October Surprise

By Joshua Green

As partisan mudslinging intensifies with the approach of election day, some people may have missed last week's fleeting moment of constructive bipartisan consensus, when a group of liberals and conservatives met in Washington to unveil a new energy plan. Unlike most of what gets introduced just before an election, this was not a soon-to-be-forgotten political ploy, but a long-term project to accomplish what Congress and the president could not: put the country on the path to a clean energy future.

This was supposed to have happened already. Along with health care and Wall Street reform, President Obama wanted an ambitious law to combat climate change, one which put a price on carbon emissions through a system known as cap and trade. Raising the cost of dirty fossil fuels was supposed to persuade polluters to develop cleaner alternatives. But after narrowly passing the House last summer, cap and trade died in the Senate for the fourth time in recent years, and probably the last. As one supporter, a clean technology expert at a Washington think tank, lamented, "Cap and trade is dead, dead, dead, corpse buried, never to be resurrected. It's time to look elsewhere.''

A good place to start is this new initiative, dubbed "Post-Partisan Power,'' that was jointly developed by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, the left-leaning Brookings Institution, and the Breakthrough Institute, a nonpartisan California think tank. According to Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, the group formed a year ago in the shared belief -- radical then, indisputable now -- that cap and trade would fail, and that what was really needed was what Energy Secretary Steven Chu has called "Nobel-caliber'' innovations in clean technology.

But how to bring them about?

The plan's authors say that the answer lies in large-scale government investment in research, development, and early-stage commercialization of clean technologies on the order of $25 billion a year. They envision a stepped-up effort to train a new generation of scientists and engineers, and recreate the national urgency for technological innovation that followed Sputnik's launch in 1957; the creation of regional clusters to bring together private sector, academic, and government energy researchers and orient them toward commercially viable innovations (including nuclear energy), especially those suited to the needs of the energy-hungry Defense Department; and the wholesale reform of government energy subsidies, shifting the focus of incentives from merely increasing capacity, as they do now, to actually driving down costs. Such cheaper technologies would yield benefits not only here but in the developing world. In essence, the plan is built upon the proposition that rather than trying to make dirty energy more expensive, we ought to focus instead on making clean energy more affordable.

In theory, these approaches complement one another. But Washington has shown that it has no appetite for taxing polluters -- large Democratic majorities in Congress couldn't accomplish the task, and most Republicans don't want to. Any realistic path forward must take this reality into account.

Focusing on research and innovation may be an answer. Government has successfully fostered private-enterprise innovation going back to the Transcontinental Railroad. This approach wouldn't burden businesses with onerous new costs, and therefore could appeal to conservatives opposed to cap and trade. It is among the dwindling options for liberals eager to fight climate change. And it has recently had a successful trial run: last year's stimulus package included tens of billions of dollars for intensive clean energy research and investment, which has accelerated important advances in such technologies as battery development.

But that also points up the plan's greatest weakness: its cost. Indefinitely maintaining the current stimulus-driven level of spending on the pursuit of these innovations is all but unthinkable in a political climate determined by the electorate's desire to cut deficits and shrink government -- even more so because the stimulus itself is widely judged to have failed (although economists disagree). Cognizant of this challenge, the plan's authors put forward several ideas to offset the consequent costs. But it's a measure of just how hard this will be that one of those ideas is to put a price on carbon emissions (though smaller than that proposed under cap and trade).

The best hope may be that Republicans, if they take over Congress, will become more invested in finding a solution when the nation's energy problems become their problem, too.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

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