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The Kick the Can Down the Road Caucus

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

Comes now news of a remarkable, post-partisan agreement on a plan for climate action. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, centrist Brookings Institution, and post-environmentalist Breakthrough Institute have united to push a $25 billion program of energy R&D designed to produce a whiz bang technological solution to the climate crisis.

Color me unimpressed.

Don't get me wrong: energy R&D is vitally important. A 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that Department of Energy R&D programs had produced $40 billion in economic returns -- well above the level of public investment. And it is likely that we'll need technological breakthroughs in some key areas, particularly energy storage, if we hope to achieve the massive reductions in carbon emissions needed to head off the worst impacts of global warming.

The problem is that Breakthrough, et al., propose a massive investment in energy R&D as THE centerpiece of a strategy to deal with climate, when it is merely one part of a "balanced breakfast" of policy approaches that include putting a price on carbon emissions, using regulations to phase out dirty energy sources, and developing creative tools to speed the introduction of clean energy sources in their stead.

We already have many of the technologies we need to address the climate crisis. We know how to make homes and businesses more energy efficient, to heat water and create electricity with the sun. Many of these technologies and approaches are already cost-effective and others -- such as solar photovoltaics -- are becoming cheaper every day.

What is holding us back is not technology, it's the ability to implement these solutions on a massive scale, and to do it quickly. It's about societal transformation, economics, and the elimination of antiquated policies and technologies that stand in our way.

Moreover, there is no need for a "post-partisan" solution to our energy and climate challenges. Conservatives and liberal people actually agree on many of those solutions. 78 percent of Americans, for example, favor the expansion of solar and wind power, while 65 percent actually favor placing limits on carbon dioxide pollution. You don't get to that level of public approval without having at least some conservatives joining the consensus.

The main barrier to the passage of cap-and-trade and most other sensible energy policies is the entrenched resistance of the incumbent fossil fuel industries. Witness, for example, the sway the coal industry has over legislators of both parties in the Midwest or the massive spending by oil companies on a ballot initiative to overturn California's pioneering global warming emission cap this fall.

If Breakthrough and its colleagues can use their agreement on energy R&D to help build a sensible "third way" consensus on climate and energy policy, more power to them. But I suspect that what's really being offered is an easy out to policy-makers who claim to care about the climate, but don't care to do anything consequential about it. It's far easier to put down $25 billion and wish for a technological deus ex machina than it is to figure out how to weatherize 10,000 homes, or change entrenched regulations to provide a level playing field for clean energy, or gore the oxen of powerful special interests.