Baseload, Bioenergy, Geothermal, Hydropower, Solar, Wind Power

Part II: Are You Ready for Some Paranoid? Insights into Policy, Politics and COP21 Climate Goals

The global climate is not the only environment suffering from an abundance of hot air and inclemency. Consider the political/policy climate in the U.S., e.g., November elections, and abroad, e.g., Brexit, and the near-term impact of these socio-economic factors on national and international efforts to sufficiently slow the rate of climate change. As we ponder these events, we must remember that time is of the essence! Delayed implementation of emission reduction targets of even a few years can have an outsized negative impact upon the rate of warming.

There is a need both to speed up emission reductions and to factor in the most recent scientific evidence suggesting that Earth is tumbling towards 2°C faster than was thought by the COP21 delegates. It is increasingly suggested that if more ambitious targets are not soon set, the world will be facing the prospect of a 4 or more degree Celsius rise in temperatures by the end of the century. A prospect that, by all accounts, poses a climate catastrophe.

Complacency, therefore, is not an option. Contentment prompted by the positives will result in the failure to overcome the consequences of the negative, in a timely enough manner.

Why the Focus on Government?

The only way forward likely to avoid crossing the climate Rubicon is through more consistent, stable and, above all, coordinated public/private action. Collaborative action of the required magnitude, however, is proving nearly impossible to achieve in the face of current uncertainty in the public sector.

Today’s inconvenient truth is that despite the great strides taken by the private sector and the promise and likelihood of even greater steps to come, the private sector cannot do it on its own. Absent enlightened political leadership and enactment of stable public policies, keeping global warming within acceptable bounds becomes more problematic. Collaborative executive and legislative branch action is essential for weaving the policies, programs, laws and regulations into the fabric of society.

We have been fortunate that compensatory leadership by various actors and in various measures has succeeded sufficiently in the past to assure that the whole cloth arguments of deniers have not prevailed. In the shadow of federal gridlock in the U.S., for example, states have taken up the cudgel, e.g., through portfolio and net metering standards.

As public funds have stagnated, diminished or simply proven inadequate to the task, private industry and philanthropic institutions have stepped in to compensate partially for these shortfalls. Compensatory leadership, however, must now give way to more stable, integrated and coordinated action by stakeholder institutions and organizations.

Conflicting Circles

I am increasingly concerned by the signs. Rather than concentric spheres of action, I believe we are confronted by conflicting circles of perspective and approach. Often hidden by reports of the rapid growth of renewables and efficiency and news of the coming together of nations in support of international agreements, is simmering evidence of delays in implementation, e.g., the potentially toxic mixing of mandates, and all-of-the-above scenarios supporting natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future.             

To maximally leverage private investments in renewable energy and sustainable practices requires a public policy framework within which dollars can be confidently committed and routinely combined with public funds; a framework as free of uncertainty and conflict as is reasonably possible. The lack of certainty and the presence of conflict diffuses and delays taking the steps needed to limit warming beyond the critical threshold—whether that be 1.5 or 2°C degrees.

The first stage of resolution is identifying key areas of concern. The remainder of this article and the bulk of Part Three will focus on some of the major conflict uncertainties I see as potential potholes on the path forward in the U.S. I will leave identification of similar uncertainties in Europe, Asia and other parts of the world for another time.

The Federal Political Environment

The big elephant—or donkey—on the porch in 2016 is unquestionably the pending presidential election. In an election year already defying the pundits, it is anyone’s guess who will emerge in November as the 45th president of the United States. The mere fact of a change in administration—even without a change of parties—carries with it uncertainty. This year, however, could be cataclysmic. The Republican candidate has made no bones about his view of climate change, labelling global warming a “hoax” perpetrated by self-serving elites; his presumptive choice of Energy Secretary is the oil and gas man Harold Hamm.

Whether or not Trump wins, the party has made clear its intention to undo existing executive orders, regulations and laws supporting sustainable energy sources and in anyway curtailing fossil fuels—particularly coal.

The GOP platform calls coal “clean,” pledges to reverse a Supreme Court ruling on the scope of the Clean Air Act, seeks to open vast amounts of federally protected public lands and waters to oil, gas and coal exploitation, rejects the Paris…accord and Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and opposes a carbon tax. (Steven Mufson, Washington Post, July 19, 2016)

It may reasonably be assumed that Republican leadership will be expecting members to walk this plank throughout the 115th Congress, beginning in January 2017.

A Clinton victory would clearly bode better—both in relative and absolute terms—for maintaining and possibly increasing the national rate of response to the climate challenge. A Clinton administration would undoubtedly keep in place existing executive orders, honor the nation’s commitment to reduce emissions in accord with the Paris agreement, fund federal energy and environmental programs and utilize the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate on behalf of clean air, water and power.

However, it is arguable—if not entirely clear—that a President Clinton would not go nearly as far as her Democratic primary opponent in fighting for a carbon tax and limiting natural gas reliance. Although unlikely to reverse the current course on limiting coal, Clinton has walked back her position on coal at least while running for office.

Secretary Clinton’s promise to open federal lands is already creating a division between the renewables industry and the environmental community. Look for insights into the growing rifts in the collegiality of renewable energy advocates and environmentalists and such other concerns as recent judicial decisions and the impacts of the election on Congress and the states in Part Three.

Read more in this series:

Part I: It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over — A COP21 Reality Check

Part III: The Certainty of Uncertainty: Energy, Environment and the US Presidential Race

Part IV: Ranks and Hackles—COP21 and Judicial Review of the Clean Power Plan

Part V: Dissociative State Disorders—The Direction of US Policies and Programs for Clean Energy

Part VI: The End Is Nigh — Advocacy, Climate Change and Renewables Growth

Lead image credit: WeMeanBusiness | Flickr