Time to experiment?

“Most of man’s problems upon this planet, in the long history of the race, have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.”
–Frances Perkins

I began my formal writing life with an article about acid rain for my northeast Wisconsin high school newspaper, The Mariner, in 1982. At that time I doubted much would be done to solve the problem. I assumed tens of thousands of lakes in the Northeast and the Midwest would simply be left to die a vinegary death.

More than a quarter century later, acid rain, caused by the sulfurous emissions of coal-burning power plants, is a threat no more to lakes across the continent. There is some debate among experts about whether the cap & trade policy tool George H.W. Bush’s administration proposed, and Congress passed, was the solution. Climatologist James Hansen is one expert who thinks it was not. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman thinks it was.

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Hansen says a cap & trade approach won’t work; instead, he favors a fee & rebate (or, as Hansen prefers to call it, a fee & green check) plan that increases the cost of high carbon fuels when and where they’re taken out of the ground (or at the port of entry) and sends that revenue directly to citizens so they can invest in energy-saving upgrades. But because of pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, many think a bill built on this idea would live a short life.

It now seems the cap & trade bill Krugman supported is dead, too. The House passed it this summer but the Senate refused to take it up.

No matter what happens with climate change legislation in Congress, a recent article in the Boston Globe outlining the history of the acid rain fight reminds us that large and seemingly intractable problems can and have been solved relatively rapidly and inexpensively. And that solutions often come from unexpected places, in unexpected ways. Global warming is a much larger and more dangerous problem than acid rain was, of course, and that means we can’t afford to relax the pressure on our leaders  to come up with solutions — or think that state and local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren’t an important part of a solution.

Not every state, region or country has to use the same approach. Maybe tax & dividend would work great for Wisconsin and the Midwest, fee & rebate for the Western and Southeastern parts of the U.S. Or vice versa.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

But we need more ideas.

The art of the possible is, like most art, at least as much about imagination as it is about putting brushes to canvases, chisels to stones, fingers to clay — or votes to a bill. Political will is preceded by a vision and the successful articulation of that vision. All artists stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Most tweak the visions and techniques of their mentors, but some, like Johann Sebastian Bach, with his cross-handed organ playing, and Joseph Mallord William Turner, who many consider to be the first impressionist painter, break the rules and revolutionize their disciplines.

Tying the fate of humanity to any one strategy or set of strategies is unwise. Just like with investing, you don’t want all your eggs in one basket. Experimentation must be encouraged. And if there is anything artists and scientists both know how to do well, it’s experiment. Politicians? Not so much.

But let’s not get too depressed (or angry) about the failure of climate legislation in Congress this year. As bad as it seems, it could be a blessing in disguise, because it could spur us to look at a broader range of possible solutions, some of which might help us take huge leaps forward — and put us ahead of where we would have been had a bill passed.

Am I being a Pollyanna? Perhaps you think experimentation is a luxury we can’t afford with global warming proceeding faster than the IPCC scientists predicted. Post a comment and let me know what you think.

For more information about Hansen’s fee &rebate approach, which has the support of Bill McKibben and others, click here.