2012’s Not-Quite Hopeless U.S. Climate Policy


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Some of my climate scientist colleagues at Columbia University’s Earth Institute are frustrated about the inability of the U.S. Congress to enact new legislation on climate change. They are dismayed by the effort to deny the results of their analyses and amazed to find their laboratories thrown into the political food blender. I am a little surprised as well, although having seen this happen to both evolution and stem cell science, I am getting used to this form of misguided manipulation. It is also important to understand that American public policy rarely moves forward in great rational leaps. It is more often characterized by meandering incremental steps designed to make problems less bad rather than “solve” them. When public policy works it is often a case of two steps forward and one step back.

While poll data shows that the climate issue is becoming increasingly ideological in the U.S., a slow and gradual awareness of the importance of carbon footprints, renewable energy and energy efficiency is making its way through the American body politic. Even if you don’t understand climate science and climate modeling, a car that gets 50 miles per gallon and a house that is cheaper to heat and cool is hard to argue against.

In the current issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Earth Institute’s Alison Miller and I recently published a status report on U.S. climate policy. In that piece we review the lack of progress in Congress along with the movement forward in EPA, at the state and local level, and in the emerging renewable energy industry.

The most striking political change in recent years has been the changing attitude of Republicans to climate change. As we note in our Bulletin piece:

It is impossible to deny or ignore the growing partisan divide that has profoundly influenced the U.S. climate debate, making it more polarized even as climate science has become more definitive. Last year, a Gallup poll found that in 2010, only 30 percent of self-identified Republicans believed the effects of global warming were already beginning, a drop from almost 50 percent in 2007. The percentage of convinced Democrats, however, remained at 70 percent or higher during the same period, according to Gallup.

Climate change has become a core ideological issue and part of the definition of what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat. The structure of opposition and support for climate policy looks a great deal like other polarizing issues such as taxation, abortion rights, and regulation. Fortunately, political independents hold the balance of power between partisan Democrats and Republicans and at some point, effectively communicated, politically neutral and objective science should prevail in the public debate.

Despite lukewarm support by the political operatives in the White House, and determined opposition by the Republicans in Congress, EPA continues to proceed with the promulgation of greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act. This has been a long process that began back in October 1999, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision requiring EPA to regulate greenhouse gases as an air pollutant. That was the start of a regulatory process that is well underway, but will take yet another decade before it is fully in place. Given the urgency of the climate problem this may seem inadequate, but short of a widely perceived national emergency, that is the best we are likely to see for some time.

If we had to rely exclusively on the federal government to stimulate the transition to renewable energy we would be in deep trouble. Fortunately, America has a federal system, with states, municipalities and communities that have a degree of independent power. We also have a commercial sector very interested in making money off of energy efficiency and renewable energy technology.

Here in New York City, where 75% of the city’s carbon emissions come from buildings, a 2009 energy efficiency law regulates 22,000 of the city’s largest buildings, accounting for almost 45% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions. New York is not alone in pushing energy efficiency. The state of California has been at it for over a decade, by taxing energy consumption and using those funds to subsidize energy efficiency initiatives. California is the most energy efficient state in the United States, but others are starting to follow their lead.

While I am encouraged by these state and local actions, much of the hope I have for a transition to renewable energy is in the area of technological development. The thinking behind all greenhouse gas regulation and taxation is that the market needed a push to raise the costs of fossil fuels to give renewables the ability to compete on price. If that could be accomplished, we could accelerate the transition to a green energy economy. However, it may be that the technology of solar power may be developing rapidly enough to make that intervention in the market unnecessary. The price of solar cells is coming down quickly. What is still needed is development of a battery technology capable of safely, cheaply and efficiently storing solar power. Investment in smart grid technology with enhanced ability for decentralized or distributed generation of electricity would also help.

It is possible that I have too much confidence in this technological fix. Nevertheless, the sheer number of people around the world working on these problems provides reason for cautious optimism. The 20th century was characterized by an amazing set of technological breakthroughs that both solved and created problems while enhancing our quality of life. Advances in medical technology allowed us to live longer and healthier lives, but also contributed to our planet’s human population surge. Industrial agriculture makes it possible for us to imagine an end to world hunger, while it pollutes the land and water we all depend on. Here in New York City, the invention of the automobile eliminated the hazards of urban horse manure, but helped create the suburbs along with air pollution and global warming. Technology creates the problems faced by the world, and is in many respects the only way we are going to solve them.

Climate scientists are concerned that the transition to a fossil fuel free economy will be too slow to prevent massive disruptions from global warming. They may be right. Or they may be wrong. We can project the probability of future events, but we cannot predict them. What we can know with certainty is that federal legislation is not the only way public policy changes in the United States. Ask a newly married gay couple in New York what they think about the policy-making power of state government. We also know with certainty that many cities, communities and corporations are acting as if the climate crisis is real and requires action. While I do not hold out much hope for a new U.S. climate bill this year, there are plenty of other actions now underway. Young people understand the challenges of global sustainability and I am convinced that the situation is far from hopeless.

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