The Bush administration didn’t get everything wrong about climate change, and the Obama administration isn’t getting everything right. A truly effective climate policy would include the best elements of each approach.
Among those concerned about climate change, a common perception is that the steps taken to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the administration of President George W. Bush were mere fig-leafs for a policy of inaction, whereas those taken under the administration of President Barack Obama have been robust and limited only by the unwillingness of Congress to support more substantive policies. A closer, inside look at the actions taken by both administrations reveals a more complex and nuanced story.
Indeed, far from being a simple “Bush bad on climate/Obama good on climate” story, an examination of each administration’s approach can point the way to a hybrid model that may better bridge the current political divide on climate action and effectively address this critical global concern. Although there are examples to support my arguments in both the domestic and international policy spheres, I will focus mainly on energy-related international cooperative activities to address climate change, drawing on my first-hand experience managing international programs in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Not surprisingly, each administration’s efforts to mitigate climate change were greatly influenced by their parties’ ideological preferences regarding the roles of the private sector and government regulation. More subtle, however, is the way in which those ideologies influence the choice of technology pathways, with the Bush administration focused on investments to improve existing technologies, versus the Obama administration’s inclination to also invest in new technologies that could have an impact on existing market structures and technological preferences. Less obvious, and perhaps counterintuitive to outside observers, are differences in the way that the White House has managed government climate efforts, with the Bush administration embracing more explicit interagency cooperation and the Obama administration preferring centralized White House control. In the international context, these ideological manifestations also played out in contrasting degrees of willingness to pursue policy goals through the multilateral engagement mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with President Bush a reluctant player at best, and President Obama a more enthusiastic partner. Yet both administrations developed means to make progress on climate outside that forum.
I make these arguments from the perspective of a 10-year civil servant engaged in staff and leadership roles in the climate efforts of both administrations. At DOE, I was executive director of the Secretariat of the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE), co-chair of the Renewables and Distributed Generation Task Force of the Asia-Pacific Partnership (APP), a Senior Policy Analyst in the Climate Change Technology Program (CCTP), and director of the office leading many Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) initiatives as well as running its Secretariat. I had previously worked in the technology sector, managing research and development (R&D) agreements between Intel Corporation and other integrated circuit manufacturers and suppliers developing new technologies. I take the climate threat extremely seriously, agree with the consensus views of climate scientists, and believe efforts to mitigate, as well as adapt to, climate change should be a priority of the government. I have had the immense pleasure of working with hundreds of other government professionals who also take this threat seriously and want to do their utmost to address it, but who must, in order to do their jobs, adjust their efforts to serve the elected administration, and thus its policy goals and their underlying ideological foundations. Though this non-political role for civil servants has to be accepted as a necessary responsibility within the structure of the government, I would nonetheless argue that a greater effort to evaluate existing programs and maintain continuity of effort between administrations could make for more effective government action and therefore greater benefit for citizens—and for whichever party is in the White House.
Ideologies of technological change
The recent history of U.S. government actions to address global climate change through large-scale reduction of GHG emissions from energy production and use reflects two distinct and contrasting perspectives. One is based on the view that existing low-carbon technologies favored by the traditional environmental community, such as wind and solar power, are insufficient for large-scale emissions reductions, and that new or greatly improved ones must be developed through increased public funding for energy-related R&D. This view goes hand-in-hand with a focus on centralized large-scale energy production, such as carbon capture and storage or new generations of civilian nuclear power. It envisions R&D partnerships with existing market players and seeks a seamless introduction of improved or new technologies into current market structures with minimal regulatory intervention. In its focus on minimizing disruption of existing economic and technological arrangements, it is an approach commonly viewed as “conservative” in the traditional sense of the word, though there are certainly those who believe in this approach who would not otherwise portray themselves as conservatives.
The other approach holds that existing low-carbon technologies are largely sufficient to drive down emissions and that what is needed are policies to incentivize their commercialization, whether through targets, subsidies, or carbon pricing. This perspective tends to be linked to a focus on regulations and decentralized distributed energy production from renewable sources, with corresponding changes in market structures to ensure their successful integration into the energy system. Energy R&D is still valued, though with a greater emphasis on renewables and the potential to uncover new disruptive technologies or enable new market paradigms. This view can be characterized as a philosophically “liberal” one, but again, the distinction I am making, although important for telling my story, is not a rigid one. Indeed, in my own experience as a professional policy staffer, I have known thoughtful proponents of diverse technology R&D portfolios and technology-neutral regulatory frameworks who would not identify with either political ideology. As I will explain, however, such policy-agnostic approaches often fall victim to the more doctrinaire and conventionally “conservative” or “liberal” policy preferences of the party in power.
Less obvious, and perhaps counterintuitive to outside observers, are differences in the way that the White House has managed government climate efforts, with the Bush administration embracing more explicit interagency cooperation and the Obama administration preferring centralized White House control.
These ideological differences are linked to competing theories of technological change. One theory holds that direct government support for R&D results in cost-competitive products that will succeed in the marketplace without regulatory help; the other, that regulations are necessary to drive product improvements and cost reductions through “learning by doing” in the absence of a strong market signal. This is a legitimate intellectual debate, with proponents of the former approach pointing to the government-sponsored R&D that led to developments such as the internet and advanced integrated circuits, and proponents of the latter approach pointing to cost-effective regulations, such as those aimed at reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons. Differing assumptions about the relative importance of these approaches are even incorporated into models that are used to provide insights about future energy systems and help inform policy choices.
Although these contrasting ideological and intellectual views of technological change may seem important only in the context of domestic policy and politics, they also have a profound impact on U.S. engagement in international climate change mitigation activities. The approach taken by the UNFCCC to date falls very much on one end of the spectrum, with the regulatory nature of the Kyoto Protocol and the lack of a meaningful private sector role in the negotiations. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Bush administration was hostile to that approach. What many people are less aware of, however, is the new avenues of engagement that were developed and pursued under President Bush and then continued under President Obama.
The Bush approach
In 2001, DOE launched an international partnership for the development of next-generation nuclear reactors, the Gen IV International Forum (GIF), followed in 2003 by two additional international partnerships, the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) and the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy (IPHE). The formation of these partnerships mirrored domestic R&D investments. Nuclear fission R&D ramped up to $123 million in 2003, after being virtually zeroed out in 1998 under the Clinton administration; the budget for coal R&D increased almost three-fold, from $121 million in 2000 to $339 million in 2003, and for hydrogen R&D almost four-fold, from $24 million to $92 million over the same period.
The charter or terms of reference for these three partnerships read fairly similarly, focusing on international cooperation to accelerate the research, development, demonstration, and commercial deployment of nuclear, carbon-capture, and hydrogen technologies. GIF started with nine major-economy signatories, CSLF with a dozen (11 major economies and the European Commission), and IPHE started with a similar mix of 15 members.
The significance of these partnerships lay not in the fact that they created new international technology cooperation agreements. The International Energy Agency (IEA) had been doing this for many years, sponsoring more than 40 multilateral technology initiatives, known as “implementing agreements,” on various energy topics. Rather, they were significant because these three technologies were chosen for elevation to a political level, creating the basis for a new technology-centric approach to addressing global climate change.
Against the backdrop of the Bush administration’s lack of support for comprehensive climate legislation and refusal to agree to mandatory emission reduction targets under the UNFCCC, can these partnerships really be seen as sincere efforts to implement a climate change strategy? Critics point to the long-term nature of these investments as a delaying tactic, as well as to the fact that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) preserves the use of coal in the energy system. One can reasonably argue that the threat of climate change was not taken seriously enough in the Bush administration, but it is important to acknowledge that such criticism is often based as much on technological (and ideological) preference as on analysis of the Bush administration’s motives. Widespread adoption of nuclear power and CCS are conceivable (and many would argue essential) means of achieving deep cuts in carbon emissions in coming decades, especially given the widespread global use of coal and the role of CCS as the only potentially available means for dramatically reducing the carbon emissions associated with its use.
Moreover, R&D in these three technology areas, which continued to grow substantially under the Bush administration, has continued at comparable levels in the Obama administration. Likewise, the three international partnerships established more than 10 years ago continue to operate. Support for R&D on these technologies runs counter to the supposedly “liberal” approach of the Obama administration, a point to which I will return later.
Private sector partnerships
An important aspect of the Bush administration’s approach to climate policy was its desire to incentivize direct involvement by the private sector. On the R&D front, this took place through cost-sharing agreements. The cost share was necessary in this framework because, absent a policy incentive, the private sector would not invest in innovation unless the financial risk associated with potential failure was reduced. Indeed, the vast majority of DOE-applied R&D funding is obligated on a cost-share basis with commercial entities. However, the private sector was not just envisioned as a recipient of R&D dollars; commercial entities were also to be supported by government action to disseminate their technologies.
There is nothing unusual or ideologically distinctive in this strategy from a trade or export-promotion perspective: Bipartisan majorities have long supported the work of entities such as the Foreign Commercial Service (to assist U.S. businesses overseas), the Export-Import Bank (to facilitate the export of U.S. goods and services), and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (to support the expansion of U.S. businesses into global markets). However, the Bush administration took a further market-oriented step when it created the Methane-to-Markets Partnership (M2M) and its associated Project Network in November 2004.
Led by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), though funded largely by the Department of State, the goal of the M2M is to “reduce methane emissions and to advance the recovery and use of methane as a valuable clean energy source [and to] focus on the development of strategies and markets for the abatement, recovery, and use of methane….” Fourteen countries signed onto the partnership at the start, as well as more than 100 participants in the Project Network, described on its web site as a “community of private-sector entities, financial institutions, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations with an interest in methane abatement, recovery, and use projects.” Project Network members are “actively involved in the Partnership,” are “critical to its success,” and “can galvanize action, setting the stage for concrete methane projects.”
Renamed the Global Methane Initiative under the Obama administration, M2M now consists of 43 government members and more than 1300 Project Network participants. The eager engagement of many companies in M2M from the start provides evidence of the private sector’s appetite to partner with the federal government in international activities to address climate change, as long as the government convenes and supports the effort with sufficient funding and political will. It provides further evidence for a somewhat strategic, “conservative” approach to climate change mitigation, though the cost-effectiveness of methane capture made the business case more of a ”win-win” approach than other mitigation strategies. M2M also set the stage for a unique new partnership that combined international cooperation among major economies with engagement by the private sector, the key elements of the Bush administration approach.
The Asia-Pacific Partnership
In January 2006, ministers from Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the United States met in Sydney to launch the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (APP), which “explores a new approach for harnessing the power of our private sectors, our research communities and our government sectors to drive sustainable development.” The APP focused on specific energy-intensive sectors and used “a ground-breaking new model of public-private task forces to address climate change, energy security, and air pollution.” It established these public-private task forces in eight areas: cleaner fossil energy; renewable energy and distributed generation; power generation and transmission; steel; aluminum; cement; coal mining; and buildings and appliances.
To those familiar with the Bush administration initiatives that preceded it, the APP was a natural extension of its approach, but it had greater visibility and was more controversial from the start. For one, it was led by the State Department office with responsibility for U.S. participation in the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. The leadership level from the other governments was similarly constituted. This led to the perception that the APP was established as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol and an explicit rejection of the UN’s inclusive multilateralism, in which all countries participate in the negotiations, even if they don’t have to make commitments. This fear was exacerbated by a confluence of factors involving the APP participants: the United States and China, the world’s largest emitters; India, along with China, the world’s fastest growing emitters; the United States, the only Annex 1 country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol; Australia, the first to have ratified and then explicitly backed away from its targets; and Japan and Korea, technology-driven export economies with strong business interests in the region. The concern was evident enough among the participants that they felt it necessary to explicitly address it in the Sydney Ministerial communique: “The Partnership will be consistent with and contribute to Partners’ efforts under the UNFCCC and will complement, but not replace, the Kyoto Protocol.”
Another factor making the APP more visible and controversial was the direct involvement of the White House and the business community. White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair James Connaughton championed the APP and met regularly with business leaders to encourage their involvement. That involvement was not simply to enable them to share their views; the APP was explicitly structured to ensure direct private sector participation. If a company engaged in an APP task force, it earned a seat at the table. For those who have never participated in international government meetings, it is hard to describe how big a change this was. The discussions that ensued in task force meetings were refreshingly undiplomatic at times, allowing for direct engagement on issues such as intellectual property protection that would have been difficult to imagine in a government-only context. Having the private sector at the table also made the prospect of large-scale investment much more tangible, since governments are rarely able to offer financial support for projects at the scale required for substantive impact on GHG emissions.
Nonetheless, APP critics voiced fear of undue business influence on government decision making. The BBC environmental correspondent Richard Black summed up the situation quite well at the time:
“To insiders, the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate is a real world, mature-person’s solution to climate change. No economic pain, no mandatory targets, no international commitments and no need for open, accountable negotiations. No place for the fetid unwashed of the environmental movement; keep it in the family of power-suited industrial and political brokers, the few who can really get things done. The electronic juice will keep flowing, the giant developing economies of Asia will keep growing, and no government will have to do anything it doesn’t want to do.
“To other observers, it’s an empty vessel; a fig-leaf to cover the embarrassment of George Bush and John Howard, the only western leaders to have reneged on commitments their predecessors made at the UN Kyoto conference in 1997. In this thesis, the Partnership will deliver nothing of benefit to the climate, because technology alone cannot bring the huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, according to consensus climate science, are needed.”
Yet the international partners were fully engaged and the various task forces began meeting to draft work plans and identify projects, which, in turn, had to be approved by a Policy and Implementation Committee (PIC) made up of government representatives. The PIC met nine times from April 2006 to April 2011, approving work plans and more than 150 projects across the task forces. A second ministerial meeting was held in New Delhi in October 2007, at which Canada officially joined the partnership.
Unlike the R&D-focused or market-oriented partnerships from earlier in the Bush administration, the APP covered the spectrum from adoption of existing technologies to the development of new ones. For example, the power generation task force included a focus on improving the efficiency of power production in existing coal-fired plants, and the cleaner fossil energy task force focused on development and demonstration of CCS technologies. The APP also added agencies other than the usual State Department, DOE, and EPA to the mix by including the Department of Commerce (to help manage the private sector relationships) and the Department of the Interior (to participate in the coal mining task force).
Following the launch of the APP, the State Department, DOE, EPA, and Commerce requested funds to support their work in both the FY2007 and FY2008 budget appropriations. Though complicated by all-too-familiar House and Senate committee differences, continuing resolutions, and consolidated appropriations bills, the State Department was ultimately able to obtain total funding of $35 million. However, DOE was unable to surmount these political difficulties, receiving no funds even the first year, when the Republicans controlled both houses. This failure was due largely to the traditional congressional view that DOE should focus its funding on domestic priorities but also reflected a lack of effort on the Bush administration’s part to gain congressional support. The result was not just severely restricted resources for the work of the six task forces in which DOE was involved, but also considerable interagency tension over resources and alignment with administration priorities. State Department support to DOE national laboratories enabled sustained expert engagement, but the lack of DOE involvement arguably limited the effectiveness of the work. Other countries contributed substantially, with an initial set-aside by Australia of more than $100 million and spending of more than $10 million by Canada. Because of the partnership model in the APP, these investments leveraged even greater private sector spending, an important point when considering the overall impact of the effort. Ultimately, however, the lack of dedicated U.S. funding became apparent to the other participants and limited their willingness to contribute further. This was soon exacerbated by political developments.
Lost in transition
After the election of President Obama in November 2008, federal employees working on climate policy expected that existing efforts would be reviewed and then perhaps adjusted to match his stated intent to make climate change a government priority. Staff assigned to the Climate Change Technology Program, an interagency coordination mechanism established under the Bush administration, prepared a “Climate Change Transition Sourcebook” listing all climate change mitigation activities across the government in anticipation of such a review. However, the new administration’s focus on trying to pass comprehensive climate legislation (the Waxman-Markey bill) meant that other government climate policy efforts were of lower priority. The sourcebook was provided to incoming administration officials, but those of us who worked to prepare it never received acknowledgment or feedback. The interagency group, despite being codified in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, never met again and has functionally ceased to exist.
Those engaged in the APP had reason to believe that it was a successful model of international engagement on climate, worthy of continuing in some fashion. After all, the European Commission and other governments had inquired about joining, and a related activity initiated by President Bush in May 2007, the Major Economies Process on Energy Security and Climate Change, was continued by the Obama administration under the name of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) in March 2009. The MEF convened governments of 16 nations and the European Commission to focus mostly on areas of common ground with respect to the UNFCCC negotiations.
At an APP PIC meeting in Australia in May 2009, U.S. representatives noted the appointment of new senior officials in various agencies, including a Special Envoy for Climate Change, and highlighted the possibility of new domestic climate legislation. Although they stated that they thought the APP had been successful, they indicated uncertainty about its future: “Therefore while it is true that we are clear on our commitment to climate change and clean technology development and deployment, it is also true that the leadership that will ultimately define our engagement strategy is still coming together….” (italics mine).
By the time of the third APP Ministerial meeting in October 2009, formal U.S. statements were beginning to make clear that the APP would, at most, be taking a back seat to the UNFCCC process and the MEF: “We expect Copenhagen to be a signal meeting in our efforts to define measurable, reportable and verifiable national actions, as well as the international framework to support such efforts through finance, technology transfer and capacity building…. All of us are also working to establish a Global Partnership through the Major Economies Forum process, and we have been deeply involved in the development of action plans that will soon be provided to our leaders.” The tone with respect to the APP was much less assured: “We will have a continuing need to evaluate the APP’s niche as our approaches and the broader framework for technology cooperation develops, both over the coming year and beyond.”
At COP-17 in Copenhagen in December 2009, new Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced, on behalf of President Obama, the launch of a five-year, $35-million Renewables and Efficiency Deployment Initiative, known as Climate REDI, along with the release of 10 Technology Action Plans that had been developed after the first meeting of the MEF. The Action Plans, according to a White House fact sheet, were intended to “summarize mitigation potential of high-priority technologies, highlight best practice policies, and provide a menu of specific actions that countries can take individually and collectively to accelerate development and deployment of low-carbon solutions.” This statement, with its focus on best practice policies and specific actions, provides a clear indication of the shift toward a more policy-centric approach. The fate of the APP was becoming evident as well. Though it would hang on formally for almost a year and a half, no PIC meetings were held until the final one in April 2011, at which the formal dissolution of the partnership was agreed to at the behest of the United States.
The demise of the APP was a considerable disappointment to the partner governments that had invested in it, the private sector players who had been successfully engaged, and many of the staff who had been involved in its successes. A summary presented at the third and final APP ministerial observed that the “Partnership is now widely noted as a model for sectoral public-private sector cooperation,” consistent with the Bush administration’s original intent. Beyond its 175 projects, plus 22 “flagship” projects, key APP accomplishments included: promoting peer review and dissemination of best practices in the power, steel, and coal mine sectors; demonstrating high efficiency buildings in India and China; piloting post-combustion and oxyfuel CCS technologies; supporting efforts to harmonize compact fluorescent light testing standards; promoting the use of combined heat and power technology in China; and helping build capacity to match small and medium enterprises investing in renewable energy with sources of finance.
The Obama approach
The Copenhagen announcement stated that the mechanism for carrying forward Climate REDI and the implementation of the Technology Action Plans would be a new forum, the Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), to be convened in Washington in 2010. The following July, the first meeting took place, featuring ministers or other high-level representatives from 22 governments and the European Commission, essentially the same governments represented in the MEF, plus some smaller economies that were there for geographic representation (South Africa, the United Arab Emirates) or specific leadership in clean energy deployment (Denmark and the other Nordic countries). However, there was a key difference between the MEF and CEM: the CEM deliberately invited ministers with responsibility for the energy portfolios in their countries, not environment or climate change.
That decision followed careful deliberation by the leadership of the State Department and DOE. Although senior officials in both agencies felt the CEM should remain a spin-off from the MEF, since it had its origins there, they also noted that the expertise to manage engagement across a wide range of clean energy topics was in DOE. Staff in State and DOE recalled the challenges of having the APP managed in the State Department but executed by other agencies, as well as the political complications of having an initiative linked so closely to the climate agenda. Secretary Chu was also felt to have a degree of credibility and recognition that would help to raise the profile of the effort. This would turn out to be a fateful decision, with both positive and negative results.
At the first CEM meeting, participants offered up various initiatives in which they would lead or participate. Unlike the APP approach of focusing from the start on specific energy producing or consuming sectors, the CEM is a bottom-up process, where new initiatives reflect the interests of governments willing to support the work. As with the APP, participation in any given initiative is voluntary. The CEM describes itself as “a global forum to share best practices and promote policies and programs that encourage and facilitate the transition to a global clean energy economy.” Consistent with that theme, the United States put forward the Clean Energy Solutions Center (CESC), which “helps governments design and adopt policies and programs that support the deployment of clean energy technologies.” The United States also offered to lead the Superefficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative, to provide “access to the resources and technical expertise needed to build and implement cost-effective product efficiency standards and labels and market transformation programs.” SEAD receives U.S. funding of $4 million per year, more than any other CEM initiative, and was frequently touted by Secretary Chu, a passionate advocate of appliance standards. CESC and SEAD, with their focus on policies, programs, and standards rather than private sector engagement and project development, are clear hallmarks of the more policy-centric approach of the Obama administration.
Another U.S.-led CEM initiative receiving substantial support is the International Smart Grid Action Network (ISGAN), a “collaboration to advance the development and deployment of smarter electric grid technologies, practices, and systems.” While the smart grid is valuable for improving the reliability of the transmission and distribution network, one of its other key benefits is that it enables greater demand-side management and integration of distributed renewable energy sources, both required elements of a more decentralized electricity system. The 21st Century Power Partnership, also led by the United States, was later added to focus more explicitly on the role of the grid, distributed renewables, and flexible demand response to contribute to development of a new paradigm for the electricity sector, driven by factors such as the growth in rooftop solar and the need to manage intermittent electricity supply and shift demand between different times of day. This willingness to envision disruptive technologies and new approaches that threaten existing utility business models is another hallmark of the Obama administration’s approach.
The United States put forward several other CEM initiatives, all of which share a focus on policies to increase the deployment of existing technologies or more broadly disseminate best practices. None explicitly partner with the private sector.
Not surprisingly, relevant private sector actors feel, in contrast to their experience with the APP, that the CEM has not adequately engaged them. CEM meetings have included public-private roundtables on clean energy topics, and ministers typically report that they enjoy these opportunities to engage with private sector representatives and other experts. But it is difficult for private sector participants to justify long trips to distant venues for such a brief time spent with policymakers, and with no other opportunities to weigh in or participate in the projects. This neglect has been exacerbated by a lack of explicit White House support. In the Obama administration, no White House champion for international climate cooperation outside the UNFCCC process emerged until John Podesta was named as counselor to the President in 2014, and no White House representative has participated in a CEM meeting since the first one in Washington in 2010. Yet such high-level representation is critical to attract private sector engagement.
As alluded to earlier, the consequences of the lack of explicit linkage of the CEM to the MEF and to those engaged in climate negotiations have been significant. The absence of climate negotiators in the CEM has enabled it to be remarkably free of the unhelpful rhetoric surrounding the relative responsibilities of developed and rapidly industrializing economies that plagues the UNFCCC negotiations. But energy ministries do not command the same attention or receive the same funding for international engagement as those focused on climate change. As a consequence, the CEM has a relatively low profile among those who follow climate issues. Energy ministries also suffer from a lack of funds for international cooperation. DOE has overcome this by means of an agreement with the State Department that enables an interagency transfer of funds, but not all countries have a comparable mechanism. The U.S. has contributed $40 million to the CEM but, in contrast to the APP, the total for other countries is less than $10 million. Efforts to raise the ambition of other CEM participants, perhaps through a more explicit linkage to the MEF or a leader-level process, are under consideration by senior State Department and DOE officials but would need support from the White House.
The dissolution of the APP and the move away from private sector engagement in international climate cooperation represents a shift from a more “conservative” to a more “liberal” policy approach to international climate policy. But the CEM is only one element of a more diverse and complex Obama administration portfolio. As mentioned, funding for major multilateral R&D efforts (GIF, CSLF, IPHE) begun in the Bush administration has continued, and the MEF is still being used for constructive engagement of major economies outside the UNFCCC. On the domestic front, although EPA’s impending GHG regulations are often painted as intended to destroy coal-fired power plants, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 provided $3.9 billion in funding for CCS, larger than the $1.6 billion for renewable energy. However, ARRA also provided support for potentially disruptive technologies: $3.9 billion for smart grid investments, as well as $390 million for the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), which focuses on advancing “high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment.” Although ARPA-E was mandated under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Bush administration did not support its creation and made minimal efforts to implement it, in keeping with their desire to focus on more conventional technology R&D investments. The range of ARRA investments underscore a recognition, in the White House and in Congress, of the potential for both large-scale, centralized low-carbon energy generation and smaller-scale, distributed generation, as well as an openness to new technologies that might emerge. Indeed, the Obama administration’s approach is clearly more “technology agnostic” than that of its predecessor.
Unfortunately, the opposition by much of the private sector to Obama administration climate proposals, as well as the inability of the administration to constructively engage corporate actors as the Bush administration did with the APP, fuels unhelpful hyper-partisan narratives on both sides. Going forward, it will be essential for the private sector to take a more constructive stance on climate change than they have, but this, in turn, will be accomplished only by their active engagement and inclusion by the White House.
The best of both sides
Clean energy technology development and policy implementation are slow processes with no guarantee of success. Program effectiveness requires continuity of political and financial support, as well as support from key non-governmental stakeholders, including environmental groups and the private sector. The timeframe associated with transfers of power between the political parties, whether in the executive or the legislative branches, makes the required continuity difficult to achieve. This has only been exacerbated by the current level of political acrimony, where long wait times for confirmation of presidential appointees can leave existing programs on hold, waiting for direction for a year or more, while the failure to pass annual appropriations leaves new programs unfunded. The irony is that the bigger the political push in support of a program, the greater the possibility of implementation at the scale required, but also the greater likelihood of a backlash from either the appropriators in Congress or the next occupant of the White House. A corollary in the international context is that the tighter the linkage of an international program to the climate negotiations, the more attention it will draw, but also the greater likelihood that it will be derailed by spillovers from the controversies in that forum.
Is there a way around these tensions? I believe it is critical to realize that neither innovation nor regulation alone will solve this problem. Waiting for government-funded innovation to lower mitigation costs risks too long a delay on climate action and ignores the evidence that targets and regulations can deliver huge cost reductions, as they have with solar photovoltaics, which now cost only a third of what they did in 2009. Relying on regulatory approaches alone may catalyze progress in the near term but is unlikely to deliver the mitigation ultimately required to drive emissions to near-zero on a global scale. A parallel approach of using regulations and scaled-up R&D investments stands a better chance of harnessing the market forces needed to enable a successful transition to a low-carbon future. Sustained and adequate funding is also critical, ideally from a policy mechanism that isn’t linked to annual appropriations. This parallel approach has implications for international cooperation. A consensus seems to be emerging that international efforts to address climate change will be a bottom-up collection of commitments by all nations. However, these first steps are likely to fall far short of what is needed to limit GHG emissions enough to avoid significant impacts while also meeting the demand of the world’s emerging economies for economic development. It is therefore incumbent on the major economies of the world to cooperate to a greater degree on complementary R&D and best practice policy efforts. These efforts should be linked to climate goals, yet insulated from the actual negotiation (and politics) of those goals. Participation by and support from the private sector is essential.
Managing U.S. efforts to address climate change is hugely challenging. Reflecting on my own experiences, I believe that what is needed is an administration with the management skills, private sector relationships, and global development focus of the Bush administration combined with the commitment to address climate change, openness to new technologies, and willingness to challenge existing business models of the Obama administration. That is a tall order in today’s partisan environment, but it could also represent an enormous political opportunity for a visionary leader of either party. Bridging the political and philosophical divides necessary to draw sustained support for climate action is terribly difficult, but then, so are the challenges we will face if we fail to do so.
Graham Pugh (email@example.com) served in a number of senior staff positions focused on domestic and international energy and climate issues in the U.S. Department of Energy from June 2005 to June 2014.