Bret Stephens: Gail, the choice of topic belongs to you this time. Not to coin a phrase or anything, but … we’ll always have Paris.
Gail Collins: Well, I was really planning to bring up infrastructure funding. But if you absolutely insist, I suppose we could talk about Donald Trump and global warming. Particularly since a cabinet member read one of your columns at a press conference after the president announced we were withdrawing from the climate accord.
What did that feel like? The only time anybody in the White House ever quoted me in public was when I was writing about Mitt Romney’s dog.
Bret: Weird. I was in Arizona, hiking with my son in Red Rock country, when Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A. administrator, gave the press conference that dragged me into it. I’m supposed to comment on the news, not be the news, so I tried to ignore it. But I guess it’s unignorable.Continue reading the main story
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At the risk of being the columnist who doth protest too much, let me just say this: My climate column was not, repeat not, about policy. It was about our mentality. It was about the perils of certitude in all things, not just climate but also political campaigning. So it had no business being in a policy statement of any sort.
My biggest regret about pulling out of Paris is that it is going to help Trump. Whatever my misgivings are about the accord itself (I have a few), I would swallow them if this weren’t such a winner for Republicans going into next year’s midterms or Trump going into his (presumptive) re-election campaign. “Pittsburgh Over Paris” is a better political slogan than “Save the Earth.”
Gail: Let’s talk about the accord for a minute. You agree that the globe is warming and that the problem is to a large degree man-made, right?
Bret: Yes. Or rather, oui.
Gail: And you think we should do something about it, but so far you think the solutions have been … dumb? The one we all know about is your contempt for ethanol, which seems kind of inarguable. The only people in love with ethanol are presidential candidates running in the Iowa caucuses.
Bret: Right again. Which is why I wrote in a previous column that we should “continue to pursue and increase fundamental research and investment in clean tech, at least if we can do it without having the government pick winners and losers.”
The smart play for Scott Pruitt and the rest of the Trump administration is to say something along the following lines: “Precisely because there’s still a lot we don’t know with sufficient certainty, we’re increasing investment in areas where government money can do the most good, especially on fundamental research.” Doubling the budget of the National Science Foundation and NOAA over four years would be a good place to start. Right now they’re both taking steep cuts in Trump’s budget.
Gail: How about cap-and-trade? A good old-fashioned free enterprise solution to a lot of our dirty-smokestack problems, which most Republicans supported until the Koch brothers terrified them into submission.
Bret: Not a fan. The cap-and-trade regimes put in place so far haven’t worked out well. The 2005 European Emissions Trading System is probably the most prominent example, and I can remember that the hype that went with it was similar to the enthusiasm that greeted the Paris accord. It failed for several of reasons: The price of carbon wasn’t right; it was nontransparent and prone to corruption; and it led to a lot of offshoring of pollution to countries outside of Europe.
Oh, and since one or two of our readers might not automatically take my word for it, let me just refer them to this terrific, accessible piece in The Guardian by the sustainability expert Steffen Böhm.
Now you’re going to ask about a carbon tax, aren’t you?
Gail: Yes! Yes! Carbon tax! (The crowd cheers as the team mascot, a walrus wearing a polar bear costume, fires from a T-shirt cannon into the stands.)
Bret: I’m torn. Plus-side: It’s a straight-up tax, so it doesn’t fall prey to the price uncertainties, corruption and other shenanigans associated with cap-and-trade. As a supply-sider, I don’t have problems with it economically if we can offset it with tax cuts elsewhere, maybe corporate or capital gains, as part of a grand tax compromise.
Gail: Great. Don’t say another word. We will do this the way Congress would: Pass the carbon tax now and then make an appointment in the fall after our next vacation to discuss that offsetting thing.
Bret: The down-side …
Gail: Damn. The walruses piled up on their little tiny shrinking ice floes are weeping.
Bret: Carbon taxes are regressive. The poor spend a larger share of their income on energy, especially gas, than the better-off. There are ways in which you can cycle the money back to lower-income people, but that’s complex in its own right and defeats much of the original purpose of the tax.
My friend Jason Bordoff, who founded Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, is having me up to Morningside Heights next week to talk my ear off on this and other climate-related subjects. So hopefully I’ll have more information — and less ambivalence — once I’ve heard him out.
Gail: Maybe you’ll come back a transformed man, leading a happy polar bear cub on a leash.
Bret: I hope so. Jason has been known to have that effect. But let me turn this back on you: I keep reading that prices for clean energy are coming down. Our colleague Geeta Anand had a fascinating piece Friday about how India is rapidly going green. Here in the United States, many C.E.O.s say their commitment to clean energy is just a matter of good business. If so — and I won’t quibble with them — can’t we sit back and let it happen, Paris or no Paris?
Gail: Why in the world wouldn’t we want to encourage such a win-win? We get cleaner air, fewer health problems, and we help slow down what virtually everybody agrees is a global warming crisis that’s creating disasters for low-lying territories like China and the Seychelles and, um, Florida. Desertification and droughts are creating havoc around the world, encouraging mass migration, dislocation, unemployment and racial strife.
It’s certainly true that we’ll get more natural gas and wind energy whether there are government incentives or not, but when there’s so much to be gained, why not go for it?
Bret: You make an excellent point, which I would be strongly tempted to agree with, were it not for one thing: I’m a bit of a jerk.
Oh, and one other thing. Paris is a lousy treaty, voluntary, unenforceable and even unverifiable, and it won’t achieve the goals you mention. It reminds me of another Paris Agreement — the 1928 Pact of Paris, better known as the Kellogg-Briand pact — that attempted to outlaw war. Nearly all countries signed it; none, alas, obeyed it. I think Paris is more of an alibi for cynics (Saudi Arabia signed it!) than a mechanism for action.
Hey, before we wrap this up: London …
Gail: I don’t get to fight with you about Paris? You changed the subject before I got to make my many pained and righteous points!
I’m only giving up — temporarily — because our president’s response to the London terrorist attack is a newer, if less internationally significant, horror show. He can’t even express solidarity with our closest ally without saying something offensive and wrong.
The British election was pretty fascinating before the terror attacks — two truly terrible candidates vying to dig the country out of a self-made economic crisis. And then the dogfight over whether the state should collect money from the estates of demented senior citizens they had to care for in old age. I actually think it’s an interesting issue, albeit probably point one on the list of Things Not to Bring Up Voluntarily During a Campaign.
But Trump stole the show by being an international creep at a time of crisis. Makes you wonder what he’d do if New York were attacked and he had to work with our mayor, who’s been way more critical of him than London’s.
Bret: It almost makes one long for Mitt Romney, who also made a point of fecklessly lecturing the Brits about security risks on the eve of the London Olympics. (But don’t you sometimes wish he had won in ’12 to spare us all this?)
Trump’s nasty tweet about Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, based on a misreading of what the mayor had said in response to the terror attack, struck me as a kind of portrait in miniature of the man and his presidency: personal nastiness + borderline illiteracy + diplomatic blundering = #MAGA!
Gail: We disagree about a lot of things, Bret. But we’ll always have Trump.