Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cooling the Climate and Heating up the Economy: Politics and Philosophy

President Barack Obama in his 2013 State of the Union recommitted himself  to the hard work of bringing global warming to heal. In his first term, the Senate refused to salute a House-passed clean energy bill (American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) that would have created a cap and trade system placing annual absolute limits on carbon emissions (and their equivalents) and reducing emissions 85 percent by 2050. With the political ascendency of the Tea Party and the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections, any chance for passage of a comprehensive clean energy bill evaporated. Despite this defeat, the Obama Administration under its own authority engineered a substantial boost to motor vehicle energy efficiency requirements (CAFE standards) that will substantially curtail carbon emissions in the transportation sector and undertook a variety of other measures to advance the creation of a clean energy sector.  Without the help of intransigent Republicans who deny that climate change is a problem, incremental progress is nonetheless being made by the Administration in curtailing carbon emissions, but much more is possible, especially since the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has the power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The EPA got the ball rolling in response to the Court’s decision by recently publishing new source performance standards that will reduce future emissions from new electricity generation facilities. Securing such reductions is a genuine plus, but already existing power plants generate some 40 percent of all carbon emissions in the U.S. today. To get the problem of global warming in hand requires a serious tightening of carbon pollution from these facilities, a task  achievable under existing provisions of the Clean Air Act.  

President Obama has now begun to solidify  his environmental legacy by asking the EPA to publish Clean Air Act regulations requiring states to curtail carbon emissions from all power plants within their boundaries. The highly respected Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a recent report lays out the details of flexible and low cost methods compatible with the Clean Air Act for reducing greenhouse gas pollution from power plants, such as emission trading within and across state boundaries, that would take the U.S. a long way toward meeting the basic intentions of the defeated clean energy bill, to cap carbon emissions and create a clean energy sector. In short, President Obama is now circumventing a grid-locked Congress in using the Clean Air Act to bring about a green energy revolution in the U.S. and help to set the world on a path to a stable climate future. With our own climate house in order, the U.S. will be in a position to negotiate rigorous global emission standards with other countries, using, if necessary, the leverage of its dominant position in the global trading system.

Environmentalists in their organizing efforts today focus predominantly on opposing construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a great thing for raising public consciousness about the environmental perils of fossil fuels, but the really important task for limiting climatic warming is expanding the coverage of the Clean Air Act to all existing sources of carbon emissions. To bring this about requires pressure from the environmental movement  to insure implementation over the long-haul. The Clean Air Act would have died on the vine without environmentalist pressure for the last half-century, both in the political arena and the courts. 

Democrats have a propensity to needlessly shrink in fear of a Republican backlash from doing something about climate change, but the usual Republican position, that regulating carbon emissions will be a job killer, has no clothes. The essential Democratic political trump card in the climate deck is the capacity for a clean energy sector to create an abundance of good jobs and to produce environmentally friendly energy at an affordable price. Because it is so much more labor intensive than fossil fuels, shifting to clean energy by itself will add jobs, and the kind of jobs created will cover the full spectrum of skills from solar panel installers and wind generator mechanics to electrical engineers. Clean energy expansion will set off an investment boom of a new kind, one that will do the environment a favor and at the same time lift economic boats all across the income distribution spectrum. A big part of the move to clean energy will be accomplished through energy conservation, which will mostly be a “free lunch” by virtue of resulting savings in energy costs. The cleanest, greenest, and cheapest energy of all is that not consumed. Clean energy costs will dampen further through the attainment of what economists call “scale economies;” the more you do of any economic activity, the lower will be its unit cost, a phenomenon already apparent in both wind generators and solar panel installations.

Even more important politically than job creation for halting global warming, is a little noticed but persistent trend among the young in the direction of “post-materialist” values (See the work of University of Michigan professor, Richard Inglehart).  Post-materialists worry less about economic accomplishment and place a higher value than their elders on self-expression, personal freedom, shared experiences, and social tolerance. Many post-materialists also profess a “universalist” concern for the welfare of others, whoever they may be, and for the global environment. In short, post-materialism represents a shift in personal philosophy away from a currently predominant economic materialism. We all give our highest priority to our own well-being and that of those closest to us, and we all seek our personal pleasures, but the experience of economic and personal security among the young causes many to pursue personal values that go beyond the acquisition of material goods. Consumerism is fine, but it gets boring after awhile. This bodes well for the future of a values-oriented Democratic Party, and specifically for Democrats willing to go out on a limb and do something about a changing climate. As the future unfolds and younger generations replace older, post-materialists will become more and more prevalent among the voting population, to the benefit of a Democratic Party oriented to clean energy and environmental improvement. Philosophical values indeed matter for our climate future.

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