America 2021: What Next on Climate?
The effort to address climate change stumbled with the failure to pass cap-and-trade. What should happen now? Five experts discuss the future of U.S. climate and energy policy.
Aldy: Michael, you mentioned 1981, 1991, and 2001. There is a common theme across all three of those years: We had very high oil prices in 1981, in 1991 we had just fought a war after Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and in 2001 we had 9/11, after which people started to associate the potential risk of financing terrorism with our oil consumption. We’ve had all these opportunities to have a serious debate about the tough choices we have to make when it comes to energy, and we haven’t succeeded in doing that with the public.
We could even look more recently: Oil went up to $147 per barrel and we didn’t fully take advantage of that in 2008. We had a massive oil spill last year that seems to have already moved off of everybody’s radar. When it comes to nuclear we may have an opportunity in the context of Japan to talk about it. But it would be nice if we could actually have a very serious conversation about the opportunities but also the compromises we have to make as a nation when it comes to energy. We can’t have it all and have it on the cheap, which is too often what comes out of the political dialogue.
Shultz: You know what I wish we had done differently on climate change? I wish those campaign finance people had cut those deals in Congress!
Walsh: A progressive journal might not be the best place to ask this, but what happened to the Republican Party? Manik very astutely pointed out that most of our major environmental legislation has come with a Republican in charge. It seems that the party has almost completely decided to turn its back on climate science.
Roy: The dynamic has been that a Republican president runs into trouble on something. With Nixon it was on the Vietnam War, so Nixon decided to lead on the environment. Reagan was actually in trouble on the environment. Remember Anne Gorsuch, Reagan’s first EPA administrator, and James Watt, Reagan’s first secretary of the interior? They were openly hostile to environmental protection. Moderate Republicans and George H.W. Bush then tried to distance themselves from Reagan’s anti-environmental reputation, and as a result we got some very tough reauthorizations of our hazardous waste management and cleanup laws, and a toxic chemical right-to-know law, all enacted under Reagan, and a tough reauthorization of the Clean Air Act under the first George Bush.
Under the second George Bush, before 9/11, you were actually seeing his poll numbers go down, and we were winning climate votes on the floor of both houses. We had John McCain, Bush’s primary opponent, and Joe Lieberman, who had been the Democratic vice presidential candidate, saying they’re going to do a cap-and-trade bill, right on the eve of 9/11. Then 9/11 came along and Bush managed to make himself more or less invincible until the day after the 2004 election when things started going sour for him again.
It wasn’t necessarily that presidents said, “I love the environment.” It’s that having them there and creating the impression, sometimes deserved, sometimes not, that they were anti-environment gave an imperative and space to politicians like Rhode Island’s John Chafee, Vermont’s Robert Stafford, and McCain—who really was a tremendous leader on climate change.
Walsh: Of course, they were all moderate Republicans. Do you still find them out there?
Roy: They’re in the closet but they’re still there. It’s interesting to look at Representative Fred Upton. Before he decided to run for chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he was actually a very thoughtful moderate. But now the Republican members are more worried about their primaries than they are their general elections.
Elbert Ventura: Now that you’ve brought it back to the current political moment, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the President’s proposal for a clean energy standard (CES), which calls for 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from clean energy sources—renewables like wind and solar, but also other sources like nuclear, natural gas, and “clean coal”—by 2035.
Arroyo: The moniker of “clean energy standard,” as opposed to renewable energy standard, allows for nuclear and coal with capture and sequestration (CCS), or “clean coal.” Nuclear just became a lot harder, given what’s happening in Japan, and should have been hard anyway in some respects, with regard to its waste-disposal issues. Having said that, nuclear provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity, and we’ve got to figure out what to do with the ones that we have, and whether or not the Japan disaster gets worse will have implications for whether that number can grow over time.
Natural gas has its own issues, obviously. Hydraulic fracking, the process increasingly used to extract it, is contaminating drinking water, and it’s starting to scare people. The best thing that the industry can do is get its own house in order, step up, be more transparent, and ask for some sensible regulation, because otherwise we might really lose the ability to use natural gas as an important transition fuel for a low-carbon future.
Shultz: I would say one of the key factors in a CES is: Does it actually increase the use of renewable energy? Or is it a way to more or less codify what we have now?
In terms of nuclear power, industry needs to get its house in order too, even to stay where we are at 20 percent of our energy mix. As for natural gas, in addition to some of the drinking water issues, there are upstream water issues. I agree it’s absolutely critical as a transition energy source. I guess the question is: Does it really need the government incentives? At some level, natural gas is doing pretty well and will probably continue to do pretty well in the near future, so it probably doesn’t need the incentives it would get in a CES.
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