The Climate Next panelists debate new strategies for curbing global warming.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
Nov. 18 2010 7:38 AM

What to Do Next

The Climate Next panelists debate new strategies for curbing global warming.

Read the rest of the Climate Next project, starting with the introduction.

Coal plant.
A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia

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.

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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.