And so the world is racing to decarbonize before the Republican Party — as constituted in its current, delirious form — can regain power over the U.S. With the GOP as unpopular as ever, the rest of the planet has a tenuous upper hand. At some point, perhaps only a few years from now, decarbonization will have gained irreversible momentum, strengthening the economic power of the green-energy lobby and weakening the power of the fossil-fuel lobby. And maybe, eventually, the Republican Party will give up its affinity for unlimited carbon emissions, just as it is surrendering on gay marriage. In the meantime, the 2016 election threatens to ruin the new global consensus on climate change.It wasn't always like this. Back when Republicans rested in confidence that no Democrat would ever again reside in the White House, it was not beyond the pale for a Republican to favor environmental measures. The Reagan Administration ultimately came out in favor of banning chloro-fluorocarbons to protect the ozone layer. The Senior Bush Administration passed measures to cut sulfur emissions in order to combat acid rain. They prided themselves in abandoning the old liberal command-and-control approach with a cap-and-trade that allowed industry greater latitude in cutting emissions, and allowed industries that could cut emissions more cheaply to trade credits with ones that were more expensive. Some have argued whether this was actually any better than straight regulation, but either way it worked. It has been given as a classic example of a successful government endeavor.
The main reason for the success is obvious. No one values sulfur emissions for their own sake; they are simply an accidental biproduct of making things that people do value. Limiting emissions was simply not a priority. Once industry did make cutting sulfur emissions a priority, it turned out to be cheaper and easier than anyone had expected. But then again, that was before Republicans realized that having a (federal) government meant that a Democrat could occupy the White House. Once such a travesty occurred, it became apparent that any federal initiative must be fought tooth and claw, and a whole news industry was built around stoking outrage at any federal regulation. The the cap-and-trade approach that under the Bush Administration was touted as an innovative, market-oriented approach. Under the Obama Administration, with Fox News and talk radio on the prowl, it is little short of outright Communism.
So I invite the audience to imagine how Glenn Beck and the rest might have reacted if the Bush I cap-and-trade of sulfur emissions had come out under Obama. Suddenly, it would turn out that sulfur emissions were, in fact, a valuable thing in and of themselves. In fact, it would turn out that a country's commitment to freedom could be precisely measured by its sulfur emissions. All over talk radio and Fox, people would denounce this monstrous act of tyranny and demand the right to burn as much sulfur as they pleased. The would tout its use in wine-making, fruit preservation, and even medicine to show that sulfur compounds were obviously harmless. Doubtless many "experts" would be produced to show that sulfur emissions were actually beneficial.
But Glenn Beck would go the furthest. I have no idea how sulfur emissions prior to cap-and-trade compared to emissions in Nazi Germany. If they were lower, Beck would have to content himself by mockingly saying that sulfur emissions were much higher in the 1930's and '40's and there wasn't any acid rain back then, so the whole thing is obviously a hoax. But if they were lower, the fun could really begin. Not only would Beck join with everyone else in saying that a country's commitment to liberty could be measured by its sulfur emissions, he would announce the discovery that if sulfur emissions fall below a certain level, liberty will be lost altogether. Why, look at Nazi Germany. Their emissions fell below [whatever magic level he set] and look where it led -- gas chambers! Obviously we have to keep our emissions above that level if we are to avoid a similar fate.
Program after program, he would chart our sulfur emissions, noting their ominous drop signaling our lost liberty, and showing them approaching the Nazi level as the sign that liberty would be lost altogether. As we drew closer and closer to that fatal cutoff, he would become increasingly alarmed and call on viewers to go out and start burning sulfur in their backyards to keep our emissions up. Officially, he would say that the survival of liberty depends on it. Darkly, he would hint without actually saying that if people didn't burn enough sulfur in their back yards, the Gestapo would haul them off to concentration camps. All across America, Glen Beck followers would start burning sulfur in their back yards. Needless to say, the neighbors would complain about the smell. A few would go to the authorities, who would issue citations. Then all hell would break loose. Beck would go on TV warning that the great loss of liberty had begun, than honest, liberty-loving Americans were being persecuted just for standing up for liberty. City councils all across the country would be besieged with irate Glenn Beck watchers demanding that any local anti-burning or anti-pollution ordinances make an exception for sulfur. Overwhelmed, city councils would yield, The sulfur burning campaign would grow, though not enough to stem the falling emission levels from industries. Beck would sound increasingly panicked as he appeared and warn his followers that they must endure all persecution for the sake of liberty and burn more sulfur.
Eventually, of course, the tide would turn. A lot of them would not like the smell much, either. Some would find that it irritated their lungs. Many neighbors would start displaying pictures and videos of damage to their foliage to show that sulfur burning was not a harmless fad. Someone's asthmatic daughter would have a serious reaction to the fumes, and her parents would sue. The most ardent sulfur burners would start to notice that it wasn't all that good for their foliage, either. Eventually, Beck would have to go on the air and explain that, while maintaining sulfur emission levels was vital to the preservation of liberty, that burning it was necessary to keep everyone from being hauled off to concentration camps, and that he believed the faithful should be willing to pay any price, bear any burden for the sake of freedom, he wasn't actually going so far as to ask his followers to damage their lawns. The campaign would peter out. Sulfur emissions would fall below the critical level and no one would be hauled off to concentration camps. The whole thing would be forgotten.
And then the next alarm would come up.