Challenges for Climate Candidates and Climate Voters

Challenges for Climate Candidates and Climate Voters
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Tonight’s CNN town hall on climate change offer the nation a better opportunity for a serious discussion about the planet’s most daunting challenge than would a presidential “debate” that allowed only hurried responses to questions.

The remaining Democratic contenders agree on a lot. They accept the consensus of scientists that emissions from human activities are warming the planet. They also acknowledge that we are already witnessing the ability of climate change to disrupt life as we have known it, with the future likelihood that things are going to get a lot worse.

With the more generous time allowed in a forum, the candidates will have an opportunity to tell us what they plan to do about the problem in more than short sound bites.

The single most important goal for dealing with climate change is scaling up affordable alternatives to fossil fuels at a pace of technological change unprecedented in human history.

In a time when pessimism is well justified by the slow pace of the world’s governments (and particularly the current U.S. government) in tackling climate change, the ongoing development of cost-effective solar and wind power provides hope for doing much better in the coming decades. A big dent in the climate problem can come from accelerating the penetration of these renewable resources, combined with the rapid electrification of the transportation sector.

To elevate the political discussion about optimal climate strategies, all candidates and voters who believe climate is a priority should read Gregory Nemet’s How Solar Energy Became Cheap. This new book can be a bit ponderous. But the research is thorough, and its wide-ranging connecting of the dots helps provide clear answers to the title question.

First, Nemet demonstrates that the progress made in making photovoltaic (solar) cells competitive in energy markets has depended on international sharing of knowledge and supply chains. At various times, the United States, Japan, Germany, Australia, and China have made valuable contributions to making solar energy cheap, but none has done so in a sustained way over a long period of time. Fortunately, learning migrated across international borders. The collective result of these piece-meal efforts has been the (albeit unnecessarily slow) development of a technology that can provide substantial amounts of carbon-free energy at prices we can afford.

Second, the University of Wisconsin professor shows the important roles of both governments and private corporations. Government can take a longer view than business. It can fund (in the early days with the help of the old Bell Labs) basic research that doesn’t have quick paybacks; it can provide incentives or requirements to get new technologies into markets; and it can accelerate the learning curve essential to technological progress. Companies, big and small, can then run with the ball, competing to find additional ways to increase efficiency and reduce the costs of once exotic suppliers of energy like wind and solar.

If Nemet is right (and I think he is), we should be wary of candidates who base their campaigns on bashing international trade and big corporations. Slowing climate change requires the world’s nations to progress somewhat in tandem, and international trade contributes to that.

Candidates should also note that many major corporations have, at times, displayed more responsible behavior on climate than has the U.S. government. Witness the recent move by Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, and BMW to defy Washington on mileage efficiency standards. Some of this may be “green washing,” and we certainly need aggressive government regulation and tax policy. But, if we are going to achieve results on climate, many major corporations will have to (and can be) be allies, not foes.

Climate activists are right to raise issues of equity as we search for the best ways to slow global warming. Taxes or regulations that raise energy prices have a regressive effect that penalizes people with low incomes, so this unintended consequence should be offset by per capita rebates.

On the whole, good climate policy will have positive impacts on those with low incomes. Around the world, the poor have less ability to adapt to rising sea levels, arid soils, and other impacts of a changing climate. In this country, dirty energy production is often located where poor neighbors have limited ability to resist.

Thus, protecting the atmosphere by moving to a clean energy future does not need to be paired with a socialist agenda to provide benefits across all income levels.

The scheduling of the climate forums suggests a seriousness about the issue that was not evident in 2016, when the televised debates did not provide much opportunity to have an enlightened discussion about the climate options available. During the primaries, television networks raised the climate issue but focused on aspects that were most likely to provoke a fight rather than those that would have the greatest impact on the actual accumulation of greenhouse gases.

In the fall of 2016, debate moderators (with the exception of Chris Wallace at Fox News) did not see climate policy as a significant differentiator between the major party nominees. Nor did some climate activists who made the Green Party’s Jill Stein their top choice. For television, Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s crude comments to Billy Bush seemed to have greater consequence for the planet than climate change. Perhaps this year we will see substantial improvements in the quality of the dialogue.

Voters in this cycle can watch town halls, visit candidate web sites, study the climate plans, and ask whether candidates: 

·      Identify policies and technologies that have already achieved some success (e.g. mileage efficiency standards and state-level renewable portfolio standards) and suggest ways to make them work better and faster. Recognizing that we are not starting from scratch would help them implement major parts of their programs right away (without an autocratic use of emergency powers that are legally suspect).

  • Recognize that carbon dioxide is a global pollutant that remains in the atmosphere for over a century and requires more than reviving old tactics that have worked for other environmental challenges.
  • Avoid the trap of demanding that climate policy solve all of our nation’s ills.
  • Understand that solutions must be in international and that this requires a lot more than just rejoining the Paris climate agreement.

The candidates tonight should lay out the steps of how they can achieve their ambitious goals. They need to show us that they understand the science, the needed technologies and the politics of the climate challenge.

Jay Hakes is the author of A Declaration of Energy Independence and is currently working on a book about the history of the climate debate in America.

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