The Agenda

Brief Thoughts on the Politics of Climate Policy

My latest Reuters Opinion column is on climate policy. I rather awkwardly shoehorned a political observation at the very end, so now I’ll riff on the subject a bit more broadly.

Basically, there seems to be very little political percentage in crafting a GOP climate policy that can counter the Democratic emphasis on on cap-and-trade programs and industrial policy, at least not right now. While four-in-ten Democrats and three-in-ten independents believe that climate change ought to be a top priority, only 13 percent of Republicans feel the same way. Only 44 percent of Republicans believe that there is solid evidence of global warming, and only 19 percent believe that warming can be attributed to human activity. But in 2016 there will be several candidates competing for the 50 percent of GOP voters who reject the notion that there is solid evidence of global warming, which suggests that candidates who are willing to entertain the idea will have a better shot at the other 44 percent. And in a general election, climate policy might offer a Republican presidential nominee a way to appeal to centrist voters. The challenge is wooing centrists without alienating conservatives and voters residing in coal-dependent, hydrocarbon-producing states.

The most obvious way to thread this needle is to call for the reform of U.S. energy innovation policy, along the lines of the “Putting Energy Innovation First” strategy I briefly reference in this week’s column. Rather than call for a big increase in spending on energy innovation research, the report calls better allocating existing resources by restructuring the U.S. Department of Energy. The idea is modest, yet well-conceived. Though not incompatible with a carbon pricing effort, it represents an alternative strategy. Successful cap-and-trade programs (CTPs) of the past share a few defining qualities: they address pollutants that are released in fairly centralized fashion, and the technologies needed to curb emissions are widely available. While it is true that we have the technological means to curb carbon emissions, we don’t have the means to curb carbon emissions without substantially changing how we organize our society in ways that will tend to also curb consumption and mobility. This is why energy innovation, and specifically devising cheaper-than-coal energy technologies, is so important: energy poverty remains an enormous problem, and so we have to find a way to both increase energy consumption while also reducing reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources. Carbon pricing can help encourage the adoption of low-emissions technologies and reduce the amount of driving, etc., yet politically realistic carbon taxes are unlikely to have a dramatic effect. Politically unrealistic carbon taxes, meanwhile, will tend to shift carbon-intensive activities to jurisdictions that don’t impose them. Cheaper-than-coal technologies, in contrast, will spread organically, and quickly. So if energy innovation reform increases the likelihood of achieving energy breakthroughs, I think it makes sense to prioritize it above carbon taxation or CTPs, both as a political and as a substantive matter. And again, energy innovation reform is not at all incompatible with a carbon tax that is pursued primarily as a revenue source — but you can see why it’s an easier political sell.


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