Today I’m taking part in The New York Times‘ Room for Debate, on the following question: Can the U.S. compete with China on green tech? Here are links to what my fellow contributors had to say:
- Robert N. Stavins, Harvard University: Pitfalls in Public Policies
- Joan Fitzgerald, Northeastern University: We Need a Manufacturing Agenda
- Robert E. Scott, Economic Policy Institute: Ways to Recapture the Lead
- Matthew Kahn, U.C.L.A. Institute of the Environment: How We Gain From China’s Advances
- Van Jones, author, The Green Collar Economy: Government Should Be a Catalyst
Once I saw that the other contributors were focusing on policy and economics, I figured somebody had to be the annoying guy who reminded everyone else of the political realities. So here’s my contribution (I’ve added some more thoughts at the bottom):
It’s often taken for granted by pundits and policy wonks that clean energy innovation and economic development are desirable goals, supported across party lines. But are those goals in fact supported on a bipartisan basis?
Well, no, of course not. As a matter of fact, Republicans in Congress have opposed all efforts to put a price on climate pollution, which would create domestic demand for clean energy. They have fought to preserve subsidies to fossil fuel industries, which skew the playing field against new market entrants. They have cut funding for clean energy every time they’ve been given the chance. (Stretching back to Reagan cutting Carter’s renewable research and development budget by 85 percent.)
Even in the minority, Congressional Republicans managed to battle back every clean energy policy proposed in the 111th Congress save a feeble one-year extension of the renewable tax credits. Newly elected Republican governors from New Mexico to New Jersey are already busy rolling back state-level clean energy policies. Just last week, the head of the Chamber of Commerce’s energy project — and the national Chamber is, for all intents and purposes, an adjunct of the Republican Party — came out against R&D spending on clean energy. So much for “post-partisan.”
The fact is most of today’s Republican officeholders do not believe that boosting America’s clean energy industries is a worthy goal, certainly not a goal that justifies spending real money or curtailing the privileges of energy incumbents. That, not some quandary about the best mix of taxes, subsidies, and performance standards, is the primary barrier to public policy support for rapid growth of clean energy industries in the United States.
It’s perfectly understandable to want to believe otherwise. The fights over climate change science and cap-and-trade have gotten vicious and exhausting. Folks of a pragmatic bent, who don’t care for pitched partisan battle, obviously blanch at the prospect of another round. But the Republican establishment (along with a large bloc of conservative Democrats) simply doesn’t acknowledge the environmental and economic need for competitive domestic clean energy industries. Until that changes — until there is a genuine national consensus on the public policy imperative — we’ll continue our current course, nibbling ineffectually around the edges while China widens its lead.
I must say, I find this particular Room for Debate fairly depressing. The economists talk blandly about how it’s fine if China beats us and we don’t want to go interfering in markets (as if we’re not already). The wonks deliver their policy recommendations, for what I’m sure is the millionth time, as though there’s a serious bipartisan policy conversation underway.
And everyone ignores the elephant in the room, which is that Republicans don’t want to compete with China on cleantech and thus the whole discussion is kind of pointless.
I get why people ignore this. It’s dreary and depressing and makes everything feel futile. But pretending that there’s bipartisan support for clean energy isn’t any better. Republicans are not defending wealthy energy incumbents just because they haven’t yet heard a convincing policy proposal. It’s just what they do.
It’s a power game, not a game of persuasion. Clean energy business and advocacy groups will win when they’re bigger and more powerful than the dirty energy establishment. And that looks like it’s a long way off.