Maybe it’s time to stop talking about climate change.
And to stop pushing for comprehensive “climate policy.”
That’s what New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, did last week when he gave $50 million to the Sierra Club to fight coal plants. Coal plants should be shuttered, he said, because they endanger public health, pollute the air, deposit mercury in lakes and contribute to asthma. “This is not about the future,” he said, “This is about today.” [See my blogpost, Mike Bloomberg takes on coal.]
Now here comes a group of international scholars and analysts, known as the Hartwell Group, with a new report called Climate Pragmatism, [PDF, download] which argues that the best way to enact policies around climate change is to talk less about climate and more about curbing air pollution and promoting clean energy innovation.
Telling people to study climate science and make sacrifices–in effect, what Al Gore has tried valiantly to do–hasn’t worked and won’t, the report says.
Nor will the argument that we need to “save the planet” for future generations.
The report says:
The old climate framework failed because it would have imposed substantial costs associated with climate mitigation policies on developed nations today in exchange for climate benefits far off in time–benefits who attributes, magnitude, timing and distribution are not knowable with certainty.
The new framework now emerging will succeed to the degree that it prioritizes agreements that promise near-term economic, geopolitical and environmental benefits to economies around the world, while simultaneously reducing climate forcings, developing clean and affordable energy technologies, and improving societal resistance to climate impacts.
I called Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, to talk about the report. He’s one of a diverse group of 14 co-authors; the others include environmental scientist and author Roger Pielke, Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, academics Gwyn Pryns and Steve Rayner, and Steven Hayward of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
One of their goals, Michael told me, is to find policies that can win bipartisan support.
“When I started working on the environment,” he said, “it was one the issue that had strong bipartisan consensus—from Nixon to the first President Bush. It’s now become one of the most polarizing issues, right up there with abortion and gun rights.”
“Climate science is not going to bring us together,” he went on. “The conversation about solutions, and what he have to do has always been more popular than why we have to do it.”
So the report focuses on three goals that are or could be broadly popular. They are energy innovation, “no regrets” pollution reduction and resilience to extreme weather.
People support clean energy innovation, the report notes, for many reasons. Some are concerned by the entanglements created by America’s dependence on oil. Others worry about America’s ability to compete in growing global markets for solar and wind power. Still other see distributed solar or wind as a way to get cheap, clean energy to poor people in the global south.
Interestingly, the report notes that the only two countries to have significantly decarbonized their energy sectors in recent decades–Sweden and France–did so in response to oil shocks, not energy fears. It calls for small surcharges on electricity, or gasoline or oil use, or even a small carbon tax to support research and development of clean energy.
“Put simply, we must make clean energy cheap,” it says.
Further curbing air pollution, meanwhile, will provide public health benefits that are immediate, well known and popular across the political spectrum (if not with the regulated industries):
Whatever one’s view of climate change, most Americans and most nations can agree that reducing pollution at modest or no cost to the economy is the definition of “no
regrets” action. If many of these efforts also offer near-term climate mitigation benefits, so much the better.
More broadly, the report argues that environmentalists and their political allies should give up, for now, on a comprehensive international climate treaty–the Kyoto-UN-Copenhagen process of the past two decades–and instead pursue multiple pathways.
None of these arguments are exactly new, as Shellenberger admits. This report is an updated, Americanized version of an analysis called The Hartwell Paper, in which a group of international scholars (some of whom also worked on this report) argued that decarbonisation can best be achieved “as a by-product of pursuing more pragmatic and popular primary goals, including expanding energy access, energy security and, ultimately, making energy less expensive and more abundant.” In his 2011 State of the Union speech, President Obama talked about “clean energy” but never said the words “climate change.” And, even during the cap-and-trade wars, messaging from environmental groups focused on “green jobs” and competitiveness and not on rising sea levels and melting ice caps.
None of it has got us even starting down the road we need to travel.
Having said that, I truly hope Shellenberger and the authors of Climate Pragmatism are right, and that politicians on both sides of the aisle can find a way to support energy innovation, energy access for the poor and pollution controls.
I’m skeptical, however. This week, House Republicans are pushing legislation to curb the EPA’s power to enforce environmental laws–an effort that the Environmental Defense Fund calls “one of the worst anti-environmental bills ever.” What groups like Breakthrough described as “innovation policy” remains unpopular with conservatives who prefer to call it “industrial policy” or “picking winners and losers.”
More than that, I’m not persuaded that we should talk less about the climate–because we really haven’t began to have an honest debate about global warming.
If U.S. president has gone on television to deliver a speech about climate change, armed with charts or graphs or TED-like videos, I missed it.
If politicians or environmentalists tried to persuade voters to pay a few more cents for electricity or gasoline so that we can reduce the risks of climate instability, they didn’t try very hard. The exception, of course, is Al Gore–not Al Gore the presidential candidate or vice president, but Al Gore the filmmaker and late-in-life activist.
It leads me to wonder whether the authors of this report have the problem exactly backward.
Maybe it’s time to start talking about climate change.