Houston, We Have a Problem


Happy New Year! It’s been a long time since we’ve blogged here, but that’s for a very good reason. The team here at Frontier Group has spent the last few months with our noses to the grindstone, working on a major new report on solutions to global warming.

One of the main ideas of that report is that, with the death of comprehensive climate and energy legislation in Congress last year, the best way forward to address global warming is to focus on campaigns for clean energy policies, primarily at the local and state level. Those policies are broadly popular with the public (i.e., they’re winnable) and, if we win enough of them in the right places, we can make a significant dent in global warming pollution. What’s more, by fighting the right battles in the right ways, we can begin to change the balance of political power in ways that make more ambitious policies easier to achieve in the years to come.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this piece in Grist (reprinted in several other places) by Robert Stavins of Harvard and Richard Schmalensee of MIT caused me to do a facepalm, as the kids might say. In it, Stavins and Schmalensee tut-tut about the alleged economic inefficiency of renewable electricity standards – a policy that, in their minds, is far inferior to their Holy Grail of cap-and-trade.

Let me take a moment to say that a carbon cap – at least one set tightly enough to avert the most dangerous impacts of global warming – is my Holy Grail, too. We can’t save the planet without it.

But here’s the thing: it won’t happen in the U.S. in the next two years. Everyone knows this.

So what could possibly be the use of S&S taking time out of their busy days to slam a policy tool that can do something to de-carbonize our electricity system right away at relatively low cost (at least compared to alternatives such as nuclear power and “clean coal”), and that builds exactly the kind of infrastructure we’re going to need if the United States is going to achieve the roughly 80 percent emission reductions we need by 2050 to avert disaster?

S&S suggest that the reason is that passing a renewable electricity standard will make it less likely that America will adopt cap-and-trade in the future. They write:

“It is often argued that if cap-and-trade is dead, enacting renewable or clean electricity standards is better than doing nothing at all about climate change. While that argument has some merit, since the risks of doing nothing are substantial, there is a real danger that enacting these standards will create the illusion that we have done something serious to address climate change. Worse yet, it could create a favored set of businesses that will oppose future adoption of more efficient, serious, broad-based policies -- like cap-and-trade.”

Fortunately, we have empirical evidence to test out this assertion. Seven states – California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington – have adopted enforceable caps on global warming pollution. Every single one of them had previously adopted a renewable energy standard. Perhaps S&S might have considered that the process of building support among the public and decision-makers for clean energy actually makes it easier, not more difficult, to consider bold, comprehensive action on the climate. It transforms the debate from one focused on how much economic pain will be inflicted by the effort to control global warming pollution to one that enables the public and decision-makers to envision the cleaner, healthier, more prosperous future we might achieve together.

Moreover, by adopting strong renewable electricity standards, we have “done something serious” to address climate change. Thanks in large part to renewable electricity standards, the United States now generates five times as much wind power and eight times as much solar power as we did just seven years ago. That is electricity that would otherwise have been generated using fossil fuels, adding to global warming pollution. Those wind turbines and solar panels will generate electricity, and reduce the need for new fossil fuel power plants, for decades to come. Is it enough to solve the problem? No. But it is a measurable step in the right direction.

And the “favored set of businesses” that stand in the way of adopting “serious, broad-based policies” right now are certainly not the wind and solar industries, but rather Big Coal and Big Oil.  I very much long to live in a world where the influence of renewable energy producers exceeds that of the incumbent fossil fuel industries.  But we’re not there yet.

The really problematic thing about S&S’s argument, though, isn’t that it’s misguided on the merits, but that it represents one more trip into the circular firing squad that too often passes for environmental policy debates these days. Solving global warming is going to require us to use second-best, third-best and even fourth-best solutions at times (though I disagree with S&S that the renewable electricity standard fits that description). All other things being equal, I may prefer cap-and-trade to a carbon tax, but you can bet that if the choice is between a carbon tax and nothing, I would support it enthusiastically.

The climate is like the Apollo 13 spaceship – dangerously out of control and one false move from catastrophe. We don’t have the perfect tools to fix it, and we can only hope that the tools we do have – and can realistically implement in time – are good enough. It behooves all of us who advocate for these positions to be realistic and humble about what they might achieve, and to be sensitive to opposing arguments. But what’s needed now is creative discussion about how to move forward – both on the substance and on the task of rallying the American people to action – not an unproductive tearing-down of policy ideas that don’t meet some ivory tower ideal of purity and comprehensiveness.    

The environmental policy community has to rise to the level of Mission Control – exploring every opportunity to reduce emissions and leaving no stone unturned. Stavins and Schmalensee are powerful advocates for the cap-and-trade approach to solving the climate crisis, and we need smart academics like them to continue to make the case for it. But as environmental policy analysts, our main job right now is to find some way – any way – to bring the crew on the spaceship back alive. The ultimate solution might not be beautiful, or elegant, or perfect – it just needs to work.