In “Breaking the Climate Deadlock” (Issues, Summer 2014), David Garman, Kerry Emanuel, and Bruce Phillips present a thoughtful proposal for greatly expanded public- and private-sector R&D aimed at reducing the costs, increasing the reliability, managing the risks, and expanding the potential to rapidly scale up deployment of a broad suite of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies, from renewables to advanced nuclear reactor technologies to carbon capture and storage. They also encourage dedicated funding of research into potential geoengineering technologies for forced cooling of the climate system. Such an “all-of-the-above” investment strategy, they say, might be accepted across the political spectrum as a pragmatic hedge against uncertain and potentially severe climate risks and hence be not only sensible but feasible to achieve in our nation’s highly polarized climate policy environment.
It is a strong proposal as far as it goes. Even as the costs of wind and solar photovoltaics are declining, and conservative states such as Texas and Kansas are embracing renewable energy technologies and policies, greater investment in research aimed at expanding the portfolio of commercially feasible and socially acceptable low-carbon electricity is needed to accelerate the transition to a fully decarbonized energy economy. And managing the risks of a warming planet requires contingency planning for climate emergencies. As challenging as it may be to contemplate the deployment of most currently proposed geoengineering schemes, our nation has a responsibility to better understand their technical and policy risks and prospects should they ultimately need to be considered.
But it does not go far enough. Garman et al.’s focus on R&D aimed primarily at driving down the “cost premium” of low-carbon energy technologies relative to fossil fuels neglects the practical need and opportunity to also incorporate into the political calculus the substantial economic risks and costs of unmitigated climate change. Yet these risks and costs are substantial and are becoming increasingly apparent to local civic and political leaders in red and blue states alike as they are faced with more extensive storm surges and coastal flooding, more frequent and severe episodes of extreme summer heat, and other climate-related damages.
The growing state and local experience of this “cost of inaction premium” for continued reliance on fossil fuels is now running in parallel with the experience of economic benefits resulting from renewable electricity standards and energy efficiency standards in several red states. Together, these state and local experiences may do as much as or more than expanding essential investments in low-carbon energy R&D to break the climate deadlock and rebuild bipartisan support for sensible federal climate policies.
PETER C. FRUMHOFF
Director of Science and Policy Union of Concerned Scientists Cambridge, Massachusetts
We need a new era of environmentalism to overcome the polarization surrounding climate change issues, one that takes conservative ideas and concerns seriously and ultimately engages ideological conservatives as full partners in efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Having recently founded a conservative animal and environmental advocacy group called Earth Stewardship Alliance (esalliance.org), I applaud “Breaking the Climate Deadlock.” The authors describe a compelling policy framework for expanding low-carbon technology options in a way that maintains flexibility to manage uncertainties.
The article also demonstrates the most effective approach to begin building conservative support for climate policies in general. The basic elements are to respect conservative concerns about climate science and to promote solutions that are consistent with conservative principles. Although many climate policy advocates see conservatives as a lost cause, relatively little effort has been made to try this approach.
Thoughtful conservatives generally agree that carbon emissions from human activities are increasing global carbon dioxide levels, but they question how serious the effects will be. These conservatives are often criticized for denying the science even though, as noted by “Breaking the Climate Deadlock,” there is considerable scientific uncertainty surrounding the potential effects. This article, however, addresses this legitimate conservative skepticism by describing how a proper risk assessment justifies action to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts even if there is significant uncertainty.
The major climate policies that have been advanced thus far in the United States are also contrary to conservative principles. All of the cap-and-trade bills that Congress seriously considered during the 2000s would have given away emissions allowances, making the legislation equivalent to a tax increase. The rise in prices caused by a cap-and-trade program’s requirement to obtain emissions allowances is comparable to a tax. Giving away the allowances foregoes revenue that could be used to reduce other taxes and thus offset the cap-and-trade tax. Many climate policy advocates wanted the allowances to be auctioned, but that approach could not gain traction in Congress, because the free allowances were needed to secure business support.
After the failure of cap-and-trade, efforts turned to issuing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA’s legal authority for the regulations is justified by some very general provisions of the Clean Air Act. Although the courts will probably uphold many of these regulations, the policy decisions involved are too big to be properly made by the administration without more explicit congressional authorization.
Despite the polarization surrounding climate change, there continues to be support in the conservative intelligentsia for carbon policies consistent with their principles: primarily ramping up investment in low-carbon technology research, development, and demonstration and a “revenue-neutral” carbon tax in which the increased revenues are offset by cutting other taxes.
Earth Stewardship Alliance believes the best way to build strong conservative support for these policies is by making the moral case for carbon emissions reductions, emphasizing our obligation to be good stewards. We are hopeful that conservatives will ultimately decide it is the right thing to do.
Executive Director Earth Stewardship Alliance Arlington, Virginia
David Garman, Kerry Emanuel, and Bruce Phillips lay out a convincing case for the development of real low-carbon technology options. This is not just a theoretical strategy. There are some real opportunities before us right now to do this, ones that may well appeal across the political spectrum:
The newly formed National Enhanced Oil Recovery Initiative (a coalition of environmental groups, utilities, labor, oil companies, coal companies, and environmental and utility regulators) has proposed a way to bring carbon capture and storage projects to scale, spurring in-use innovation and driving costs down. Carbon dioxide captured from power plants has a value—as much as $40 per ton in the Gulf region—because it can be used to recover more oil from existing fields. Capturing carbon dioxide, however, costs about $80 per ton. A tax credit that would cover the difference gap could spur a substantial number of innovative projects. Although oil recovery is not the long-term plan for carbon capture, it will pay for much capital investment and the early innovation that follows in its wake. The initiative’s analysis suggests that the net impact on the U.S. Treasury is likely to be neutral, because tax revenue from domestic oil that displaces imports can equal or exceed the cost of the tax credit.
There are dozens of U.S.-originated designs for advanced nuclear power reactors that could dramatically improve safety, lower costs, and shrink wastes as well as making them less harmful. The cost of pushing these designs forward to demonstration are modest, likely in the range of $1 billion to $2 billion per year, or about half a percent of the nation’s electric bill. The United States remains the world’s center of nuclear innovation, but many companies, frustrated by the lack of U.S. government support, are looking to demonstrate their first-of-a-kind designs in Russia and China. This is a growth-generating industry that the United States can recapture.
The production tax credit for conventional wind power has expired, due in part to criticisms that the tax credit was simply subsidizing current technology that has reached the point of diminishing cost reductions. But we can replace that policy with a focused set of incentives for truly innovative wind energy designs that increase capacity and provide grid support, thus enhancing the value of wind energy and bringing it closer to market parity.
Gridlock over climate science needn’t prevent practical movement forward to hedge our risks. A time-limited set of policies such as those above would drive low-carbon technology closer to parity with conventional coal and gas, not subsidize above-market technologies indefinitely. Garman and his colleagues have offered an important bridge-building concept; it is time for policymakers to take notice and act.
Executive Director Clean Air Task Force Boston, Massachusetts