Self Interest as the Driver of National Climate and Energy Policy

This weekend found President Obama hitting every Sunday TV talk show to talk up health care policy. For some environmental

This weekend found President Obama hitting every Sunday TV talk show to talk up health care policy. For some environmental advocates, this focus deepened their concern that the United States would lose this moment and punt on climate policy. However, take heart, this week the U.N.’s climate summit begins in New York and the President will be speaking there as well. While nothing in our nation’s capital is ever certain, count me among those who expect to see both health care and climate policy laws land on the President’s desk by December or mid-winter at the latest.

The normal ebb and flow of American politics requires this dance which includes one step back for every two steps forward. On climate, there are powerful forces arguing that we should not reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless China and India are also required to reduce emissions. This argument that the developing world must be treated the same way we are is simply an excuse for inaction by those who are not yet convinced that we have a climate crisis. The developing world will also need to make the transition to renewable energy, but should be expected to follow rather than lead developed nations in this transition.

There are also Europeans who think that the climate regime we establish must include mandatory targets enforceable by the United Nations. I understand the European perspective, and after a century of world wars it easy to see why Europe decided to form a real union and dial back their national sovereignty. However, the rest of the world is still a collection of sovereign nations and I promise you that is not going to end any time soon.

The United States, by virtue of its military dominance, and the government of China, by virtue of its increasing economic and military might, are not about to cede authority to the United Nations- or anyone else. This means that climate policy must be based on the self interest of these still very sovereign states.  Our goal should be to imitate the imperfect international regime that seeks to control nuclear weapons.  That regime is firmly based on national self interest.  No nation is going to unilaterally disarm just as no nation is going to unilaterally dismantle their economy to stop emitting greenhouse gasses.  As imperfect as the nuclear regime is, for the sixty plus years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nation state has ever deployed a nuclear weapon.  No sane national leader would consider using these weapons. What does the control of nuclear weapons have to do with climate policy? It’s all about the definition of national self interest.

Reduction of greenhouse gasses may or may not be in the long-term interest of the U.S., China, or Europe, but the transition to a fossil fuel free economy is in everyone’s self interest. There is a broad consensus that preventing global warming and maintaining the viability of our planet’s ability to sustain life are important goals. Although it is hard to argue against these goals, most nation states still manage to act as if the planet doesn’t matter.  The key is to turn enlightened long-term self interest into short-term national interest and real-world public policy. While there is no danger of running out of fossil fuels in the short-term, in the long-term these finite resources will be depleted. Laws like the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which cap allowable emissions of greenhouse gasses, will gradually raise the price of fossil fuels and encourage energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy. A gradual, well managed transition to a green economy is in our national interest as well as in the world’s interest.

Why is a green economy in our national interest?  The national interest here is in not being left behind. The real goal, of critical importance to economic well being, is to ensure that we don’t fall behind other nations in the race to devote as little of our wealth as possible to energy. Waxman-Markey contributes to that goal. If other nations find a way to run their economies with lower cost energy, the United States will be less able to compete in the global economy.  Our goods and services will tend to cost more than those made in other nations. Public policy that pushes low cost renewable energy is in our national interest.

Opponents of the transition to a non-fossil fuel economy will do the same thing this time they did when the U.S. Senate rejected the Kyoto accords. They will argue that a cap on emissions is the functional equivalent of unilateral disarmament. That is why the comprehensive approach of Waxman Markey represents a breakthrough and a more effective policy direction. This time we have embedded climate regulation in energy policy.  Climate policy is not simply about preserving the planet; it is about preserving the competitiveness of our economy in the global marketplace.

This does not tell you why I am confident that a climate bill and a health bill will emerge from this Congress. While Congress can sometimes act irrationally, it focuses first and foremost on its own survival.  In this case I am counting on the self interest of the Democrats in control of Congress. In 2010, one third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives must face the electorate. Mid-term elections typically result in reduced margins for the President’s party. The Democratic Party’s goal is to stay in charge as the new Congress forms in 2011.   To win, the Democrats need a successful President. They need to prevent their opponents from defining the terms of these debates, as conservatives did through the summer. For the Democrats to maintain control of the Congress they need to face the electorate with three accomplishments: 1. A growing economy; 2. The start of national health policy, and; 3. A climate and energy bill.

Niccolo Machiavelli once said that “it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.” Similarly, self interest is a more reliable predictor of politics and policy than idealism is. By moderating the impact of boom and bust capitalism, government policy in the 20th century preserved entrepreneurship and the market economy into the 21st century. By pushing our economy toward a more efficient green energy economy, we will preserve our prosperity through the 21st century.  We will do this because survival and prosperity are in our self interest. Self Interest as the Driver of National Climate and Energy Policy