. (In July 2010, the U.S. Senate abandoned its attempt to pass companion legislation.) Political polarization in the Congress (and the country) has implications far beyond energy and environmental policy, but it is particularly striking in this realm.

Q: Where do openings/possibilities for compromises exist in those areas?

A: It is conceivable – but in my view, unlikely – that there may be an opening for implicit (not explicit) “climate policy” through a carbon tax. Does the defeat of cap-and-trade in the U.S. Congress, the virtual unwillingness of the Obama White House to utter the phrase in public, and the defeat of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney indicate that there is a new opening for serious consideration of a carbon-tax approach to meaningful CO2 emissions reductions in the United States? First of all, there surely is such an opening in the policy wonk world. Economists and others in academia, including important Republican economists such as Harvard’s Greg Mankiw and Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, remain enthusiastic supporters of a national carbon tax. And a much-publicized meeting in July, 2012, at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. brought together a broad spectrum of Washington groups – ranging from Public Citizen to the R Street Institute – to talk about alternative paths forward for national climate policy. Reportedly, much of the discussion focused on carbon taxes.

Clearly, this “opening” is being embraced with enthusiasm in the policy wonk world. But what about in the real political world? The good news is that a carbon tax is not “cap-and-trade.” That presumably helps with the political messaging! But if conservatives were able to tarnish cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax,” it surely will be considerably easier to label a tax – as a tax! Also, note that Obama’s silence extend beyond disdain for cap-and-trade per se. Rather, it covers all carbon-pricing regimes.

So as a possible new front in the climate policy wars, I remain very skeptical that an explicit carbon tax proposal will gain favor in Washington. Note that the only election outcome that could have lead to an aggressive and successful move to a meaningful nationwide carbon pricing regime would have been: the Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats achieve a 60+ vote margin in the Senate, and the President was reelected. Only the last of these happened. It’s not enough.

A more promising possibility – though still unlikely – is that if Republicans and Democrats join to cooperate with the Obama White House to work together constructively to address not only the short-term fiscal cliff, but also the longer-term budgetary deficits the U.S. government faces, and if as part of this they decide to include not only cuts in government expenditures, but also some significant “revenue enhancements” (the t-word is not allowed), and if (I know, this is getting to be a lot of “if’s”) it turns out to be easier politically to eschew increases in taxes on labor and investment and therefore turn to taxes on consumption, then there could be a political opening for new energy taxes, in particular, (drum roll ….) a carbon tax.

Such a carbon tax – if intended to help alleviate budget deficits – could not be the economist’s favorite, a revenue-neutral tax swap of cutting distortionary taxes in exchange for implementing a carbon tax. Rather, as a revenue-raising mechanism – like the Obama administration’s February 2009 budget for a 100%-auction of allowances in a cap-and-trade scheme – it would be a new tax, pure and simple. Those who recall the 1993 failure of the Clinton administration’s BTU-tax proposal – with a less polarized and more cooperative Congress than today’s – are not optimistic.

Nor is it clear that a carbon tax would enjoy more support in budget talks than a value added tax (VAT) or a Federal sales tax. The key question is whether the phrases “climate policy” or “carbon tax” are likely to expand or narrow the coalition of support for an already tough budgetary reconciliation measure. The key group to bring on board will presumably be conservative Tea Party Republicans, and it is difficult to picture them being more willing to break their Grover Norquist pledges because it’s for a carbon tax.

Q: Are there lessons that a second Obama administration can draw upon from the first administration, or from history, when constructing its energy & environmental policy over the next four years?

A: It will take a great deal dedicated effort and profound luck to find political openings that can bridge the wide partisan divide that exists on climate change policy, and other environmental issues. Think about the following. Nearly all our major environmental laws have been passed in the wake of highly publicized environmental events or “disasters,” including the spontaneous combustion of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969, and the discovery of toxic substances at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, in the mid-1970s. But note that the day after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, no article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer commented that the cause was uncertain, that rivers periodically catch on fire from natural causes. On the contrary, it was immediately apparent that the cause was waste dumped into the river by adjacent industries. A direct consequence of the observed “disaster” was, of course, the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But climate change is distinctly different. Unlike the environmental threats addressed successfully in past U.S. legislation, climate change is essentially unobservable to the general population. We observe the weather, not the climate. Until there is an obvious and sudden event – such as a loss of part of the Antarctic ice sheet leading to a dramatic sea-level rise – it is unlikely that public opinion in the United States will provide the bottom-up demand for action that inspired previous congressional action on the environment over the past forty years.

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inauguration day 2009

Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009

"The key challenge/roadblock the administration faces in its second term as it attempts to achieve some balance among the three competing objectives above is the reality of a very high degree political polarization in the two houses of Congress," writes Stavins.

Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government Environment and Natural Resources Program

Robert Stavins, Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government Environment and Natural Resources Program