The New Environment for Climate and Energy Policy

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama signaled the administration’s new messaging and policy strategy for climate and energy. Not once did he mention “cap and trade,” instead he referred to the need for a “comprehensive energy and climate bill.”

He discussed energy and climate policy in the context of American innovation and international competition. He specifically mentioned that China, Germany and India are making investments in clean energy technology in their pursuit of knocking the U.S. off its global pedestal.

Though he backhandedly chided “those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change,” he offered another rationale for supporting energy reform, stating that “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

The new strategy is savvy in light of the declining public enthusiasm for combating climate change and the inability so far to get legislation passed in the Senate. The economy currently is trumping concerns over the environment. So far, opponents have been able to concentrate on the cap-and-trade provisions of the bill – labeling it “cap and tax.” Cap and trade is an easy target because it is a complex mechanism that relatively few people truly understand. Rebranding enables a discussion of how energy and climate policy affects the U.S. economy and our global standing while removing a bull’s eye for opponents. Focusing on the need to reform our energy regime can appeal to a wider segment of the population and attract broader support.

Energy and climate are intrinsically linked and have serious repercussions for our economy and security. I called for comprehensive energy reform repeatedly in another forum last year.

Americans understand that our current energy system is unsustainable and threatens our security. We recognize that fossil fuels are not replenishable and that our dependence on foreign oil leaves us vulnerable to regimes that are unfriendly to us and regions that are politically unstable. We also believe that the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of Americans can solve problems such as this.

Americans see that every time that the stock market picks up, gas prices rise as well. We also witness almost everyday new examples of hostilities from countries that provide much of our oil and our military activities in regions that are oil rich. It won’t take much of an outreach effort to make Americans realize that energy prices will go up even if no price is assigned to carbon because heightened competition with the likes of China and others for dwindling oil reserves will cause prices to skyrocket – effectively a tax. Putting a price on carbon will simply allow the proceeds to go towards developing domestic alternatives (and American jobs), instead of going to bolster another country.  

Placing a price on carbon is about accounting for externalities in our energy market – the costs that are not incorporated in the price we pay for energy. Those externalities do not simply include damage done to the environment. Even the most hardened climate skeptic can believe that our reliance on oil can cause costly U.S. militarily intervention in oil-producing regions and represents a vulnerability that our enemies would like to exploit.

Putting a price on carbon is necessary for the energy market to function properly. Alternatives will not be able to compete with fossil fuels price wise in the near term unless the externalities are priced in. And the experience with ethanol underscores how relying on government subsidies and mandates alone can be ineffective and even harmful. The market can work, but it needs some help. Announcing that proceeds would go towards investment in clean energy technologies, helping Americans in need cope with rising energy costs or pay down the federal debt, as opposed to going to general revenues, would likely help gain public approval.

In his address, the president also mentioned building new nuclear power plants and drilling offshore for oil. This was a political and policy maneuver. Many Republicans support nuclear power and expanded offshore drilling. It is also a recognition that we cannot make the transition to renewables like wind and solar overnight. There must be a bridge to this cleaner future that involves responsible domestic production of resources like oil and natural gas, And nuclear will likely be necessary for baseload energy.

There is room for a compromise that involves increased domestic production of oil, natural gas and nuclear energy while putting a price on carbon and laying the foundation for a cleaner future. We are seeing that in a promising collaboration across party lines between Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The Gang of Ten compromise in 2008 also shows that bipartisanship is possible.

The president has set the table for a possible breakthrough. What is required now is some public engagement and bipartisanship to make it happen.

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One Response to “The New Environment for Climate and Energy Policy”

  1. Patience Gittinger Says:

    Pretty cool post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really liked browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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