Carl Pope Breaks With Traditional Climate Agenda

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said on a "Politics of Green" panel discussion this week in Denver that climate policy aimed at increasing energy bills is critically flawed:

"I actually think if we deal with global warming in a way which raises people's energy bills, we will have blown it."

You can watch it here.

Pope's comment was a major shift away from the traditional approach on climate legislation taken by environmentalists. For years, the dominant climate strategy has been to educate Americans on the climate crisis, persuade the public to accept higher fossil fuel prices, and pass federal legislation to set a mandatory cap on carbon and allow the price to rise as high as necessary to achieve deep emissions reductions.

Pope's comment represents a larger awakening among environmentalists to the realities of energy and global warming politics. The events of this summer - including the third failure of federal cap and trade legislation, eroding support in Congress, rapidly escalating oil prices, and a political beat-down of Democrats by Republicans on new oil drilling - have served as a watershed for the climate movement. In a nutshell, one thing above all else has become clear: climate policy aimed at significantly increasing energy costs will fail. Period.

So thank you, Carl, for the clear-eyed honesty about the flaws of carbon pricing. I hope your message is heard far and wide among environmentalists. It is absolutely critical that the green group not to let its prior obsessions with carbon pricing get in the way of a pragmatic, investment, and technology-centered approach. My generation simply cannot afford another policy failure next year.

With that said, Carl, I disagree with your implication that we can simply capture energy efficiency first and wait for new technologies. You said:

"McKinsey says roughly the first half of what we have to do is a good investment, and when you make a good investment [in efficiency] your bills don't go up. Now the second half is going to be tougher, but hopefully by that time we will have new technology."

Hopefully by what time? We can't wait for efficiency to kick in before we make massive investments in clean energy technology, infrastructure, and education. Make no mistake: we should do everything we can to capture the efficiency you so compellingly describe. But we also need public investments of at least $50 billion per year to support everything from new transmission lines, the transition to electric vehicles, the creation of new battery technologies, and a National Energy Education Act, to a whole range of technologies and approaches to make clean energy cheap and abundant.

So I ask you to join us, Carl, in our effort to move beyond the failures of high carbon pricing and mandatory capping to embrace an investment-centric approach. I ask you to step up, embrace cost containment ($10 to 20/ton), prioritize these investments, and do everything you can to bring the rest of the green group with you. This is too critical, too urgent to fall on the carbon pricing sword once again.