Major changes in the regulatory landscape often require serendipitous, attention-grabbing events to push them over the top. These events must be perceived to be related to the cause at hand, but no actual scientific relationship needs to exist. What matters is perception.
Right now, it seems highly unlikely that such an event will occur this year to push cap and trade over the top.
There are many examples of serendipitous events that occurred during the legislative debate over major legislation. For example:
- The Clean Air Act of 1977 was stalled in Congress, until a long heat wave struck Washington and covered the city in smog. Heat waves and high ozone were normal phenomena, but proponents succeeded in overcoming opposition be reference to the conditions that prevailed outside.
- In 1979, Love Canal became a household word for abandoned hazardous waste sites. Congress responded to this and other infamous cases by passing the Comprehensive Environmental Remediation and Compensation Act, popularly known as Superfund.
- In the summers of 1987-88, medical waste washed onto the beaches of New York and New Jersey. Certain interest groups used this to motivate Congress to direct EPA to write new regulations for the disposal of medical waste from hospitals, clinics and physician offices. (By the time EPA implemented the law in 1988, it had become clear that the source of the medical waste was a leak from New York’s Fresh Kills landfill, not mismanagement by the hospitals, clinics and physicians subject to the new regulation.)
- Amendments to the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act were necessary in 1995 because the Courts had invalidated an FDA decision to permit de minimis levels of pesticides that caused cancer in laboratory rodents at very high doses. Advocates sought to use this bill as the vehicle for establishing a large new regulatory program aimed at so-called “endocrine disruptor” chemicals. Science published a research study purporting to show that very low doses of pesticides caused serious reproductive harm in frogs, and this article gave scientific credibility to advocates’ claims. New provisions were added to the bill. (Subsequently the research paper was withdrawn and at least one researcher was disbarred for scientific misconduct.)
To date, public interest in climate change is broad but shallow, with rising skepticism. For example, a Gallup poll conducted last March showed that public skepticism had never been higher, with 41% agreeing with the view that the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change is “generally exaggerated.”
A serendipitous event could occur this summer that would reverse public skepticism. What would it look like? Most plausibly, it would be a timely and severe heat wave–timely so that Congress can be seen taking action in the middle of crisis, and severe because heat waves are common in Washington DC in the summer time. (This is not to say that a heat wave–even a particularly intense one–could be attributed to climate change. Some proponents of cap and trade surely would claim that it is, and such claims would seem plausible to many.)
What are the chances of a severe heat wave occurring at the same time Congress is debating the bill? The future is always uncertain but the past is not. So far, the summer of 2008 has been unusually cool in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. In Washington DC, it is normal to have 547 cooling degree days (CDDs) by July 9. The total to date is 471, a difference of 14% (and 21% below 2008, which was warmer than average). Many other East Coast cities also have experienced much cooler than normal weather, including Boston (CDDs down 59% from average) and New York (down 33%). Many Midwest cities also have been unusually cool, including Detroit (down 31%), Cleveland (down 15%), and Grand Forks ND (down 46%). Denver is down 38%.
This is not to say that other cities have not experienced unusually warm weather. For example, cooling degree says in Reno are 113% above average and 97% above average in Seattle. The lower Plains states, Southwest, and Southeast are all above average.
Nevertheless, what matters is what happens in Washington DC, and the Nation’s Capital has been delightfully cool. So far.