Health care reform and attempts to address a flagging economy have largely consumed Congress’ recent attention. As many predicted in the fall, climate legislation has been moved to simmer on a back burner.

However, hearings on proposed climate legislation continue (for more, see House tackles climate change, ag offsets) as does jockeying amongst the sides — all with any eye towards the 2010 legislative session.

In September, Delta Farm Press spoke with Joseph Mason, an LSU economist and professor who had authored a study on the effects of cap and trade versus a carbon tax (for more, see Cap and trade — consider the risks).

In December, shortly before a watered-down deal was struck by leading nations at the climate conference in Copenhagen, Mason expanded on his earlier comments and touched on “Climategate.” Among his comments:

We last spoke in mid-September about cap and trade versus the carbon tax. Legislatively, have things progressed as you suspected they would — away from cap and trade?

“You have to read the press very carefully, right now. There continues to be some misrepresentation that economists continue to support cap and trade.

“That isn’t necessarily the case. One way to think about the problem is in the context of what are called ‘economists’ on Wall Street. An economist on Wall Street can be someone who reads the Wall Street Journal everyday and is responsible for circulating graphs to senior executives. He becomes an ‘economist’ in so doing, rather than through formal training in the models and methods of economics at a PhD level.

“At (the PhD) level, economists are, at best, indifferent between cap and trade and a (carbon) tax. Of course, loading on the institutional overhead in the current policy proposal, most economists lean towards a tax. Not only is that because of the simplification but also because it reduces costs overall.

“Still, though, the media seem to be misrepresenting trained economists positions on the topic. Congress, therefore, continues to push for what they call a ‘market mechanism.’ That isn’t a true cap and trade application but that is what they’re pushing over a (carbon) tax.

“The real opposition to a (carbon) tax in Congress is merely semantics. That’s mainly because the (Obama) administration has promised not to raise taxes and so can’t impose something called a ‘tax.’ This is well-acknowledged in Congress where (politicians) refrain from using the word ‘tax’ while quite willing to call something a ‘fee’ or ‘permit.’”

What is your perspective on “Climategate”?

“It’s more than just about the problem of whether, or not, global warming is a reality. As an economist, I think you can come down on whatever side of that position you like.

“Personally — regardless of whether I believe in the reality of global warming or not — I think we can all do better by polluting less.

“The importance of Climategate — the (hacking and release of) East Anglia University (climate researchers’) e-mails — is that it shows researchers have a wide range of opinions on the size of the cap necessary to effect changes to environmental conditions.

“The cap is crucial. That’s because the cap is what will set a limit on the supply of emissions which will interact with demand for emissions and, therefore, set the price — the disciplinary mechanism — arising from cap and trade.

“Without a consistent constraint on the supply side, market volatility will arise from the remaining policy debates and legal challenges, such as those we have already seen in the EU and other countries. Those lead to a great deal of policy volatility resulting in the price of carbon emission permits.”

“What bothers me about Climategate is what it reveals about the scientists’ role in advising versus persuading. It seems the e-mails show that some skewed too far to the persuasion side on policy … rather than just presenting the facts and advising.

“I think scientists and academics in general always need to be wary about the mischaracterization or misuse of their results. Scientists are always exploring the outer bounds of knowledge and seek to defend theories with experiments and evidence. Those can only be defended over time.

“The flipside of not knowing how the world works is to act like a god, to claim you truly understand the ways that the climate or any other natural process works and say ‘X’ tons of carbon emissions is the limit the climate can take or we’ll definitely see Armageddon. Only God knows the Armageddon point.

“So, scientists have theories. And scientists always need to remain circumspect about those theories. As a credible scientist, you always want to defend your theoretical findings from being misused in the way that many have been for policy purposes. To maintain credibility as a scientist, you want to manage that divide.

“Moreover, right now, given the length of debate on climate policy and the prevalence of the Web and many other features of today’s society, it’s very easy to put up a Web site or blog and claim to be far more credible than you actually are. At the very least, this type of misrepresentation has come to matter far too much in the climate change debate.

“(The same is true for) the economic debate about designing price mechanisms that can reduce emissions. This plays back to my earlier comment about what it means to be an economist. And even after that, what it means to do quality economic or scientific research.

“So, if you’re looking to blogs from climate NGOs to inform your opinion about the climate change debate, you should be very, very wary about what you’re reading. Think really hard about the source of the views, including the funding for the organization.”

In our last interview you proposed a lengthy study on climate policy. After this Climategate thing is that more of a priority now? To slow down and take a look at all the raw data?

“‘Slow down’ is the advice given by nearly every participant in existing cap and trade schemes throughout the world. I think it does pay to move slowly and incrementally.

“That doesn’t mean do nothing, however. It just means set up a framework so we learn as we go.

“Understand, the whole climate change debate is primarily about the size of the cap. Why not do away with that discussion, about the meltdown point of the global climate. Instead, consider putting a price on carbon today via a small tax. Raise that tax slowly, over time. That way we can see how technology adapts to an increased price of carbon.

“We could also then see the extent to which, as technology adapts, the carbon content of the atmosphere changes as a result. And, of course, we’ll see how the climate potentially changes as a result of the changes of carbon inputs.

“We’d be gathering data points along the way and would be adopting a more humble and scientifically responsible approach. It would acknowledge we don’t know everything about the climate science and economics today. There’s much to be learned and we’re open to learning rather than jumping in as if we know everything at the outset.”

Anything else?

“Proposals continue to evolve. By the time this runs, Congress will likely be in recess. It will come back to the issue in the spring and we will see to what extent proposals have evolved further.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com