The New Climate Debate
The New York Times' Andy Revkin has been one of the few reporters writing on global warming to point out what every serious energy expert in the U.S. has long known: new regulations alone won't do nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In a 2002 Science article by New York University physicist Martin Hoffert and 16 other leading energy experts, Hoffert et. al argued that, "although regulation can play a role, the fossil fuel greenhouse effect is an energy problem that cannot be simply regulated away." It is a conclusion overwhelmingly echoed by other leading analysts, including the UN IPCC and the Stern Review.
What's required, energy experts agree, is not just a price for carbon, but also massive public investments to deploy clean energy technologies so we can achieve the performance and price breakthroughs needed for these new technologies to be picked up worldwide, including in places like China and India whose development is being fueled by cheap coal and oil.
Indeed, given how quickly China is bringing new coal plants on line, the most important thing we can do is bring down the price of new clean energy sources as quickly as possible. Direct public investment in innovation is a faster means to this end than gradually making dirty energy sources expensive so that clean energy sources gradually become cost-competitive.
In a forthcoming paper for the Harvard Law and Policy Review, "Fast Clean Cheap," we argue that a regulation-centered approach would only achieve 10 - 30 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. by 2050, whereas we need 80 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. and 50 percent emissions reductions worldwide by then if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.
Revkin understands this, which is why he writes on his blog:
All the slow gains from market forces quite clearly... don't get the energy system out of fossil mode in time to avoid serious climate consequences.
Stuck in the older pollution paradigm, the environmental lobby has long put virtually all of its political eggs in the regulatory basket. Environmental groups like Environmental Defense, NRDC, the Sierra Club, and UCS -- the groups with the most influence (with Democrats) in Washington -- have simply never seriously lobbied for a massive investment in clean energy.
Joe Romm, Arthur Smith, and David Roberts claim that this isn't the case, that the environmental movement has always advocated for big investments. But they make this assertion without offering a whit of evidence to back up their claim.
That's because they have no evidence. The top priorities of environmental groups have for two decades been higher fuel economy standards, new efficiency regulations, renewable portfolio standards, and greenhouse gas limits. Major public investments on the order of $30 to $80 billion a year have never been a priority for environmental groups.
You do need an energy revolution to empower something like 9 billion people by mid-century, all of whom want out of poverty. That has not been a forefront message of any environmental group I know of.
It's not only not the their message, it's not their policy priority.
It's not enough to blame the carbon lobby for political inaction. In the 30 years since Amory Lovins wrote his seminal piece on clean energy in Foreign Affairs, in the 20 years since James Hansen declared that global warming had arrived, and during all of Joe Romm's tenure at the Department of Energy, greenhouse gas emissions and our oil addiction have increased.
An investment-centered agenda is the right policy and the best politics. Romm and the rest of the environmental lobby have failed to enact transformational action in Washington, and rather than acknowledge their failures, and reconsider their approach, they are calling for more of the same.
The good news is that there is a new generation of thinkers who recognize that global warming is an urgent priority and that the regulation-centered agenda can't get us where we need to go.
The old global warming debate was between those who thought global warming was serious, human-caused, and requiring action and those who didn't. That debate is coming to an end.
In its place is being born a new debate, one centrally focused on solutions. Revkin's new blog has provided a place for thoughtful discussion about new ideas -- and it has arrived just in time.