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The Next Four Years: Global Warming

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

This is the first of a series of posts by Frontier Group analysts on the policy challenges facing the United States in the next four years. This series will run periodically through Inauguration Day.

Soon after his election in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt met with labor leaders who presented their wish list for his first term. Roosevelt responded with a challenge: “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it.”

Can there be any doubt, following President Obama’s lackluster responses to questions about his climate agenda at his news conference yesterday, that our current president looks at the task of governing exactly the same way?

Look back at Obama’s record in his first term. On issue after issue – from fuel economy standards for cars, to investments in clean energy through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, to efforts to clean up power plants – Obama has pushed farther, faster than any previous president and about as fast as any environmentalist could have realistically hoped. Those efforts are having a real, meaningful impact on our energy system and our production of greenhouse gases. Whereas the United States was once projected to emit increasing amounts of global warming pollution ad infinitum, emissions are now projected to remain roughly stable for years to come, even in the absence of further action on climate.

But there are two common threads to these bold Obama initiatives. The first is that most were in areas where aggressive action enjoyed majority public support. Americans hate dirty power plants, they love solar and wind power, they hate wasting money at the gas pump, and they want more transportation choices. So going to bat for these ideas made political sense, even in the absence of any consideration of their impact on climate.

The second thread is that, on some of these initiatives, the Obama administration was literally “made to do it” – either as a result of court decisions, pressure from action at the state level (such as the adoption of the Clean Cars Program by 14 states), or other outside forces, including sustained pressure from grassroots activists.

At no time during his first term, in other words, did Obama put meaningful amounts of his own political capital on the line to take aggressive action on climate change. Those of us who are alarmed by the climate crisis might hope for greater courage and conviction from the White House – for a president who, in the prophetic words of Al Gore, will make global environmental protection “the central organizing principle” of government. But you go to a climate crisis with the politicians and political system you have, not the ones you need. So if we are serious about moving the United States forward in addressing global warming in the next four years, we need to work within the boundaries of what’s politically feasible today while working to shift those boundaries to allow bolder action in the future.

I tend to agree with Dave Roberts that the chances for a comprehensive climate policy that requires congressional approval (carbon tax, cap-and-trade, etc.) are slim to none in the next two years. But as our 2011 report The Way Forward on Global Warming demonstrated, there are plenty of state and local policies and federal regulatory actions that can put the United States on track to steep emission reductions. Moving forward on those many smaller fronts provides more than enough to fill the to-do list of climate activists and can make a real, measurable difference for the climate in the years to come.

The key barriers to those policies aren’t substantive, they’re political. So what will it take to surmount those barriers? Here are a few ideas:

  • Celebrate progress – Climate advocates need to do a better job of showcasing how the clean energy transition is helping people’s lives and making an impact in the here and now – even as we remain clear that the actions we’ve taken so far haven’t nearly been enough. For example, people might be interested to know that the Northeast states that have adopted cap-and-trade have cut global warming emissions faster and experienced faster economic growth than the nation as a whole. The clean energy movement is at risk of being defined by its failures – e.g. Solyndra – when there are many more compelling success stories right before our eyes that deserve public attention.
  • Escape the culture war – Before Barack Obama’s inauguration, clean energy was a bipartisan issue in much of the country. Heck, even Mitt Romney put out a visionary clean energy plan when he was governor of Massachusetts. But clean energy quickly became a political cudgel with which to attack the president, and the “culture war-ification” of clean energy trickled down to the state and local level as well. Fossil fuel interests have already signaled their intention to try to take down key clean energy policies – such as renewable energy standards – in multiple states, and you can bet they’ll do it by sowing the seeds of partisan and cultural division that seem to shape debates on an increasing number of issues. It’s up to climate advocates to build connections across typical political lines – including with individuals and constituencies that may not even accept the reality of climate change – if we intend to preserve and build on progress toward a clean energy economy.
  •  Keep global warming in the picture – At the same time, it’s up to climate advocates to keep global warming front and center in discussions about why transition to clean energy is so important. “Green jobs” are an important part of the appeal of climate action, but as we’ve written recently, they are not sufficient motivation, in and of themselves, for the kinds of bold policies that will be needed to confront the climate crisis. Environmentalists need to speak with a loud, clear voice about exactly what is at stake in the climate crisis and what we need to do to respond.
  • Engage in tough battles – The last two years have been marked by key grassroots fights against the Keystone XL pipeline and against the spread of fracking (which, whatever your opinion about the climate impacts of natural gas, poses as great a short-term threat to truly clean renewable energy as it does to coal). Those fights – and many other local ones besides – will continue, and grow in both substantive and symbolic importance in the years to come.
  • Take opportunities where they can be found – Rather than tilting at the windmill of a federal carbon tax or cap and trade scheme, the climate movement needs to be ready to identify opportunities for quick action and focus resources accordingly. The effort by some states, such as Massachusetts, to expand solar energy amid record low prices for solar panels, is one such example. Similarly, building on and expanding successful state and regional initiatives – such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast – can result in major progress.

Do we still need comprehensive federal action on global warming? Absolutely. But getting there will require a fundamental change in the political realities of the moment; changes that no Superstorm or president can generate on their own. It will take smart, tireless work on multiple fronts, using many strategies, all across the country to get the president and other political leaders to take the lead on addressing the climate crisis.

Let’s hope that the coming four years are the ones when that groundswell will begin to take shape.