There’s a big problem facing climate and energy advocates, one they seem to be more or less shutting their eyes to at the moment, hoping it will go away: regulations capping carbon and mandating emissions cuts are likely to raise energy prices for consumers in the short term. This is a problem because polls and surveys show fairly consistently that consumers are extremely sensitive to these prices.
I think it’s going to be frighteningly easy for right-wing demagogues to pull on climate legislation the same thing they did on healthcare legislation back in the early ’90s: tell consumers that Democrats are going to raise their prices and leave them shivering in the dark.
What can be done about this? In an important article over on American Prospect, Peter Teague and Jeff Navin argue that greens need to pay proportionate attention to public investment.
Their negative case — the peril of regulation-based legislation — is strong, based on recent survey data from American Environics (PDF). It’s the positive case I have questions about.
They argue fairly convincingly that targets and market mechanisms won’t be enough to generate the sustained, long-term investments we’ll need to transition to a green energy economy. (I’m somewhat ambivalent on this point — maybe Sean Casten will drop by to shoot it down.)
They hold up Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC — which mixes cuts in greenhouse gas emissions with a package of investments in parks, housing, clean air, etc. — as a model. And indeed, if somebody could pull off something similar at the federal level, I’d be the first to celebrate.
But federal legislating is a messy and compromised business. "Investment" is frequently, nay, usually code for nothing more than huge corporate subsidies. How can we create a large fund that makes wise investments rather than making the problem worse?
For instance, Hillary proposes to create a $50 billion Strategic Energy Fund, paid for with taxes on oil companies, that would be used to invest in new energy solutions. Sounds great, right? But if you watch her speeches, what she talks about investing in are ethanol and coal. Suffice to say, I think that blows as a climate change solution, and I’m not convinced it would be all that advantageous politically either.
So how can we design policy that invests in the transition to a new energy economy, in a way that tangibly benefits (or at least impresses) voters, without it becoming nothing more than corporate welfare?
On that, Teague and Navin are silent. I’d sure love to hear what they have to say about it.