This week’s reading looks at agenda setting and policy formulation. Peters says a problem gets on the government’s agenda if 1) it affects a lot of people or has intense or visible effects; 2) it parallels or expands on previous issues; 3) it can be linked to a national symbol; 4) it is beyond the private sector and can only be solved by government; 5) there is a policy or technology to solve it.
Right now climate change is such a problem. On September 21, along with 400,000 other Americans, I participated in the People’s Climate March. The purpose of the march was to demonstrate popular support for putting climate change at the top of the agenda. Climate change meets all of Peters’ requirements. It affects large numbers of people, and the effects can be intense. Carbon pollution is similar to previous environmental challenges such as DDT or the ozone hole. For a long time climate change was symbolized by a polar bear, but the EPA is now using the symbol of a boy with asthma in a doctor’s office for its carbon pollution standards. Carbon emissions are a prime example of an externality, as oil and coal companies pollute the air and water basically for free. And there are both engineering and policy technologies to solve it: renewable energy such as solar and wind, and a carbon tax.
Right now the country is in the policy formulation stage of putting climate change on the agenda. There are four major approaches to lowering carbon emissions: cap and trade; regulation; subsidizing alternative energy; and a carbon tax. Of these, cap and trade has already been defeated in Congress, and alternative energy subsidies don’t seem viable despite the fact the oil industry is heavily subsidized. The EPA has proposed regulations for power plant emissions, because this is something the Obama administration can do without going through Congress. The fourth proposal is a carbon tax to correct the externalities. Some groups are proposing a tax and dividend, in which oil and coal companies would pay the tax, with proceeds refunded to taxpayers. That would be popular, but whether it could pass Congress is another question.