Climate: Why Bipartisanship on Energy Won’t Be Easy—and Why It’s Necessary

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Last week I wrote about a paper on energy and climate policy that came from scholars at the leftish Brookings Institution, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the (centrist and technology-focused) Breakthrough Institute. Called “Post-Partisan Power” (download a PDF here), the paper laid out a research and development focused approach to energy and climate policy. Instead of a firm carbon cap—which is dead now—the authors of the papers advocated spending far more on energy research, improving basic energy education, expanding nuclear power—and perhaps paying for it all with a very small carbon tax. No carbon cap, no renewable energy or energy efficiency standards—all top down approaches beloved by mainstream greens.

Why the change? It’s not just that the writers behind “Post-Partisan Power” have serious doubts about how effective a carbon cap would actually be even if it could be passed—though they do. Rather, they believe that there will never be sufficient political and public support for a climate and energy policy that is fundamentally based around capping carbon, effectively raising the price of energy from fossil fuels. They believe in the political scientist Roger Pielke Jr.’s iron law of climate policy—people won’t pay much to achieve environmental objectives, including reducing carbon emissions. We can argue over just how much an effective carbon cap would have cost the average consumer—and arguments were definitely had—but the political support wasn’t there in the Senate (and was barely there in the House) to put into place a cap-focused energy policy. (At this point I should note that the ever-present Senate filibuster made cap-and-trade—and much else—artificially hard to pass, but those are the rules of the legislative game as they exist today.)

For the “Post-Partisan Power” authors, a research focused energy policy—one based around making clean energy cheaper, not dirtier energy more expensive, wasn’t just smarter, it was the only strategy that could ever get the support of some conservatives, along with Democracts:

Increasing investment in energy technology and innovation, as we advocate, remains exceedingly popular with Americans of all political stripes. Of all energy policy proposals, from carbon pricing and cap and trade to new oil and gas drilling, expanding production and lowering the price of clean, innovative energy technologies is the most popular approach, regularly receiving support from 65 to 90 percent of Americans in independent news polls, Gallup surveys, and other opinion research. This public support is consistent over time, and reflects the historical willingness of publics to pay slightly more for cleaner and safer energy sources.

But crafting a successful bipartisan approach to climate and energy assumes that you can find people on both sides of the political aisle who actually want to engage. And even with a more compromised approach, that may not be easy, because finding a Republican candidate who’s willing to admit that climate change exists—let alone that we need to spend money to deal with it—is tougher than getting a run off Mariano Rivera in the postseason. A New York Times story by John Broder today shows that among the surging Tea Party, doubt in climate change is a matter of faith:

Skepticism and outright denial of global warming are among the articles of faith of the Tea Party movement, here in Indiana and across the country. For some, it is a matter of religious conviction; for others, it is driven by distrust of those they call the elites. And for others still, efforts to address climate change are seen as a conspiracy to impose world government and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. But all are wary of the Obama administration’s plans to regulate carbon dioxide, a ubiquitous gas, which will require the expansion of government authority into nearly every corner of the economy.

“This so-called climate science is just ridiculous,” said Kelly Khuri, founder of the Clark County Tea Party Patriots. “I think it’s all cyclical.”

“Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue,” Ms. Khuri added. “Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

Ok, good quote. But the poll numbers back up the anecdotes. Broder points out that a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month found that only 14% of Tea Party supporters said that global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now, compared to 49% of the rest of the public believes that it is. More than half of Tea Party supporters said that global warming would have no serious effect at any time in the future, while only 15% of other Americans share that view.

And that deep skepticism on climate change seems to be infecting the rest of the Republican Party, like a brain-eating virus. The environmental lawyer and blogger RL Miller has been tracking the rise of what he she calls “climate zombies,” Republican Congressional candidates who are highly skeptical of the existence of man-made climate change, and therefore the need to do anything about it. Mike Castle, the respected Republican House representative from Delaware, lost the Republican Senate primary to Tea Party-backed Christine O’Donnell in part because he supported cap-and-trade. (O’Donnell has said she doesn’t have an opinion on whether climate change is man-made, but she’s  resolutely against cap-and-trade.) As Ronald Brownstein wrote in the National Journal:

The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.

Now the “Post Partisan Power” authors argue that their technology-focused approach will attract votes more easily because even conservatives should be willing to support relatively small (in budget terms) government funding for straightforward research. After all, the federal government spends nearly $90 billion a year on defense research, and $30 billion a year on medical research, and there’s no general outcry for the elimination of the National Institutes of Health, presumably because everyone likes finding cures for diseases. But given the virulent anti-spending rhetoric coming from the Tea Party, I’m a little skeptical that it will be much easier to get a Republican-controlled Congress to agree to spend an additional $25 billion a year on energy research—especially if they don’t believe man-made climate change exists or is a problem. (Yes, there are good reasons to support a shift to cleaner energy even if you put climate change aside—dependence on foreign oil, traditional air pollutants—but it hardly justifies a big government program.) As David Roberts points out at Grist, the politics of public investment on energy might not be a lot easier than the politics of climate change.

That said, I still think an investment, research-focused approach like the one outlined in “Post Partisan Power” is still the way to go—in part because cap-and-trade will always be politically tricky. Some parts of the country (the Midwest and the South especially) are far more dependent on fossil fuels for electricity and would be hit harder by a cap. And I think you can build a bigger coalition around an investment, research and energy-focused approach, rather than one focusing tightly on the question of climate change. As the success of the Climate and Energy Project in redder-than-red Kansas shows, there are Americans out there who would never call themselves environmentalists and might picket Al Gore, but who still care about saving energy and moving to renewable power. (Maybe they’d be OK with calling themselves “climate hawks,” as Roberts has written.) A truly bipartisan approach on energy and climate won’t be easy—sometimes, especially right before an election, it seems completely impossible—but it’s the only approach we can hope for, if we still hope.