Denis Hayes on the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

TreeHugger: What is your ideal scenario for domestic climate change policy?

Hayes: One of our problems is that we don't have a nice swift name for it, so we call it the "wonky upstream cap and auction with dividends." Which really doesn't exactly work like "death panels" in terms of moving the public. But in essence, we would say that there's a firm cap that's got no ability to trade biological offsets for fossil sources of carbon. It's just a firm cap. And in a given year, we would say that just this tonnage of carbon may be brought into the American economy.

There are about 2,000 places where carbon enters the economy. At the mouths of mines, pipelines that are coming into the country, pipelines that are coming out of natural gas fields, ports of entry, etc. And those 2,000 places already have some kind of federal regulation.

So we'd say you can't bring it in unless you have a permit. 100 percent of the permits would be auctioned, unlike, say, in the current legislation which would grandfather initially 85 percent of the permits to the people that are currently using fossil fuels.
They would all be auctioned. That sets an effective price on carbon so you know what it's worth under the cap that we currently have.

It could be characterized as a carbon tax, but it's a nimble one that doesn't require Congressional changes every year. You just know what the cap is going to be, and the price settles out from it.

That would collect, ultimately, a fairly substantial amount of revenue as the cap gets ratcheted down further and further. And much of that revenue should be refunded to people, so they will not feel themselves putting a huge amount of money into the federal coffers in addition to their regular taxes.

That money will be returned to them, but when they look at the price of things on the menu that they can buy, anything that has a high carbon content will be more expensive than it was before. So it's upstream. That means we get it at the mine mouths at the port of entry.

It's a cap, which we understand. Only so much carbon can enter the economy. We want to cut carbon where it comes into the economy, not try to cap it where it's emitted, at power plants and certainly not at tailpipes of automobiles. And auction, which means that you pay for the permit that the market requires, and a dividend that refunds most of those revenues to the American citizenry.

TreeHugger: Is that what most people label as cap and trade, or is that substantially different?

Hayes: It's substantially different. Cap and trade could be something fairly akin to this, but now cap and trade has evolved into something that basically has none of these characteristics. The cap is porous, because you can have all kinds of offsets from all sorts of sources. You can use things more efficiently, and that means that somebody else can buy your increased efficiency, and use it to burn more coal.

You can protect a forest in Guatemala, which is a good thing to do, but as a result of that, somebody buys the carbon that is captured for 50 years in that forest, and uses it to burn some coal that's been very nicely sequestered for the last 200 million years.

The "trade" is the part that has evolved into something very bad, in my view. But what's even worse is that in order to pass that trade over the vehement objections of a great many powerful and ruthless interests, we have found ourselves sweetening the pot. So the permits are now grandfathered to the current bad actors.

It basically means if you really cleaned up your act and you're using far less carbon now than you were using 20 years ago, you pay for it, because the ones who are dirty will be grandfathered to be able to obtain as many permits as they need for the carbon they're currently using.

It has enormous sweeteners for nuclear power. I saw one analysis that said that the current proposals being considered by the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman group would amount to a $100 billion dollars of subsidies for nuclear power.

It puts enormous resources into the so-called "clean coal" technologies to capture and sequester greenhouse gases in volumes that defy belief. It's inconceivable that there is any way to really capture and effectively sequester the kinds of volumes that the world is currently producing. And on and on.

That's what is currently being sold as cap and trade. The closest thing out there to what I'm proposing, and it's reasonably close, is a bill proposed by Senators Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. (It's nice to have women taking the lead; I wish they had a few supporters.) But at least it's bipartisan, one Democrat and one Republican. And it really does virtually everything that we are seeking to have done within this, so it's edging into some of it. It's a step in the right direction, clearly, and if you go slowly in the right direction, that's fine.

Unfortunately, it has not as yet got much spunk. But if the current legislation goes nowhere this year, if some of the villains in that legislation get knocked out of office next year as a consequence of them being really bad on this issue, then I could see Cantwell-Collins getting a brand new burst of life over the next year or two.

TreeHugger: Last year a story emerged, the so-called "Climategate," where thousands of emails between climate scientists were hacked and exposed. It led to a renewed surge of arguing over the science of climate change. In your work, do you still come across many people who are unconvinced by the science?

Hayes: Oh, occasionally at public outings we have a little bit of the overlap with the birthers, the anti-evolution people, the Tea Partiers... They tend to be blending over into the climate-science-as-junk-science groups. I think that those that are active on it are a fringe percentage of the American public. But those that subscribe to the ideas without showing up at rallies and doing things is a growing percentage, in part because people tend to have -- and I hope I'm not saying something that is condemning my whole species here -- but there is something almost built into the human psyche that leads us to follow people who are absolutely convinced that they are right.

I don't know what happened in the evolution of homosapiens, but if you say something with enough confidence, whether it's that you have been abducted by aliens and tortured sexually in a spaceship, or whatever, you can get people to believe you.

There's nobody in America that's more completely self-confident on these issues than say, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. When they speak with such robust confidence there are some sort of people who say, "Yeah, they must know what they're talking about," and they fall in line. Especially if their values align on some other issues, too.

The whole thing is something of an indictment of the declining quality of science education in the United States. By the time you get out of graduate school, you're reasonably good. By the time you get out as an undergraduate, many people have not taken any science. Of course, a majority don't go beyond high school, or high school and a year or two of vocational ed, and that's really where this is coming apart.

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