People who care about climate change are understandably upset with Chris Christie’s announcement that he’s pulling New Jersey out of the Regional Greeenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first-of-a-kind cap-and-trade program for carbon dioxide emissions in the northeast. Indeed Governor Christie’s justification for withdrawing is pretty much nonsense: he claims that RGGI was an unacceptable tax on electricity – yet the cost of RGGI permits was far too low to have any meaningful impact on ratepayers.
So why one cheer? Because in the course of rejecting RGGI, Christie embraced the reality of the climate problem. Last fall, he said he was skeptical that human-caused climate change was a real problem. In his withdrawal announcement, though, he made it pretty clear that he thought climate change was a serious matter. This is no small thing for a rising star in a party that has increasingly made climate denial a litmus test for its leadership.
Indeed I’d argue that given a choice between having Christie participate in RGGI but deny climate change, or reject RGGI but accept climate change, people who care about climate change should prefer the latter. RGGI is a weak cap-and-trade program that currently has minimal direct impact on emissions. Someone who denies climate change is not going to strengthen the program, or support stronger alternatives at the federal level. In contrast, someone who accepts that climate change is real has at least left the door open to supporting serious policies that might combat it down the road.
Some might ask whether I’m engaging in what another hotshot Republican governor once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. Guilty as charged. In a better world, Christie would not only admit that climate change was real, he’d push to strengthen arrangements like RGGI and build a serious national counterpart. But that isn’t in the cards. Climate change policy is in a rebuilding phase for now. And the first step to rebuilding is to restore a firm foundation.