A few days ago I posted an excerpt from a Council on Foreign Relations study group report on climate, which was chaired by incoming Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. My conclusion was that there was promise, but that we still don’t know which way Vilsack will go, especially because like most reports this could be read in different ways.
First, Gristmill today has an excellent essay by a progressive Iowa food policy advocate about her experience with Vilsack. Bottom line: Vilsack is not a progressive, but he is intelligent, sympathetic, open-minded, fair, and willing to listen.
This shouldn’t be surprising, and it opens up opportunities. Policy advocates work within a political context, and administrations create policy space and opportunities in which they can operate. See, e.g., the Kennedy Administration and civil rights. We’ve gotten used to a Cheney model for 8 years, where the base is in control. But we shouldn’t expect it.
Important fact in the essay: Vilsack was the first Democratic Iowa Governor in forty years. That certainly tells us a lot about the policy space in which he operated.
Second, I received a nice response from Michael Levi, the Director of CFR’s Energy Security and Climate Change Program, fleshing out some background, although he emphasizes that this is his take and not an official Council interpretation:
The group was generally against biofuel tariffs, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t promoting steps that would lead to net greenhouse gas emission increases. As you know, there have been several serious studies that claim greater demand for biofuels — which cutting tariffs would induce — would do just that, because of emissions from land use change. The relationship is hard to pin down precisely, because it’s indirect: land used for pasture can be converted to biofuels, and forests can then get cut down to create new land for pasture.
That led to the package-deal suggestion. We didn’t have a grand UN deal in mind (we favored a good UN deal but we skeptical one can be had any time soon) nor did we advocate developing country caps (we actually warned against seeking them). We did imagine, for example, a side deal where tariffs were lowered and Brazil committed to take certain steps to stem deforestation. We wanted to leave things open, though, to creative diplomacy that might find other deals that worked and moved things forward.
At the same time, we were aware that some use the land-use argument as a cover for a much more base protectionist stance. Hence the statement that standards for biofuels should apply equally to domestic and to foreign biofuels. The recommendation that such standards be harmonized wasn’t a condition — it was a separate recommendation. The task force recommendations would stand unchanged even if standards couldn’t be harmonized.
On “conventional” corn-based ethanol: Conventional corn ethanol is the stuff that’s commercial today. It obviously has real problems. But cellulosic ethanol can potentially be made from corn stover, the cornstalks and other material that’s left in the field after the actual ears of corn have been harvested. It has the potential (in theory) to be a low-lifecycle-emissions fuel source that doesn’t displace food production. We wanted to make sure that didn’t get swept into our statement, since it’s far from a mature technology.
That certainly makes things clearer: the question is how much Vilsack will fight for these things. Or perhaps how advocates will be able to get him to fight for these things.