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Ogmius Newsletter

Ogmius exchange

Introduction to Ogmius Exchange

In this issue of Ogmius, ENVS Professor (and former Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research) Roger Pielke, Jr., reflects on the failure of the recent attempt to pass climate change legislation, and offers another path forward. Roger’s arguments are elaborated in his new book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming.

Comments welcome! info@sciencepolicy.colorado.edu

Roger Pielke, Jr.

Rethinking Climate Policy
by Roger Pielke, Jr.

The recent decision by Senate Democrats to pull the plug on climate legislation led to acrimonious finger pointing. The Obama Administration expressed frustration with environmental advocacy groups, complaining that despite $100 million invested promoting the legislation, they failed to deliver a single Republican vote. In return, Joe Romm, who covers climate for one advocacy group, the Center for American Progress, declared the entire Obama presidency a failure.

Opponents to the legislation are happy to watch the carnage. As engrossing as it is to watch, the fact that climate change has become such a partisan issue is troubling, because there remains a problem to be addressed.

One of the challenges of climate policy has always been that people simply do not agree on what sort of problem it presents. For some, the threat of a human influence on climate is sufficient to call for dramatic lifestyle changes. For others, the main concern is government intervention in the global energy system. Not coincidentally, these perspectives fit comfortably with pre-existing world views, making climate another battleground for poisonous partisan politics.

Roger Pielke, Jr.

Lost in the debate is a fundamental reality – virtually everyone agrees that greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels, have the potential to influence the climate. As the late climatologist Stephen Schneider explained, “uncertainties so infuse the issue of climate change that it is still impossible to rule out either mild or catastrophic outcomes, let alone provide confident probabilities for all the claims and counterclaims made about environmental problems.”

In such a situation, we are simply not going to have certainty about impacts or costs on the time scales of decision making. This would seem to create a bias toward inaction. Yet, policy makers routinely take action in the absence of certain information, such as in the context of the economy, national security and health.

A poll conducted last year found that a majority of Americans supported climate legislation when the cost was about $7 per month, but dropped to only about 10% support when the cost was $70 per month. The sensitivity of political support to perceived cost is shared by people around the world, and is particularly acute in developing countries where energy costs comprise a significant part of household expenditures. Appreciably increasing the costs of fossil fuels is simply not a politically feasible option, regardless of its theoretical elegance.

If the ability of policy makers to increase the costs of fossil fuels is limited, the obvious alternative is to reduce the costs of alternatives to fossil fuels. Diversifying energy supply technologies and pursuing efficiency gains makes good sense for reasons beyond the prospect of climate change. The world is going to need vastly more energy in the future, especially as the more than 1.5 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity seek to attain higher standards of living.

An energy technology revolution will only come about through a sustained and significant investment in innovation on the scale of investments in health (~$30 billion annually in the US) or the military (~$100 billion annually in the US) for decades. One way to pay for investments in tomorrow’s energy supply is based on today’s consumption. Consider that a $1 surcharge per barrel of oil would raise $100 billion and would not be noticeable at the pump. Similarly, a $5 per ton tax on carbon dioxide would raise $150 billion per year, while raising the price of gasoline by only four cents per gallon. Political realities mean that any price on carbon will necessarily have to start low. Rather than seeing a carbon price as a way to change behaviors, it should be looked at as a source of revenue for investment in clean energy innovation.

A simplified approach to decarbonization would focus on establishing such direct mechanisms for investing in energy innovation. To be successful such an approach would not only have to avoid noticeably increasing the costs of energy to consumers, but politicians would have to be held accountable to using the resources raised to invest in innovation rather than for general government expenditures.

Environmentalists will complain that an innovation-led approach does not guarantee certainty in emissions reduction. However, another lesson that we should take from the failures of climate policy thus far is that there are no certainties for any policy proposal. Alternatives to fossil fuels are not going to comprise a significant part of our energy supply until they are cost competitive on an economic basis. That process can be accelerated by focusing policy on energy technology innovation.
The alternative is continued policy failure, not just with respect to climate, but to meeting tomorrow's energy needs -- which should concern everyone today.

Roger Pielke, Jr.

Roger Pielke, Jr.'s new book, The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won't Tell You About Global Warming, was published on September 16th, 2010.