Clean Energy as De Facto Climate Change Policy

This summer, high temperatures, drought and Bill McKibben have brought climate change back into the public consciousness and our collective conversations about the weather. Yet it’s unlikely that the United States is going to actively do anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the near term. Policymakers are more likely to use indirect pathways to reduce emissions ; in fact, you could say that the United States' climate change policy is to support clean energy research and development while allowing individual states to pursue their own clean energy policies.

How did we get here? Despite a lack of carbon pricing in the US, David Leonhardt notes that cleaner energy has gotten cheaper and is making a bigger contribution to the country’s energy mix:

The successes make it possible at least to fathom a transition to clean energy that does not involve putting a price on carbon — either through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program that requires licenses for emissions. It was exactly such a program, supported by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign, that died in Congress in 2010 and is now opposed by almost all Congressional Republicans and some coal-state and oil-state Democrats.

To describe the two approaches is to underline their political differences. A cap-and-trade program sets out to make the energy we use more expensive. An investment program aims to make alternative energy less expensive.

Investments and technological advancements also seem much more likely to become policy due to the underling ideologies of policymakers.Beth Gardiner looked at several recent studies in the emerging field of climate psychology. According to studies by Dan M. Kahan, a Yale Law School professor, responses to proposed climate change policies are based on individuals' political ideologies and the way they process information. To people with a more individualist worldview (typically, those who tend to lean to the political right), policies to address climate change that involve restrictions or price increases may make them more willing to dismiss the risks of climate change. Those with a more communitarian perspective (who tend to lean to the political left) are, in general, more skeptical of industry and receptive to increased regulations. If Kahan’s research is correct, the implication of a right-leaning Congress is that it may not be politically feasible to pursue policy based on regulatory reform anyway.

Gardiner mentions a study suggesting that framing policy options in a more technological manner will lead those with individualist views to be more receptive to policy methods based in climate science. To overcome existing prejudices about climate science, a more psychological approach may be required to move forward with techo-fixes rather than implementing carbon pricing policies.

Besides, getting everyone on the same page on climate science and policy – as we've already seen – will take some time. In the interim, Leonhardt alludes to a role for policy targeted at research and development that could potentially lead to breakthrough or disruptive technology; something like the energy equivalent of the Internet. He points to a study by a “politically diverse group of experts” that calls for “$25 billion a year in federal spending on research and development”—a budget about the size of the National Institutes of Health.

Disruptive technology could be a game changer to reduce carbon emissions, but individual states are taking the lead when it comes to ‘on-the-ground' energy policy. Over half of the states in the US have some form of a renewable energy standard that requires the state’s energy portfolio to include a specific percentage of renewable energy by a certain date. State net metering and interconnection policies encourage distributed energy technologies like solar panels (check out the new Freeing the Grid website to see if your state makes the grade with these policies). Some states set energy efficiency targets as well.

As we see, a lack of official national climate change policy may not hinder greenhouse gas emissions reductions. A serious commitment to the strongest possible clean energy policies and greater research and development in clean and efficient technologies could pave the way for emissions reductions. Sure, it’s not a comprehensive climate change policy, but given this year’s heat and drought, it’s not as bad as just sitting in the air conditioning wishing the temperature would drop.