To Cap and Trade or Not To Cap and Trade

I was home yesterday and so hit my tolerance limit for NPR pretty early on, but one clip on the repeating loop that caused me to involuntarily mutter more four letter words than does the average NPR news story was the report on how the Federal Cap and Trade bill died because the Democrats couldn’t muster enough votes to end a Republican filibuster. Predictably, the Republicans’ tired justification for their opposition was that Cap and Trade would hurt the economy.

Then today I listened to an interview with Michael Dorsey, a Dartmouth professor of global environmental policy, on the radio show Counterspin (Saturdays at 8am on KEXP). Dorsey is opposed to Cap and Trade, not because he’s a wingnut, but because he believes it will fail to produce the level of emissions reductions that are necessary to avoid climate catastrophe.

He articulates his view here, concluding that, “the present market orthodoxies are insufficient to resolve the crisis of climate change, and other paths are both necessary, practical, and possible.” For support, he cites Financial Times analysis that shows Cap and Trade is not working in Europe. In today’s interview, he noted that George Soros, as well as many other finance experts, do not believe that Cap and Trade will be effective.

As an alternative to relying on market forces to reduce emissions, Dorsey advocates strong government intervention, primarily carbon taxes, along with massive infusions of government capital into developing carbon-free energy technologies. He believes it will be necessary for governments to make binding commitments to hitting the reduction targets now being called for the climate experts. For example in 2006, Sweden committed to ending its fossil fuel dependency by 2020.

I’m not ready to give up on Cap and Trade — there are lots of smart people supporting it, and even if its overall effectiveness is debatable, at least it is a step in the right direction. But Dorsey’s sentiments resonate with an intuition of mine that just keeps getting stronger over the years: We have entered an uncharted regime in which human activity is pushing the limits of the planet, and if we hope to thrive as a species, we must emancipate ourselves from the religion of the free market. (I alluded to this here.) Free market ideology cultivates competition at the expense cooperation, and this competitive attitude permeates everything we do, ranging from how we treat our neighbors to how we treat the planet. And if we compete with the planet, we will lose.

Of course Wendell Berry understood this a long time ago, and stated it more simply and eloquently than I ever could:

“If a culture is to hope for any considerable longevity, then the relationships within it must, in recognition of their interdependence, be predominantly cooperative rather than competitive.”