February 23, 2009
A Pivotal Moment
There's one thing at the top of Americans' minds these days: energy prices. Prices at the pump have been hitting Americans hard for months now, and an overwhelming majority (87%) do not foresee things getting any better before the end of the year. As of June, concern for energy prices eclipsed the Iraq War as #2 on the Gallup monthly poll
of top American concerns (just behind concerns over the ailing
economy). And as Republicans and Democrats enter their conventions still sparring over oil drilling, energy is now the #1 election issue.
All of this paints a very clear picture of where Americans are at: they
are focused on their pocketbooks, grimacing every time they head to the
gas station to fill 'er up.
This new focus on energy prices is a game changer for the world of energy and climate policy.
On the one hand, these developments spell Trouble-with-a-capital-T for politicians and environmentalists pushing a climate-centered agenda and policy solutions aimed at capping and pricing carbon to reduce emissions. At a time of extreme sensitivity over energy prices, we cannot hope to price our way to deep reductions in global warming pollution.
On the other hand, energy now lies at the forefront of the American political environment in a way that it hasn't been since the Oil Shocks of the 1970s. This opens up a unique but urgent opportunity, a chance to advance a robust and bold new policy agenda centered on energy solutions.
Newt Gingrich and his "American Solutions" organization clearly recognized this opportunity. Their "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" petition garnered over 1.2 million signatures in a matter of weeks. This "drill here, pay less" meme has been so successful, GOP strategists now think energy might be the Republican party's last best hope this election season.
In response, environmentalists and Congressional Democrats scrambled to 'block and tackle' and stop the gathering momentum to simply Drill! Drill! Drill! for more oil. With drilling opponents beaten up by the "drill here, drill now" push, a compromise proposal seems increasingly likely.
Meanwhile, the push for climate policy seems to be on hold, as climate advocates attempt to regroup from the defeat of the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. Once touted as a bipartisan proposal, the cap-and-trade bill ran into a Republican filibuster in June and failed to secure the support of at least ten Democratic senators. After the repeated failure and declining support for cap-and-trade in Congress, environmentalists and Congressional leaders are surely debating what the next move should be.
It's time to recognize that these two conversations - how do we halt the push for more oil drilling and how do we advance a new climate strategy - are really the same conversation. The question at the heart of both discussions is this: how do we meet Americans where they are at and give them compelling solutions to our mounting energy crisis?
In today's new political context of economic insecurity and energy price spikes, we must provide Americans with what they want: credible promises of affordable, abundant energy.
That calls for a critical pivot away from a focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and halting climate change and towards a new focus on making clean, cheap American energy sources a reality.
It's time to get serious about winning the frame game and make the critical pivot to a new message, a message that sounds something like this:
Oil is hurting our economy. Coal is poisoning our air. Both are threatening our climate and our future. It's time to make clean energy cheap and abundant. Which would you rather invest in? Coal and oil - the old, dirty, expensive stuff? Or clean, cheap, new American energy sources? Which will power America's future?
Americans are crying out for new energy solutions. They are hurting at the pump and ready to turn to anyone who can offer a credible path forward. Gingrich beat us to the punch, but the game isn't over.
Support for drilling as the solution to our energy woes seems to be pretty shallow, especially once alternatives are presented. We want somebody to do something, so in the absence of any compelling alternatives, the "drill here, pay less" meme is kicking our butts. But Americans aren't stupid. We understand that the old stuff really isn't working very well and that more of the same will not relieve the strain on our pocketbooks.
If climate and clean energy advocates consistently position the dirty, old, expensive, poisonous stuff on the one hand and present compelling examples of clean, new, renewable, stable, secure and affordable energy sources on the other hand, I think the choice for Americans will be pretty clear and easy. I also can't think of anything else that will work!
This pivot goes far beyond just fighting off a push for drilling and far deeper than simply adopting a new messaging veneer on top of the same old policies. It goes right to the core of our entire energy and climate agenda.
This kind of message - "make clean energy cheap and abundant" - is incompatible with a policy agenda that expects unrestrained carbon prices to do the heavy lifting in igniting a clean energy future - i.e. a "hard" cap-and-trade program without provisions to control the price of carbon. One could conclude that we should shy away from this new message and find one more consistent with the carbon pricing-based policy agenda that has been the focus of climate advocates for so long.
The conclusion I reach, however, is the exact opposite: we don't need to abandon the "clean, cheap energy" message in favor of cap-and-trade; we need to make this change in focus about more than just our message.
If we want this message to stick - and I believe the success or failure of our entire effort to advance a clean energy future may hinge upon that success - we need to adopt a policy framework that's actually in synch with our message. We need a policy agenda focused on developing clean and cheap energy for every American. If we don't, we'll soon find ourselves incoherent and inconsistent, and our message will fail when the public sees that.
The time has come to advance a compelling and effective set of solutions focused on making clean energy cheap and abundant, not making dirty energy expensive and scarce.
Gore's clean energy "moon-shot" speech was (almost) dead-on. He shifted the focus from climate change to the energy challenge and from reducing emissions to increasing clean energy production. Whether we make this transition to 100% clean energy in ten years, twenty, or longer, I think the timetable is far less important than the overall thrust of the message: we're going to make your energy cheap and clean and secure. And who wouldn't want that?
I'm sympathetic to arguments that failing to price global warming pollution at it's full societal cost is simply economically inefficient. And I understand that principles of justice would call for a push to make "polluters pay." However, as we develop our new suite of clean energy solutions, we must make sure that our policy is built as if politics actually mattered. Our ultimate success depends less on appeals to economic efficiency and principles of justice than it does on our ability to meet Americans where they are and overcome the vagaries of the U.S. Senate.
This new policy platform should be centered around a new national project of strategic investments necessary to spark a clean energy economy and develop cheap and clean energy for every American. Carbon pricing and regulation play a role here, but they cannot be the top-line items when it comes to messaging, nor are they likely to do the heavy lifting that unlocks our clean energy potential.
A policy like this is really the only way we're going to pass something in a political climate of high energy prices and economic insecurity, and the only way we'll enact a solution set that gets the job done.
Next year will see the inauguration of a new president, a new Congress, and a new international agreement on global warming. The moment is far too urgent to fall on our swords for a cap-and-trade agenda developed in an entirely different political environment than the one that exists today. Nor do we have time to just make Americans care enough about global warming to act.
What we have is a unique moment of opportunity when Americans are overwhelmingly concerned about energy and about energy prices, and hungry for new solutions. If we can credibly advance "make clean energy cheap and abundant" as an alternative to the "drill here, pay less" crowd, we can win the battle. In fact, it's probably the only way we can win.
Jesse Jenkins works on energy and climate policy for the Breakthrough Institute. This summer he co-directed Breakthrough's new youth leaders initiative, Breakthrough Generation.