Climate Pragmatism in the White House

Obama Advisors Reject Climate Wars

In a refreshing break from the polarizing debates of recent years, President Obama’s science and technology advisors have released a new set of recommendations on climate policy that are indicative of a growing consensus around pragmatic, commonsense actions that may offer great prospects for implementing effective policies.

The recommendations mark a sharp departure from many of the divisive and politically toxic proposals that often characterize climate policy discussions and a repudiation of the most divisive approaches, such as found in the misguided campaign against Keystone XL.

The advice by Obama’s advisors is also broadly consistent with the recommendations advanced over the past several years by The Breakthrough Institute, especially its 2011 report “Climate Pragmatism” (PDF), my 2010 book The Climate Fix, and more broadly in the internationally focused Hartwell Paper of 2010 (PDF). It is encouraging to see that despite all of the venom found in the climate debate, good ideas can still rise above the fray.

The White House science advisers have clearly learned from the failures of cap and trade legislation and global climate talks. Those experiences demonstrated that publics are unwilling to back high up-front costs for uncertain and future benefits and, moreover, that an aggressive rhetoric emphasizing fear of environmental collapse is unlikely to be successful. While some, like Bill McKibben and other environmentalists, call for a heightening of the partisan climate wars, Obama‘s advisors evidently understand that achieving real progress will require leaving such tactics behind in service of pragmatic measures that embrace technology, innovation, and adaptation — which is right where the report begins.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report starts out with a focus on adaptation, with emphasis on extreme events, pointing out that they “have underscored the Nation’s vulnerability and the urgent need for preparedness.” In “Climate Pragmatism” we also emphasized such a strategy, noting its broad appeal beyond the climate debate and “universal concerns about securing greater resilience to disasters.” Both reports emphasize the importance of infrastructure to efforts to build resilience and robustness.

When it comes to carbon dioxide emissions, PCAST notes that putting a price on carbon makes good sense, as we have recommended. However, PCAST also notes that “given the political resistance to such approaches, there are other policy measures that can also encourage energy transformation and decarbonization.” The focus on what can be accomplished given political realities is central to pragmatic action.

PCAST quite rightly emphasizes the importance of “efforts to ‘decarbonize’ the economy.” Reducing carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP is the proper focus of mitigation policy, as I argued in The Climate Fix. The science advisers recommend as a first strategy of decarbonization that the Administration “support continuing expansion of shale gas production.” As we argued in “Climate Pragmatism,” “in the short or medium terms, shale gas may relieve global energy supply pressures and help accelerate the decarbonization of the power sector.”

Similarly, PCAST and “Climate Pragmatism” agree that “it is important to secure (and build upon) modest pollution regulations that have public and congressional support.” So PCAST recommends that the Administration “continue implementation of Clean Air Act requirements on criteria pollutants (such as SO2 and NOx) and hazardous air pollutants (such as mercury).” PCAST also calls for US policy to place a greater emphasis on carbon capture and storage, “accelerate efforts to reduce the regulatory obstacles to deployment of CCS, and continue political support for the large CCS projects currently underway” – echoing a similar call found in The Climate Fix, and also put forward in a forthcoming piece that I have written with Dan Sarewitz.

PCAST recognizes the need for significant incentives to stimulate innovation, both in the short and longer terms. The report observes that “it is critical that investments in “game-changing” research and development on advanced energy technologies continue in order to ensure that at least some of them become competitive in the years ahead.” As “Climate Pragmatism” puts it, “the nation must ramp up today’s paltry national commitment to energy innovation to the scale of a true national priority.”

Someone at PCAST has obvious done some emissions math because the report explains, “achieving low-carbon goals without a substantial contribution from nuclear power is possible, but extremely difficult.” The authors of “Climate Pragmatism” agreed: “nuclear power, alone among low-carbon energy technologies, has a demonstrated capacity to generate large quantities of affordable, low-carbon, baseload power.”

There is one topic on which you’ll find differences between our recommendations and those of PCAST, and that is on the importance of non-carbon climate forcings, such as black carbon or soot. Such recommendations were central to both “Climate Pragmatism” and The Hartwell Paper, but do not appear in the PCAST report. We explained, “addressing public health risks associated with conventional air pollutants, including black carbon, methane, stratospheric ozone-depleting chemicals, precursors to tropospheric ozone, and mercury, offer Americans significant public health benefits that are immediate, well known, and often welcome across the political spectrum.” If ignored, non-carbon climate forcings would represent is a big missed opportunity for the Obama Administration.

Overall, while there are a few differences in tone and nuance, the report of PCAST represents an emerging, pragmatic perspective on climate policy that has been years, if not decades, in the making. Perhaps our efforts have contributed in some small ways to helping shape that agenda. Of course, good ideas are the offspring of many proud parents.

Photo credit: The White House