For the last time: no, clean energy is not a substitute for climate change
I was going to let this go after my last post, but it keeps coming up in email and on Twitter: “Obama talked about clean energy. Isn’t that the same as talking about climate change?” Add to that the characteristically smug posts from Innoventioneers congratulating themselves on winning the future, and it looks like I need to take one more run at this.
The basic argument I’m hearing is this: Climate change is controversial and divisive, whereas clean energy is popular. We can get to the same policy goal by taking a smoother political path. DOE Secretary Steven Chu sums it up when he says clean energy — unlike climate change — is a “nonpartisan issue.” That’s the basic pitch of the Innovationeers and it certainly seems to have influenced the administration.
The problem is, it’s wrong. Not only that, it’s pretty obviously wrong. So much so that with everyone repeating it I’m starting to feel like I’m in a Twilight Zone episode.
The fact is, if you put climate change aside, arguments in favor of government support for clean energy are fairly conventional liberal arguments, supported by liberals, mildly opposed by neoliberals, and passionately opposed by conservatives. The only way that well-worn partisan division can be transcended is through reference to climate change.
Let’s step back a minute. What is the justification for policies and public spending to boost the clean energy sector (putting climate aside)?
One answer is that there’s going to be a huge global market for clean energy in the 21st century, which will create lots and lots of jobs. If America wants to compete in that market and claim some of those jobs — i.e., “win” the clean energy “race” — it needs to act now to spur innovation and deployment. In doing so, it can bring down the costs of clean energy and further expand the market.
Sounds great. To people like me, anyway. But consider: that’s not a new set of policy proposals. It’s not a paradigm shift. It’s just industrial policy. (The Innovationeers like to call it “innovation policy” and some liberals like to call it “jobs policy,” but whatever — point is, it’s not new.) The idea that we should support certain domestic industries with R&D funding, trade barriers, manufacturing subsidies, and/or deployment mandates is … cover your children’s eyes! … liberal.
It’s not only conservatives who are dead set against those kinds of market interventions. Neoliberal economists — who more or less dominate the Democratic establishment — ask, Why should we assume we know in advance what markets are going to be big? Why should we subsidize jobs in things like manufacturing that can be done cheaper elsewhere, instead of focusing on things like research in which we have a comparative advantage? Why should we think government would be any good at “picking winners”? Why not just reduce barriers to trade and let markets figure out the best allocation of resources?
Now, I don’t want to get into that argument now. I’m just making the point that the clean energy policies proposed by Obama in his speech and supported by the Innovationeers are far, far from “nonpartisan,” regardless of what Chu’s smoking. They are in fact of a piece with heated partisan arguments about industrial policy that extend back decades. They might not be “divisive” in the same way climate change is, in a culture-war sense, but they are in fact extremely controversial.
What about energy independence? Doesn’t that strengthen the argument for clean energy? For some reason, everyone these days seems convinced that it will work where climate arguments didn’t. But energy independence has been an explicit goal of every president and Congress for 50 years, and it hasn’t led to anything. At all. Why would it work today? And if it did, why wouldn’t it just justify domestic fossil fuel extraction?
Of course every U.S. politician supports “clean energy” in one way or another, so in some anodyne sense it’s bipartisan. But the argument for strong, focused government policy in support of clean energy — in the absence of climate change — is no stronger than the argument for supporting pharmaceuticals, or telecom, or any other industry that’s likely to be big in the 21st century. It’s no stronger than the general argument for industrial policy, which, whatever its merits, has not been strong enough to win the day since the Reagan Revolution. It’s not nearly strong enough to support action of the speed and scale needed.
What could add the exogenous pressure to overcome the U.S. elite’s general distaste for government meddling? What could add the sense of urgency necessary to justify immediate and substantial public spending? What elevates the need for RD&D in clean energy above the need for RD&D in other industries and technologies?
Right: the looming threat of climate change.
The bitter irony is, Republicans — unlike the Innovationeers — understand this perfectly well. They know that if climate change is real and widely understood, the case for substantial government action will be undeniable. That’s why they politicized it in the first place. (If you think this dispute is really about science, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.) Now that they’ve succeeded in making it “divisive,” the Obama administration is running from it, hoping to back their way into ambitious policy with happy talk about innovation.
It’s not going to work. We won’t act with the scope, scale, and speed necessary unless the threat of climate change is widely understood to be real and urgent. Admittedly, nobody yet knows how to make that happen — climate change is a devil of an issue for creatures with our cognitive machinery. It’s going to be a long struggle. But giving up is not the way to win that struggle.
To be clear, again, this isn’t about policy design or sequencing. I’m perfectly happy with Obama leading with R&D funding and a clean energy standard. Whatever works to get the ball rolling (though it’s far from a sure thing any of it will pass). But it’s vital, for the long game, to keep climate on the table. People take their cues from their leaders. If Obama drops it, it sends a signal to Republicans that they can force him to back down. It sends a signal to Democrats that it’s safe to dodge this fight. It sends a signal to the public that it’s not a real problem.
If you think there’s an existential danger facing the country, you say so. That’s part of what it means to be a leader.