Stopping Climate Change Is Not a Distraction From Jobs

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No, there isn't any symbolic looming disaster hanging over our heads — why do you ask? Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Over the weekend, President Obama leaked that he will be delivering a major speech and policy on climate change. (If you’re gobsmacked by this news, or the possibility that Obama can enact a sweeping climate-change agenda without Congress, read my feature story about this from May and then come back.) The early leader for least-convincing argument against is West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who calls carbon regulation “shortsighted and wrong.” Uh, shortsighted? Right, the really big picture view of things is that we should be blowing the top off every mountain in Appalachia and sending the carbon trapped inside into the atmosphere as fast as possible. It’s shortsighted to worry about permanently altering the Earth’s temperature.

One notch higher on the sophistication scale is John Boehner’s argument: “Why would you want to increase the cost of energy and kill more American jobs at a time when the American people are still asking the question, where are the jobs?” The idea that regulating carbon will “kill jobs” — as opposed to shifting them from the fossil-fuel industry into renewables — is shaky; more amusing is the sheer bafflement expressed by Boehner. It’s not just that he considers the trade-off of higher energy prices for lower carbon pollution a bad deal. He seems to find the entire concept of limiting carbon pollution absurd. Why would you pass a law designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions? That’s crazy!

Ross Douthat raises a related objection to climate regulation, which is not so much that it will directly raise unemployment (though Douthat thinks it might), but that it will distract from the task of reducing unemployment: “D.C. gridlock has given the political class an excuse to ignore the country’s most pressing problem — a lack of decent jobs at decent wages, with a deeper social crisis at work underneath — and pursue its own pet causes instead.”

As a critique of the media and the political establishment writ large, Douthat has this right. But to lay the blame equally between the two parties is daft. Obama does have a proposal to reduce short-term unemployment: the American Jobs Act, which economic forecasters believe would make a significant dent in unemployment. It has gone nowhere because Republicans who control Congress won’t pass any of it.

The official Republican line on job creation since at least the 2010 election has been that deficit reduction equals job creation. We not only need to cut spending, Republicans argue, we need to cut it now. That’s the policy we’re carrying out, too, which makes Boehner’s complaints about the lack of jobs more than a little odd. And despite the collapse of the remaining intellectual support for the proposition that cutting spending immediately will help rather than harm the short-term economy, Republicans remain committed to it.

If you’re a conservative and you agree with expansionary austerity, then you should think we’re on the right track. If you disagree with expansionary austerity, then the problem is reversing what remains a hardened Republican dogma. In neither case can you fairly blame both parties for ignoring jobs. The Republican belief in cutting spending right now is the issue.

And this, of course, explains why the legislative action has moved away from job creation. Climate change is a problem that can be solved through executive action. Immigration policy is potentially the one issue that House Republicans may feel compelled to get out of the way. It appeared after the Newtown massacre to some people (not me) that some kind of gun control would fall into the same category, though so far it hasn’t.

Some version of Douthat’s claim will surely be the basis of the Republican response to Obama’s climate push. Where are the jobs? Focus on the jobs! But as long as the House Republicans remain committed to policies that the economics profession believes will eliminate jobs, there won’t be a “jobs bill.” That’s not a difference that can be finessed.