Thursday, December 3, 2020

Climate Optimism and Climate Realism

The debate around climate has enough catastrophism, which tends to be both empirically suspect and politically counter-productive. Instead, we need more climate optimism and more climate realism. On the optimism front, I strongly recommend this long post on the fabulous site Our World in Data, where Max Roser masterfully summarizes the available data on on energy safety, prices and trends and the relationship of all this to learning curves. Very complete, extremely useful.
"One of the very worst misconceptions about the challenge of climate change is that it is an easy problem to solve. It is not.
Climate policy is exceedingly difficult45 and the technological challenges are much larger than the electricity sector alone since it is only one of several big sectors that need to be decarbonized. We need change and technological innovation across all these sectors at a scale that matches the problem and the problem is big.
But what the consideration of changing electricity prices has shown is that we have a clear option in front of us where we are able to make very important progress. Low-carbon technologies that were so expensive just a few decades ago that they were only affordable for satellites have came down steadily in price and now provide the cheapest electricity on the planet (which implies that they are now the cheapest source of energy that humanity ever had access to).
Driving down the costs of renewables is key to a green, low-carbon future, but it also has a big benefit for people today: Your real income is the ratio between what you are paid and the price of the goods and services you pay for – that is why falling energy prices means that people’s real income is growing. Falling energy prices means economic growth and less poverty.
The reason we can hope for a future in which renewables are deployed rapidly and where fossil fuel plants become increasingly unprofitable is that renewables follow steep learning curves, and fossil fuels do not. We are heading towards a future in which the disadvantage of fossil fuels will keep increasing.
But limiting climate change is a race against time and we have a long way to go. There is a good chance that the world has reached the peak of greenhouse gas emissions last year. A huge milestone, but the peak is not the goal; we need to get all the way down to net-zero.
The argument for scaling these technologies up sooner rather than later is that we are getting to the low-carbon, low-cost future faster. This ensures that the power plants that will be built in the coming years are not fossil fuel plants but renewables.
This is key to bringing down greenhouse gas emissions fast. And it has the side effects that it saves people from air pollution and it reduces energy prices – which means growing incomes and declining poverty."
But what of the political problems attendant on moving in Roser's recommended direction? That is another and very important question--a question where political realism, not wishful thinking, becomes paramount. Ted Nordhaus and Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute usefully tackle this question.
"The balance of power in American politics is held by rural and industrial states with energy intensive and resource-based economies. Those states tend to be culturally hostile and economically vulnerable to the regulatory and pricing agenda that the environmental community remains doggedly committed to, and Democrats can’t win or sustain governing majorities without them.
As such, there is no path to significant U.S. climate action that is predicated upon routing these areas politically, and thereby moving the nation away from fossil fuels via brute-force regulations, mandates and taxation. This has been the case since climate issues first emerged in the late 1980s, and it remains so today.
A more pragmatic environmental movement would have long ago come to terms with these realities. The states and regions that Democrats need to win for governing majorities place major political constraints on what they can do about climate change. These political dynamics make the speculation that Biden might announce sweeping executive actions—from declaring a national climate emergency to banning fracking to diverting funds from the Defense Department budget to climate action—equally fanciful.
That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done at the federal level. Even with continuing Republican control of the Senate in 2021, it is possible that there will be substantial support in both parties for significant investments in clean energy and agricultural innovation, and for substantial new energy and transportation infrastructure to help ensure that U.S. emissions continue to fall, as they have for more than a decade now.
Speculation around executive action has focused on regulatory measures that, even in the best case, will be subject to reversal by a future Republican administration. But there are other pathways for executive action that, over the long-term, could prove both more effective and more resilient. Federal technology procurement has long driven innovation and market formation. As with past cases, such as jet engines and semiconductors, federal procurement of nascent technologies—things like advanced nuclear reactors or hydrogen-refining technologies—could be game-changing, particularly if targeted toward early-stage and pre-commercial technology.
Such steps won’t satisfy much of the environmental community, which continues to view the issue in Manichean terms. But an effective climate response needs to help a variety of regional economies across the nation to transition away from fossil fuels over a term defined by decades, not presidential elections. That demands a response that is resilient to the changing fortunes and ideological priorities of both parties. It needs to account for the substantial costs a rapid transition will impose on energy-intensive sectors of the economy, and to reckon with the limitations of both regulation and top-down planning in a federal system in which neither political representation nor the costs of climate action are evenly distributed across the country."
This is another instance where the left's preference for snappy slogans--A Green New Deal! Keep it in the ground! Ban fracking!--should be subordinate to the imperatives of political realism. That is, if the goal is to win and actually solve the problem.

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