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Understanding the Politics of Climate Change in the United States

Posted by Olive Heffernan on behalf of Roger Pielke Jnr.

Writing last week in The American Prospect, Peter Teague and Jeff Navin explain the complexities of U.S. public opinion on climate change and its implication for climate politics and policy:

Americans’ anxiety over rising energy costs is a serious challenge to anyone seeking a solution to global warming. The anxiety is real, and the vast majority of Americans perceive these costs as causing financial hardship for their families. Proposals that raise energy prices risk triggering populist anger; Americans uniformly reject government efforts to increase the cost of gasoline or electricity as a way of encouraging certain kinds of behaviors.

Nobody disagrees that regulatory strategies alone will raise energy costs. And raising the price of carbon high enough to have a real effect on global warming — by cutting emissions and by providing sufficient motivation for industry to invest in new technologies — will raise energy costs significantly. . .

With a regulatory-only approach, we will end with a debate between environmentalists arguing about the cost of global warming, and industry economists telling Americans how much more they’ll pay for everything from electricity to gasoline to consumer products. And they’ll argue that these higher prices will result in job losses.

Policy makers are aware of this challenge and have added provisions to their regulatory bills that are aimed at easing voters’ fears. There are proposals for tax rebates and offsets and even the creation of a “”http://www.pewclimate.org/policy_center/analyses/s_1151_summary.cfm">Climate Change Credit Corporation" to help voters with the anticipated increase in consumer energy costs. The trouble is that the bills either provide tiny amounts to authorize studies of the problem, or they remain silent about how much help voters can expect. It’s important to remember that the proponents of [the failed California] Prop. 87 made a well-supported case that the initiative wouldn’t raise energy costs at all. Its defeat demonstrates that it’s going to take more than good intentions about global warming and vaguely-worded proposals to convince voters


Teague and Navin advocate an approach focused on large-scale public investment in technological innovation (and one that I personally support):

The kinds of large-scale, long-term investments that were instrumental in producing the Internet, the interstate highway system, and the biotech revolution came from government, and for a reason: Private capital won’t stay in the game long enough, and the benefits of private investment are likely to be largely private. On the other hand, broadly shared costs have led to broadly shared benefits, and that’s a recipe for strategies that can be maintained over time, politically and financially. Fortunately, the investments that are likely to speed the development of the right mix of new technologies, create a hundred-year’s-worth of good jobs retrofitting our infrastructure, and take current technologies to commercial scale are also the key to a successful, long-term political strategy.

But mention of the “T” word – technology – in climate debate can itself be politically dangerous as it is also frequently invoked by the Bush Administration as its favourite approach (but at nowhere near the investment level recommended by Teague and Navin). Consequently, many on the U.S. political left are simply unwilling to say anything positive about any policy that has any remote connection to the preferences of the current administration, so technology is left out of the discussion. This might help to explain why Teague and Navin have observed little support for innovation among environmentalists (and stay away from the word “technology” altogether):

Strangely, environmentalists are more quiet on the need for investment, preferring to argue that regulation will drive innovation, which will in turn create jobs and economic opportunity. To the extent that public investment in innovation is mentioned (a survey of environmental web sites and public statements found little on the subject), it seems to be regarded as a hoped-for by-product of the regulatory scheme rather than its core intention. But with a narrow focus on regulation, environmentalists and liberals risk alienating poor and working people with a discredited reliance on the magic of markets — albeit regulated markets — to give us the solutions we need.

Looking to past successes in global environmental policy, experience in the regulation of both ozone depletion and acid rain indicates that regulation must be accompanied by, and indeed can be driven by, an innovation agenda, exactly as Teague and Navin propose.

So far, reactions to their proposals have been cautiously supportive (e.g., at Gristmill). Teague and Navin are exactly right when they observe that “Good policy is therefore inseparable from good politics” – but the overarching problem is that which makes for “good politics” among those most motivated to advocate for action on climate change so far are not the same “good politics” for the country as a whole. It is a bit like the need for a presidential candidate trying to survive both the party primaries and the general elections. And as with presidential elections, reaching good outcomes on energy policies will depend upon effective leadership willing to lead their base of support rather than follow. On the climate issue, Teague and Navin illustrate that good ideas are available, but is there leadership willing to take them on?

Roger Pielke Jnr.

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    Eli Rabett said:

    A good analysis of the role that technology can play, but historically naive. We know that technology is only weakly driven by government investment (which unless you want to raise taxes or the deficit can’t put enough in) but by policy incentives such as was the case with the clean air standards. In that case (which was not the case with CAFE) there were real incentives to improve efficiency for everyone and it was only when industry figured out it was cheaper to invest in lobbying than progress that progress stopped.

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    Vectorpedia(Rick) said:

    Both political parties should take a responsible position in favor of clean air standards and global warming……shame on these guys for playing politics on such a serious issue. If we don’t act soon it may be too late to save this beautiful earth.

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