At the back of the current issue of Smithsonian magazine, behind the feature about Alabama's scenic Cahaba River and the profile of bodybuilder Charles Atlas, there's a history of the wonky idea that has entered the lexicon as "cap-and-trade."
As the article recounts, back in 1988, acid rain was the environmental topic of the hour. Environmental Defense's Fred Krupp brought cap-and-trade to the attention of C. Boyden Gray, the Reagan administration lawyer headed for a job as White House counsel for the incoming presidency of George H.W. Bush.
Krupp and Gray liked the idea. Few others did at the time. Indignant enviros called it a license to pollute. EPA bureaucrats didn't think it would work. Congressmen were skeptical. Utilities thought that emissions allowances would cost too much. Out on the fringes, there were batty ideologues still around, by the way who refused to let facts get in the way of conspiracy theorizing about a supposed acid rain hoax.
Fortunately, President Bush went with the idea, it was rolled into Clean Air Act amendments, and the results are plain. In 1990, acid rain-causing emissions from regulated sources totaled 15.7 million tons. By 2008, they had dropped to 7.6 million tons, nearly 2 million tons below the statutory emissions cap for last year. Except for a 2005 price spike, emissions allowance prices have fluctuated well below what utilities had predicted while the legislation was debated.
Cap-and-trade is an idea that fits with Republican notions about using market forces to clean up the environment. A Republican president embraced the idea to begin solving a pollution problem that had been scientifically documented three ways from Sunday.
Jump forward 20 years to the debate about climate change legislation. Today, many Republicans in Congress are bashing cap-and-trade as "cap-and-tax," a red-meat slogan that communicates that its adherents have no intention of doing anything to reduce emissions, either through cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, no matter how much science is thrown at them. It's the politically correct thing to do, I suppose, but it shows little regard for the achievements of the party's past leaders. True conservatives would show more respect for what their forebears accomplished.
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