Ignoring efficiency, conventional wisdom holds that climate action will raise energy costs
It’s worth closely reading this Avery Palmer piece in CQ Politics: "The price of being green." It puts the frame around American energy/environmental politics in particularly crystalline terms.
To wit: environmentalists want to raise the cost of energy while everyone else wants to lower it.
Or more specifically: in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions, environmentalists want to put a price on carbon via a cap-and-trade system, which would have the effect of raising gasoline and electricity prices. Meanwhile, gas and electricity prices are already high and rising, and everyone else — including the vast majority of voters — is keenly concerned to bring those prices down.
"The solutions almost go in opposite directions," said Henry Lee, lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Ergo: it’s going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get a major climate-change bill through Congress any time soon.
That is the conventional wisdom, and it dooms climate legislation, no matter what polls tell you about public concern over climate. People vote their wallets — bet on it.
It’s this very dynamic Shellenberger & Nordhaus address in their latest L.A. Times op-ed. Their conclusion is that public policy should not seek to raise (dirty) energy prices, but instead to lower (clean) energy prices. (Read Joe for more on that op-ed.)
That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, if you accept the premises. But we should not accept the premises. They are as follows:
- The best way to lower energy prices is to increase energy supply.
- A price on carbon would primarily drive a switch from dirty to clean energy, raising energy prices.
- Higher energy prices yield higher energy costs.
What’s the missing ingredient that disrupts every one of those premises? The big fat hole in the middle of the argument. Anyone? Anyone?
That’s right: efficiency.
The absence is glaring throughout the piece. A couple of examples:
It is also likely that the president will try to frame a climate change plan as part of a broader energy strategy, which could include both investments in alternative sources and increased production of fossil fuels.
Hm, if there were only some other part of a broader energy strategy …
Energy legislation is notoriously difficult to pass because of regional differences that drive wedges inside both parties. Gulf Coast lawmakers tend to support increased oil drilling, for example, while politicians from Appalachia have an interest in protecting the coal industry.
Hm, if only there were some energy policy that could benefit everyone in every region of the country …
"We have to do something, when we do it, that drives our economy, that adds to our GDP, that makes us more energy secure and deals with climate at the same time," said Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is considered one of the swing votes in the Senate on global warming legislation.
Hm, if only there were an energy policy that did all that at once!
And so on. I don’t blame Palmer for this. For some reason, the centrality of efficiency to smart energy policy is only understood by a small community of enviros and wonks. In the broader culture, efficiency is marginal, a kind of add-on that will "soften the impact" slightly. Despite all the energy talk in the campaign so far, efficiency has played a tiny role at best (see: last night’s debate).
I’m not sure how to go about rep this state of affairs. There are certain intrinsic difficulties in selling efficiency — which is not so much a thing as an absence — in a culture obsessed with exploration and energy supply. Thus far the wonks don’t seem to be getting through.
But it’s important. Efficiency is what allows us to meet emission targets at a net economic gain. Efficiency is the only effective response to the economic difficulties energy prices impose on the poor and middle-class. Efficiency is what prevents higher energy prices from becoming higher energy costs.