As the charred remains of the climate bill still smolder on the floor of the Senate Chamber, environmentalists are littering the blogosphere with accounts of the disaster. Some are poking through the wreckage like forensic political scientists, others have taken to moaning and wailing with all the dedication of professional mourners, still others are shaking their fist at the heavens of the Capital dome like Job and crying “why, why? We’re virtuous, our cause is just. We did what you asked. We made nice with corporations, gave out cushy subsidies and concessions and still you forsake us?”
There is also no shortage of opinions on how to proceed from here, assuming of course, you’re of the opinion an energy policy is a good thing; a premise not to be taken for granted in Washington D.C. So with that in mind I thought I’d join the cacophony of ‘experts’ and suggest my own ideas for moving forward.
In no particular order of importance, feasibility or efficacy…
1. Use What You Got
Most people aren’t aware of it but there are 28 states already involved in some kind of climate/carbon control pact. These are the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Accord and the Western Climate Initiative. Granted only the first is fully functioning but the others are important if only for a couple of small reasons. They are voluntary; the states joined willingly and are cooperating in devising the rules and regulations they will live by. Second, they codify the existence of climate change. No more debating whether or not it is real, when you’ve joined a greenhouse gas accord you kind of tacitly acknowledge there’s such a thing as greenhouse gases.
With that in mind, if federal politics is an impediment rather than a facilitator, then it seems sensible to avoid the impediment. States already have the framework in place. They have had the debates, developed the network of relationships between stakeholders and made the necessary compromises for implementation. Instead of long, acrimonious, and potentially futile, federal action, simply empower and encourage existing regional plans, create strong incentives for other states to join or create their own plans, and develop a long-term strategy for consolidation. Each of the existing climate programs has allowed each state to establish its own particular rules and regulations as long as they conform within certain systemic parameters.
This strategy may work for several reasons. One is that the Republican party has a tradition of, at least rhetorically, championing states’ rights. Conversely, Democrats have the reputation of facilitating the spread of ‘big government.’ By modifying and extending an existing state program, Republicans can claim ideological and political heterodoxy while Democrats can plausibly deny that they created a new federal program but merely encouraged the growth and consolidation of one created by, and entered into voluntarily, by states.
The key, given the hyperbolic and vitriolic nature of federal politics, is, whenever possible, to keep debates local and provoke individual states to have their own local debates regarding entering the program, just as they do now. The federal government could install a set of incentives and penalties to influence states’ willingness to enter the system but still allow state governments the final decision. There is a wide variety of programs that use federal monies to entice (bribe) states to participate. These grants-in-aid have been used to further uniformity in civil rights, education and environmental regulations, even Medicare. They also tend to be a far less controversial method of federal coercion than direct legislation. Since there are abundant federal funds flowing towards states for the purposes of developing clean energy, why not tie this money to participation in a regional climate program?
2. Everyone Loves Sequels
It doesn’t receive much publicity, mainly because education policy just doesn’t have sex appeal, but the country is in the midst of something called the Race to the Top. This is an Obama administration program that offers a $4.35 billion dollar carrot to states as a way to instigate education reform. It’s controversial for reasons that don’t need to be delved into here, and some states have chosen not to bother, but many states have instituted a spate of efforts raise achievement levels in public schools. I love this idea; it’s like Cannonball Run for public policy. Much like an execution, hundreds of millions of federal dollars have a way of concentrating the collective minds of state legislators. It was also a sufficient bribe to defy entrenched interests, in this case the teachers unions.
So why not do the same for energy policy? First we make a goal and a timetable. How about a Renewable Portfolio Standard? Thirty states have one; perhaps this can get the other 20 to join them. Each state has a different target but for purposes of debate let’s say we make it 20% renewable by 2020 – 20 For 20, catchy isn’t it? We can call it Race to the Top II and like all derivative sequels it has to be bigger. Four billion and change is far too limp a carrot (coal and oil companies are most certainly not teachers’ unions) and, given the large capital costs necessary, insufficient for the purposes of infrastructure alteration.
What the optimal number is, I’ll leave to policy wonks to determine. The beauty in the plan is that there’s nothing to debate. The whole thing could fit on a cocktail napkin. There’s no need for amendments, no fulminating over special interests or big government, no arcane parliamentary procedures, just a sack of money. Not enough to start a fiscal responsibility battle, just enough to get the states’ attention. A states’ rights, small government, local control pot o’ gold.
3. The Waxman-Markey Abridged Version
The American Clean Energy & Security Act of 2009 submitted by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey shocked almost everyone when it passed the House and probably would have passed the Senate as well, that is, if the Senate actually voted on things. At close to 1,000 pages the over/under on the number of Senators who read it was 4.5 but ignorance has never impeded the development of senatorial opinions and so here we are. Although, at that length, who could really blame them? Legend has it the bill was two pages before the lobbyists and lawyers got a hold of it. Despite their participation, there are still parts of the bill worthy of consideration. The bill was divided into four ‘titles:’ Clean Energy, Energy Efficiency, Reducing Global Warming Pollution and Transitioning to a Clean Energy Economy.
First of all boys, you don’t need Don Draper to know you shouldn’t stick ‘Global Warming’ in the title and expect it to pass. This bill was dead as soon as the ink set on that phrase. This was the section with cap and trade. I say, let’s scrap it. There goes 350+ pages. There goes million dollar campaigns of misinformation, ideological bloodletting and interminable political posturing. There goes the main reason why the entire bill went nowhere.
Why not just tackle the Energy Efficiency section? At 150+ pages it might actually get read and understood by…I dunno, say half, the U.S. Senate. This section alone would be considered a significant piece of legislation, creating new efficiency standards for buildings, lighting and appliances, as well as fuel standards for heavy vehicles. In the grand scheme of climate change, this may seem paltry and environmentalist would be justified in claiming it to be woefully insufficient given the scope of the crisis. However, it is also possible it would get passed whereas anything coming close to addressing the scope of the crisis has zero, let me repeat ZERO, chance of being enacted. Something is better than nothing.
Are any of the above suggestions a cure-all for climate change? Of course not but ‘something is better than nothing’ is essentially sums up American democracy. This isn’t just an unfortunate outgrowth of our hyper-partisan, obstructionist era, it is how the system was designed. So instead of gnashing one’s teeth at the inanity of it all, craft something that can survive the political process, make a difference and actually become a law.
David Pierotti is a proposal writer at Harvest Power. The company develops, builds, owns and operates next-generation organics recycling facilities that harvest the renewable energy, nutrients, and organic matter from discarded organic materials using best-in-class technologies for composting, anaerobic digestion, and biomass gasification.
For a different perspective on the nuts and bolts of federal renewable energy policy, watch the interview with Dan Adamson of the Solar Energy Industries Association below.