Warming to Clean Energy Part 2: The Politics





The coalition supporting a cap on carbon emissions includes environmentalists, religious people, farmers, and national security hawks

As attractive as the economics of clean energy are becoming, they would look vastly better with a single political development: the passage of a legislative cap on carbon emissions in the United States. This statement is evidenced by Russia’s experience in 2005, when that country ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Over the course of the next year, the value of clean energy companies in countries that had ratified Kyoto jumped 68 percent compared to those in non-ratifying countries. Political support for a limit on carbon in the U.S.–likely to be executed through a cap-and-trade scheme where polluters could purchase credits from less polluting companies–has reached unprecedented levels in the United States, as the flurry of bi-partisan legislative proposals under discussion in Washington demonstrates.

Temperature trends over the past 1000 years

The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in February 2007, stated, “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” Several legislative proposals now on the table in Washington aim to address human emissions through some form of cap and trade system. All the proposals with strong support would stoke the fires of investment in clean technologies, but the McCain Lieberman-sponsored “Climate Stewardship Act” could be most effective in this regard. The bill would cap nationwide emissions at 2004 levels by 2012, and require reductions of 2 percent per year until 2020. The bill avoids California Senator Diane Feinstein’s approach of regulating individual industries, and thus somewhat diffuses claims of unequal regulation from one economic sector to another. Also, if emissions allowances are auctioned off rather than given away, the U.S. could avoid the problems of the European system has encountered with over-allocating credits and thus watering-down emissions targets.

At the end of the day, the future of clean technologies may depend on whether backers of emissions legislation can muster the needed votes in congress. On this front, there is reason for optimism. It is a basic lesson of politics that people often matter more than numbers, and the personalities involved in an issue can sway it far more than economic calculations. This bodes well for clean energy, because the parties currently advocating for a cap on carbon are as diverse as they are vocal. Former CIA Director and energy independence advocate James Woolsey describes the group as a coalition of “tree-huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, and cheap hawks.” These parties have particular potential to spark change because they each represent a core American political lobby–agriculture, national defense, religion, environmental protection–but they are united around the climate theme. If the economics alone are not enough, the growing support of the American people is likely to keep clean technology on the national agenda for a long time to come.


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