The Climate Crisis: What to Do Now

The initial set of Climate Next essays, published Tuesday and Wednesday, inspired a snappy discussion around the e-campfire about the future of climate policy. Our panelists exchanged nearly 7,500 words over e-mail this week, and reading through their debate--which can be accessed in its entirety here--you realize that what starts as a discussion about climate ends up a discussion about things that are much more viscerally important to us: electricity, the United States' role in the world, how technology improves, and the health of people and their families. After more than a century of carbon-intensive development, any effort to turn away from fossil fuels will require a realignment of the very backbone of modernity. The question we're really asking, then, is this: What will it take for something so radical to occur?

Because, as the Breakthrough Institute's Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus note, something new needs to happen. They call it a "step change transformation of the global energy economy." And about the only real examples of such a thing we have to work from occurred around the dawn of industrialization in Britain, when a small group of businessmen and tinkerers figured out that they could burn rocks (coal) and transform that heat into mechanical work. With that in mind, most of the discussion among this group of experts revolved around the social mechanisms that might allow for a major shift in our energy usage.

On all sides, the panelists are trying to connect the science of global warming with the emerging literature of how technological innovations happen, in an effort to find a climate solution that fits with today's precarious politics. Those three different areas--science, innovation, and politics--do not connect up easily. But among this group, at least, the effort is there.

So, let's go big-picture first. How could we ever achieve something like mass decarbonization? David Roberts of Grist suggests that a decentralized, grassroots power-building effort would be necessary, but the Council on Foreign Relations' Michael Levi doesn't think the masses matter:

Others here understand grassroots politics better than I do, but I must admit that I'm skeptical, at least for as long as the public has other pressing priorities. I also wouldn't ignore the elite-driven model, which explains a lot of progress on global trade. (It isn't like trade deals are made in response to massive public demand.) But the prospects here are also tricky, in substantial part for the same reasons as the U.S. political system has turned against trade liberalization: elites no longer command the trust that they once did.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger answered that the problem in recent climate politics wasn't that elites were involved but, rather, that they were misguided.

Levi is closer to the mark when he observes that elite opinion may matter most. It confuses things to compare things like starting and funding clean tech businesses, developing smart growth programs, and establishing new building efficiency standards to a guerilla insurgency or civil rights movement, as David Roberts does. The problem is not that the effort to address climate was driven by elites but rather that the elite consensus was wrong. It assumed that carbon pricing and pollution targets could do everything from reduce emissions to accelerate innovation to create green jobs.

The good news is that the old consensus appears to be, finally, starting to change.

Roberts answered the critique of his position by arguing that any climate hawk program shouldn't focus on a couple of narrow policy prescriptions.

The bias at this point should be toward trying more things. Will grassroots activism make a difference? EPA regulations? State [Renewable Energy Standards] programs? Utility reform? A national transmission grid? Nuclear loan guarantees? Feed-in tariffs? Smart growth? Who knows.

The size, complexity, and urgency of the problem argue for a strategy built around diversity and resilience: spread out, rack up some small wins, build up networks, and accumulate political power along the way.

Hovering around the margins of the discussion is Roger Pielke Jr.'s "Iron Law of Climate Change," which states that when environmental and economic objectives are placed into opposition, the latter always win out. Levi and Roberts argued that this idea may not be as ironclad as it seems. And according to Levi, major investments in green energy could create the same sort of conflicts.

Ted and Michael's introductory essay says that the [Iron Law] is about "the unwillingness of governments to sacrifice economic growth for global warming", which is what I took issue with. Saying that it actually describes the unwillingness of individuals to "sign up for substantial, open-ended increases in energy prices ... in the name of avoiding uncertain climate impacts decades hence" is quite the shift. I never said that carbon pricing was in the cards; I just said that the "Iron Law" wasn't a strong reason why. And, while I support increased government investment in energy innovation, it's worth noting that it's also far from obvious that that policy will be growth-enhancing. Government spending on energy innovation, particularly without a strong market, may itself violate the Iron Law.

Roberts, meanwhile, attacks the law's rhetorical use.

Stated as an absolute, it's obviously wrong. The public has an illustrious history of supporting, in some cases demanding, policies that are a drag on economic growth. Motivated minorities have secured farm subsidies, trade barriers, regulatory loopholes, and many more policies which impose higher costs on the public in exchange for benefits that are uncertain or, more often, concentrated in a very few hands.

Consider, to take an example, that energy efficiency is currently going for around 4 cents a kwh, while coal electricity is around 10 cents a kwh. By opting for so much coal and so little efficiency, the public appears to be breaking the Law, only in reverse--paying extra, sacrificing economic growth, for environmental disbenefits.

Michael and Ted stick to their guns, though, refocusing the discussion on the technological challenges they see in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Argue all you want about the Iron Law, what should be clear now is that whatever tolerance political economies around the world may have for raising energy prices and slowing economic growth does not begin to approach the levels that would be necessary to price carbon high enough to actually drive substantial emissions reductions or deploy low carbon technologies at any meaningful scale. Fossil fuels are remarkable sources of energy--energy-dense, easily-deployed, well-suited to provide baseload power, and still reasonably abundant in one form or another in most parts of the world. Present day alternatives, by contrast, cost too much and can't effectively serve the demands of modern energy economies.

The near-term prospects for green technology really matter, too. Here in the United States, the key upcoming climate policy decision will be what to do with old coal plants. Over the next decade or so, many plants may be shut down because of environmental concerns and aging, as the Sierra Club's Michael Brune explains:

What's happening here is that many of the pollution costs of burning dirty coal are now being internalized. That is, when utilities are forced to make a decision to either invest in upgrades to minimize a coal plant's pollution or to shut down that plant and invest in cleaner energy resources, it is expected that many utilities and regulators will choose the latter. For example, in a July 2010 report that examined just two federal rules--those governing air toxics such as mercury and another to limit soot and smog--Bernstein Research estimated reductions in coal-fired generation from these two rules of over 10 percent in just the next 4 to 5 years. Industry analysts ICF International estimates more than a 25 percent reduction under "modest regulation" between now and 2015-2016.

What's going to replace the energy services those plants provided? There are a host of alternatives, ranging from building new coal power plants to deploying natural gas or solar. (Or maybe we should just use less energy.) A lot of our e-mail discussion focused on that short-term problem--and opportunity. Levi provides a good starting point.

I'll reinforce a point from my initial essay: the first priority should be to replace retired coal-fired power plants with anything but other traditional coal-fired power plants. Those replacements would either be zero-carbon, which would be great, or natural gas, which would allow them to be easily replaced with zero-carbon sources later. Ideally, the replacements would be renewable, nuclear, or [carbon-capture-and-storage] based, which would provide a platform for zero-carbon technology development and learning.

Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force wasn't so sure that more gas-fired plants would be a good idea.

If a meaningful amount of US coal capacity is to be retired, it is important that we think about policies that will avoid the obvious default replacement--natural gas without CO2 scrubbing. Since half the molecules of CO2 we emit today will be with us several centuries from now, it's highly likely that we need to move the system, over a multi-decade period, to zero emissions if we want a shot at stabilizing CO2 concentrations at manageable levels. Natural gas replacements would chop CO2 in half or more relative to coal, but then that's the end of the drop and the beginning of a plateau. Do we want to create another generation of better-but-still-not-great-for-CO2 incumbent generators defending their turf? It looks like that's where we're headed.

Brune was even more forceful in his take on new power deployments. He derided nuclear power and coal with carbon capture.

Say what you want about nuclear power, but you can't call it cheap. There's a reason why Wall St. is reluctant to finance nukes in the U.S. without loan guarantees. Even if we ignore the persistent problems nuclear power poses regarding mining, radioactive waste, safety and proliferation dangers, the cost to build nuclear plants is high, and rising, compared to other forms of energy.

The same is true for coal gasification and carbon sequestration. One example: the Duke Edwardsport plant that the Sierra Club opposed but others supported will not capture a single molecule of carbon. But the cost to build the plant has doubled, and there is a criminal investigation underway about misdeeds between Duke and the PUC. Is this a good deal for ratepayers? Every billion dollars we invest in nuclear power or so-called "clean coal" is a billion dollars much better invested in energy savings and clean energy. Clean energy will create more jobs, cut air, water, and greenhouse gas pollution, and make our country more competitive. As for costs, just look at the trends: efficiency is cheap and always has been. The cost of new coal plants and nuclear plants is rising, and the cost of solar and wind is dropping. Which side of the equation do we want to get on?

But those cost curves are one of the trickiest bits of climate policy. We know that human behavior can accelerate the development of individual technologies, but it's very hard to know which of those technologies would end up becoming radically cheaper over time. For example, we can assume that the cost of producing solar power will go down in the coming decades. Figuring out how much it will go down (and whether it will become a viable alternative to fossil fuels) is another thing entirely--even small changes in the expected rate of decrease yield vastly different projections for its success.

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