The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009: Climate Policy Gets Real

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Recently, Congressmen Henry A. Waxman and Edward J. Markey released a draft of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.  And so the great climate and energy debate will finally begin for real. I have been studying environmental policy development for over three decades and just as we saw the start of policy to clean the air and water in the 1970’s and we then started working on toxic waste clean-up in the 1980’s, today, in 2009, we are finally at the moment when climate policy truly begins. While we can’t see the finish line, we’ve just heard the starter’s pistol.

This bill covers just about all bases: It provides for:

-Renewable energy- by requiring utilities to use it for 6% of their power generation in 2012 and 25% by 2025.

-Carbon Capture and Sequestration- by promoting the technology and large scale use of carbon capture and storage. To make clean coal a reality.

-Clean Fuels and Vehicles- by providing greater incentives for electric vehicles.

-Smart Grid and Electricity Transmission- by providing new rules and resources to modernize our capacity to transmit power.

-Energy efficiency- by requiring energy savings in buildings, manufactured homes, appliances, transportation, industry and government.

-Reducing global warming pollution- by requiring reductions in emissions and establishing a tradable permit system. Reductions begin at 3% below 2005 levels in 2012, 20% below that level in 2020 and 83% below 2005 levels in 2050.

Finally, the bill requires governments to begin planning for adaptation to climate change and includes a number of provisions to facilitate the transition to a clean energy economy.

There is going to be a heated and probably very symbolic debate with a “green side” and an “economic growth” side and we will soon hear scientists and environmentalists testifying before Congress that the approach is inadequate and too slow. Some business leaders and free market advocates will say this bill will ruin capitalism and the economy.  I find neither argument persuasive. The economics of this legislation will not impair economic growth. Because previous environmental rules forced technological innovation, we found that  environmental law tends to fuel economic growth. As to the argument by some environmentalists that the new policy will not work well enough or fast enough- that is the fundamental question and an issue that no one knows the answer to.

Scientists sometimes find politics frustrating, due in part to the difference between the scientific method and the policymaking process. Science tests hypotheses and even builds mathematical models to try to gain knowledge and solve problems. Science is goal seeking and rational. The policy process is different. Policymakers don’t actually try to solve problems, but to make them less bad. The goal is not to solve the problem, but to “move away from it”. In New York City we reduced homicides from over 2,000 a year to less than 600- the problem is less bad but far from solved.  We aren’t always capable of destroying the wild beast, but we somehow manage to keep it away from our door.  Policy, to quote the great public policy scholars David Braybrooke and Charles Lindblom: is “remedial, serial and exploratory”. That means public policy tries to: 1.) Remedy the worst parts of  society’s problems; 2.) Solve problems through trial and error. Most efforts to solve public policy problems are not a continuous process from start to finish. We start, we catch our breath and reconsider- and then we start again.  We make public policy this way becuase the problems we ask governments to address are more complicated than the problems we assign to science.  Environmental problems are caused by  human interactions with our biosphere. Human beings and the biosphere are hard to understand. Add culture, economics and  technology to that mix and you see why human and social behavior are so difficult to predict.  Even simpler behaviors like “how do I motivate a teenager to clean her bedroom” sometimes seem beyond our reach.

The punch line to the climate joke is that we will not solve it all at once. We simply do not know how to motivate all of the behaviors needed to solve the climate problem. In fact, we don’t even know all of the actions that might allow us to solve the problem.  What is critical is that we get started: For real. No more symbolic silliness. Real law, real money, real leadership: Now.  For the environmental community, let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We need to learn how to do this job. Maybe cap and trade will fail and only a pure carbon tax will work. Anyone who says they know that for a fact is wrong. No one knows how to transform our economy to renewable fuels. At best we are making educated guesses. We are in for lot of two steps forward and one step back. When you’re in a crisis, as I believe we are, the key is to take those steps quickly. We also need to aggressively and even ruthlessly measure results and take corrective action when we make mistakes.

The issue of climate policy and global sustainability is at long last at the heart of our political dialogue and firmly placed on the political agenda. Despite the rumblings, even the world economic crisis is not able to push it aside. There is a growing understanding of the need to use this crisis to begin the transition to a green economy. While the path will be long and meandering, the introduction of Waxman-Markey, along with Henry Waxman’s new power as Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, allow us to finally begin this critical journey. Let’s get started.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009: Climate Policy Gets Real