In this legislative session in Massachusetts, we are not expecting much new legislative progress on energy issues. We passed so much complex energy legislation last year that the regulators have their hands full figuring out what we really did, how it works and whether it will achieve its goals. In the transportation sector, there is room for legislative progress, but the financial reforms have consumed most of the available attention of transportation policy makers.
At the federal level, however, with the new administration, legislation is front and center. I recently had the opportunity to attend a forum at the Kennedy School of Government where Congressman Ed Markey and Energy Secretary Steven Chu talked about the state of federal energy policy.
Among the points that they seemed to agree on were:
- The Chinese — who have previously placed an exclusive emphasis on development, understandable given their poverty — are becoming more willing to address climate considerations.
- It is essential that we revive the nuclear power industry if we are to control carbon emissions in the power sector. Wall Street killed this industry decades ago but Wall Street seems poised to revive it in current conditions.
- Coal is so plentiful and cheap –in the key developing nations, China and India, not to mention Russia and the United States — that it will inevitably be used and we have to be interested in carbon capture and storage. This was probably the only point where I found Secretary Chu to be reaching — I hear that the geological conditions around most coal plants just won’t support CCS.
- We should be hopeful for rapid progress on some of the key technologies that will radically change our odds of controlling carbon emissions and energy costs — more efficient batteries, cheaper solar cells and sustainable biofuels. Chu talked as a scientist about how, with the right kind of leadership and collaborative approach, teams of scientists have, in history, made much more rapid progress than is common in academic science settings where professors tend to guard their own work to obtain credit. Markey talked about how his telecommunications legislation in the 90s led to surprisingly rapid growth of broadband internet access.
- The 2020 carbon reduction goals in the Waxman-Markey legislation are nowhere near as aggressive as the science calls for if we are to avoid climate change, but the bill is worth fighting for nonetheless.
- Chu gave a fairly technical response to this point, arguing that what matters is not the annual rate of carbon emission, but the total amount we emit in next century, so even if we aren’t able to cut immediately, if we cut more deeply later, the outcome is the same. This is certainly true, but at another point in the talk, Chu noted that a McKinsey study had found that even if we only make investments that are cost-justifiable in current market conditions, we can achieve aggressive reduction goals by 2020.
- Markey emphasized the political reality that more aggressive fossil reductions are not achievable in the House and especially the Senate and that the bill is a huge step forward, but not, by any means the last step to be taken. He forecast that as the legislation takes effect, people will come to accept and appreciate its benefits and that further steps will be easier to take.
- In the short run, energy conservation is the most cost-effective strategy and fully viable investments in conservation have the potential to create many “green jobs.”
Congressman Markey and Secretary Chu were both impressive in their mastery of policy and politics and I came away feeling that we are in good hands.
I have two points I’d like to add:
1) I’m pretty suspicious of any plan (including legislation) that proposes to do something in 20 years without specific, binding, 2-and-4-year milestones. It’s easy to tell future legislatures that they have to do XYZ, but at some point, XYZ has to be done in a current legislature.
2) I think the best way for government to be involved would be to identify the problem without identifying specific solutions. Instead of supporting nuclear, solar, wind or any other alternative energy, just set up a pollution tax (not just a CO2 tax, since there are other ways of doing damage) and let the private sector figure out the best way to save money by polluting less.
Without trying to sound like I need a tinfoil hat, I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of well-financed groups have short-term profits to lose, and they won’t give those up easily. The simpler and more transparent a law, the better. The more permits and credits in the legislature’s control, the worse the law will be.
I somewhat agree with Yuval and will point out that the best function of Government is to incent the creation of effective solutions, rather than mandating commitments to particular technologies – let the engineers figure that out and let the finance guys figure out how to make it work with the help of our taxes.
Where I differ is in the “carrot v. stick”. Instead of punitive taxes, offer incentives. Taxes simply drive away business to other areas who are not as “sensitive” as we like to be.
I also agree with Yuval that the focus should be on holistic environmental good, not just CO2).
I will now put on my tinfoil hat and come right out and state that I do NOT believe in anthropogenic climate change (man-made global warming). Any analysis of historical records will show the variability of the climate, even over short periods of time (go look up “the Little Ice Age”, a particularly cold period between 1650 and 1850) without any connection to man or industry.
For alternatives to anthropogenic causes, review the literature charting the coincidence of solar storm (sun-spot) activity. Also not that there is evidence that at least six other planets in the solar system, most of whom, presumably don’t have Hummer dealerships, are also warming.
Simply put, the Scientific Jury’s nowhere near out on the causes of climate change or what to do about it.
Rather than become embroiled in what could, ultimately, become “junk science”, let’s focus our efforts on the very real effects of known, clearly identifiable instances of pollution and inefficiency and work to eliminate our dependency on foreign energy and work to create a renewable energy approach in recognition of the fact that both coal and oil are finite resources. (wow, that tinfoil is really scratchy!)
I actually get to the same bottom line, but a different way. The climate science is pretty clear, but the economics aren’t and places like China and India are understandably bent on development. We can’t fully prevent climate change, but we can and should mitigate it.
That said, the issues of pollution and especially energy independence are terribly compelling and mandate the same goal: Get away from fossil fuel use. All real patriots should devote themselves to the cause of eliminating energy imports.
Just to set the record straight, pretty much every climate scientist and otherwise credible scientific source would agree with the following four statements.
1) There is much more carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere than there was 200 years ago, i.e., before industrialization really got going. Before industrialization, carbon dioxide made up about .027% of the atmosphere. Now it makes up about 0.038% of the atmosphere. For a reference, search for “carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere” on wikipedia.org.
2)Human activity, primarily burning fossil fuel, burning wood and other biomass for cook stoves, and deforestation, have significantly contributed to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For a reference, check the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (www.ipcc.ch).
3) The earth is significantly warmer than it was 100 years ago. The earth’s average temperature has increased by something on the order of 1.3 degrees Farenheit. The increase in temperature appears to be accelerating. Wikipedia has some useful citations under “Global warming.”
4)An increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the average temperature of the earth to rise. The wikipedia entry on “Attribution of recent climate change” has references.
In contrast to the scientific consensus, there is clearly less consensus among U.S. political and corporate leaders about how to address climate change. I am very disappointed in how weak the Waxman-Markey legislation is. Most utility industry observers believe the legislation will be further weakened in the Senate. I expect most politicians in Washington will continue to look after their local business interests until the public demands something different. As a result, it is very important that we continue to demand action at the state and local level, because that keeps the issue in front of people and creates more opportunities to educate people about the issue. Will’s support on this issue is much needed and much appreciated.
You’ve said it well — the real uncertainty is about the economics, not the science.
Btw, Markey would definitely agree that, as you and Yuval say, the bill is far from perfect. The question is whether anything better could make it through the Senate, where Senators from energy producing states with tiny populations carry the same weight as Senators from populous states with green priorities.
I am quite dismayed by what Rich Carlson had to say about climate change not being brought on by human activity and that there is no scientific evidence to prove its occurance. Hmmm, I thought we had moved well beyond the point of wondering whether climate change was real and that as a society we had begun to work, many of us tirelessly, to figure out how to combat the most severe effects of CO2 accumulation. I have been thinking about how I might respond to Rich and then, there it was, above the fold on the front page of this past Sunday’s New York Times, “Climate Change Seen as a Threat to U.S. Security.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/09/science/earth/09climate.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=August%209,%202009&st=cse
National security has always been part of the climate change discussion and the word it out that the U.S. armed forces are planning for how they and other governments will react to world-wide catastrophic events as a result of climate change. Already the world is seeing death and destruction brought on by severe droughts (Darfur and Austrailia), floods (India; US), extinction of ocean and land species at alarming rates, and human migrations brought on by rising tides, coastal destruction, etc. Having witnessed massive payouts due to weather related events, the insurance industry has already responded by revamping actuarian tables and developing new “products.”
I just don’t think Rich and the few others who hold similar beliefs are connecting all the related events and seeing for themselves that there is a common link.
Of course, if the scientists can’t convince Rich, perhaps the U.S. armed forces will — the Pentagon seems to be taking the issue seriously for planning purposes.
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