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

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

The certainty of uncertainty, in the political arena, is the only thing of which I am certain. The 2016 presidential election is already a cross between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a full contact spectator sport. If it didn’t have such an impact on the global environment, I might find these theatrics of the absurd entertaining.

I had ended Part II with the start of a discussion on the near-term impact of the U.S. presidential race. Beyond some of the particular differences between the Republican and Democratic nominees I referenced, the jam for the White House is historic for the prominence it is according climate change and the role of renewables. Very much driven, I believe, by Senator Sanders, both candidates and their parties are making more than honorary mention of these subjects—more than President Obama did in either 2008 or 2012. Although approaching them from very different perspectives, millions of Americans are just now discovering the importance and ubiquity of climate and energy.

The Presidency

Those of us who deal with these topics on a daily basis, in what might be termed a more informed or familiar context, often forget that many in the nation have only passing knowledge. How these subjects are cast in the broader constituent context of the elections is going to have an impact much beyond November.

Trump’s pronouncements, that climate change is a hoax, a conspiracy of snobs and a killer of jobs, are going to grow the denier class. For millions of people, Trump’s orange glow is from Diogenes’ lantern.

How the Hillary camp responds also matters. You cannot simply say that the future is no place for coal mines in the same breath as a pronouncement of support for solar, wind and other renewables. Why? Because—juxtaposing the two makes it sound like renewables are the reason that coal miners are losing their jobs.

I could—and will at another time—go on about the renewable community’s need to refine its message. For the moment, accept the fact that the form and factor of the current energy/environment debate is at least as polarizing as it is unifying.

He or she who wins—appoints. There may be no stronger force in terms of political power and influence than appointment of the thousands of major and minor figures charged with the operation of the government. From cabinet secretary to program manager, from advisory committee member to district court judge, the day-to-day business of government is principally plied and affected not by the president but his or her minions. Notwithstanding certain constraints, e.g., judicial neutrality, it is the president’s men and women who set the pace and adjust the direction and means—at least at the federal level—by which the nation makes good on its COP21 commitments.

The 45th president will importantly have the option and authority to craft, maintain, modify or murder new and existing executive orders (EO) like: EO 13693, reducing the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing clean energy consumption; and E.O. 13653 requiring federal agencies to integrate considerations of the effects of global warming into their programs, policies, rules and operations to ensure they keep a pace of climate changes.    

EOs have traditionally provided presidents the opportunity to emphasize and promote their policy priorities beyond or in lieu of Congressional action. They have been absolutely essential to the commercialization of renewables, having been used to promote federal agency purchases of green electricity, efficiency retrofits of federal facilities and offering the private sector important incentives, e.g., bulk purchases and long-term agreements for the provision of sustainable energy products and processes.

The next president has free rein in keeping or cancelling executive orders. Although appointments are made with the consent of the Senate, a newly elected president will be much freer than a lame duck executive in appointing their drunkship of minions.

Depending upon the outcome of the election, the consistency of results, i.e., majority Congressional party, and knowledge of who will be appointed, certainty at the top is not likely to come before the end of Spring 2017—under any election scenario. Add to that the time it will take a new administration to be fleshed out and settled in and even more time will pass. Time is of the essence.

The Congress

All 435 members of the House and 34 members of the Senate will be standing for election in November. Many are considered “safe,” even in this year of turmoil. However, there are a sufficient number of contested seats to change the majority party in either or both chambers.

A Democratic take over will change the leadership of either or both bodies as well as the chairmanship of the committees. The party platforms adopted at the conventions will play an influential role in the work of the 115th Congress. These markers of direction influence the direction of the legislature as much as the office of president.

The presidential race has much to do with the outcome of the Congressional elections. Landslide victories at the top of the ticket are often dressed in coats with long tails. Although voters have been known to implement their own system of checks and balance by splitting their ballots so that a president of one party is checked by opposition majorities in Congress, this is not likely to be a year of offsets.

The extreme nature of this election cycle certainly accounts for the unusual number of down ballot candidates—particularly on the Republican side—who are hedging their attachment to the ticket’s top. Should the executive and legislative branches be won by the same party, the chance of change is great. This is particularly true in the case of super legislative majorities—giving the president a veto proof path to enactment of legislation and executive/judicial appointments.

The Next Installment

If a new President and Congress were not enough to create uncertainty in the direction that the nation will take in support of its COP21 commitments and a clean energy future, there is always impact of election outcomes on the judiciary and the states. Look for a continuation of this discussion and an expression of concern about fissures I see in the energy/environment coalition in the next installment.

Read more in this series:

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

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

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