Introducing Bill Becker

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"Introducing Bill Becker"

bbecker.jpgClimate Progress is happy to introduce Bill Becker as the first of several new guest bloggers. Bill is Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, an initiative to help the next President of the United States take decisive action on global warming within his or her first 100 days in office. You can read his full bio here. Bill is not only one of the most knowledgeable people on sustainable development, he helped launch one of the first green communities — Soldiers Grove, WI. And he’s also a former newspaper editor — making him uniquely qualified to blog on energy and climate issues. Welcome, Bill!

My PC has been a blog-free zone. Until now.

Joe Romm asked me to become a contributor to Climate Progress and, after some hesitation, I agreed. I hesitated because my time, energy, and mental capacity are dominated these days by an effort to create a climate action plan for the next President of the United States.

But Joe is one of my former bosses at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he amazed us all by becoming one of the all-time champions of the Washington Post‘s weekly humor contest. He did that in his spare time, when he wasn’t creating one of the U.S.’s first comprehensive plans to combat global warming. I admire Joe a lot — his writing and his intellect and his mix of passion and science — so I agreed.

I expect to take advantage of Climate Progress to obtain your help with the presidential plan, sometimes by inciting a blog-riot, other times by gentler means of soliciting your reactions. I will start by telling you the assumptions upon which we’re basing our approach to climate action.


First, there has been a silver lining to the void in national leadership on climate change. States, localities, NGOs and corporations are stepping into the void, owning the issue and acting on it (or at least setting goals for action). That probably would not have happened if the federal government had taken earlier control.

Second, with due respect to the good works of non-federal entities, the United States cannot have an adequate effort to deal with climate change so long as the nation’s largest energy consumer (the federal government) and the “world’s most powerful leader” (the President) are sitting on the bench, or so long as federal subsidies are paying us to pollute. Federal action should not replace state, local and private action — it should empower it while unleashing the market and regulatory power the federal government can bring to bear.

Third, while global climate change must be addressed by developing and developed nations alike, the United States will have no respect or leverage in international negotiations until it has a credible domestic climate action program.

Fourth, we will need every tool in the toolbox to mitigate greenhouse gas missions with sufficient speed and to adapt to the changes already underway. We will need market mechanisms and mandates, incentives and penalties, government and civil society, federal laws and private initiative, national action and local action, collective action and personal action.

Fifth, as the fourth implies, there is no silver bullet here. Climate stabilization requires a portfolio approach — action on many fronts. It will not be sufficient for Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill, and then walk away from the problem for another decade.

Sixth, the next President must be bold, show courage, and lead aggressively on this issue. We have asked far too little of our leaders in recent times, and our leaders have asked far too little from us. We must demand action from one another.

Finally, the President must take substantive action within the first 100 days of his or her administration. The nation and the world will be watching to see if and how the United States will engage this issue and the international community.

Next time I’ll offer some “new rules” for U.S. climate action.

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21 Responses to Introducing Bill Becker

  1. Dan Borroff says:

    “federal laws and private initiative, national action and local action, collective action and personal action.”
    Thanks for these clear and concrete categories!

    We need solutions that address all these categories. For the last year I’ve searched for sites that address the gulf that exists between ‘individual action’ and ‘government’. The suggestions range from the ‘already done by early adopters’ – replace your lightbulbs to ‘lobbying your legislature’. The one extreme is too small to feel as though you’re making a difference. The other proposals are too grand a scale for most people.

    It seems to me that effective action will accelerate when small groups of people, affinity groups, religious and activist communities, etc. determine how to do small things that are effective, empowering, and that build a sense of community. Brainstorming ideas and sharing success stories is one means of providing information that the internet is tailor-made for.

    The news about the climate crisis crushes people’s spirit. It’s difficult to talk about it in any meaningful way because most people feel overwhelmed. Little steps that can be taken as a group are not in the public consciousness, yet. A group of us organized a four day long faith and environment event in Seattle that really impressed local and national religious leaders. It seemed to mark a ‘tipping point’ (a familiar phrase usually implying a bad outcome) in engaging leadership of this segment of civil society. This spawned an initiative to reduce global warming by religious institutions 50% by 2015.

    Muslim women wearing hijabs were asking me at the event about the fate of Penguins, and sharing their fears for the world that awaits their children. It took a safe place for them to open up. (I await a campaign by young Muslim girls to save the penguins from global warming!) We need actions that are simple and clear by people we wouldn’t expect to be concerned. And we all need supportive community.

    Thanks for identifying the segments of society that must be engaged! It’s more than simply individuals or government. All aspects of society must be inspired to learn and to act.

  2. Ron says:

    Bill,

    I’m curious about something you said above. How does one go about ‘unleashing the market’, while simultaneously bringing the federal government’s regulatory power to bear?

  3. Cliff says:

    Glad to have you interacting with us, Bill. I hope someone gets elected who will listen to you and be the bold and courageous leader we desperately need. I also agree with Dan’s comment, that “effective action will accelerate when small groups of people, affinity groups, religious and activist communities, etc. determine how to do small things that are effective, empowering, and that build a sense of community.”

    I’ve interviewed people at our county planning and development departments. They have no idea how we deal with the prospects of increased flooding and sea level rise with our 50 miles of bay and ocean coastline. The regional Corps of Engineers PR person doesn’t know how such problems will be handled either. He was a little insulted that I’d even bring up the topic of sea level rise. I hope that preparedness can be led by the White House so that there’s less ambiguity at the local level.

  4. Bill Becker says:

    Thanks for these thoughtful responses. One of the best documents I’ve seen lately on the imperative for comprehensive action was published earlier this month by California Environmental Associates (CEA) — a group that advises America’s major philanthropies on how to invest in environmental issues, in this case climate change. Go to: http://www.climateactionproject.com/docs/Design_to_Win_8_01_07.pdf

    My fear (or expectation) is that Congress will pass a cap-and-trade bill with more safety valves than Three Miles Island and more off-ramps than the Los Angeles freeway, then call it a day. CEA points out that a carbon price alone will not be enough to keep us at 450 ppm because more than 30% of essential mitigations will be more expensive than the likely carbon price. It points out also that perverse subsidies mess up the nice market signals that carbon pricing is intended to send.

    To Ron: I think a package of regulations and market mechanisms can, and will have to, co-exist. Carbon pricing is a market mechanism, of course. A market correction we’ll propose in the presidential plan is an overhaul of federal subsidies to phase out those that underwrite GHG emissions. I think they can work well with a national Renewable Energy Porftolio Standard or an increase in CAFE or appliance efficiency standards, for example.

    Some economists — maybe more than some — are so confident in the power of cap and trade that they contend nothing more will be needed. I don’t have that faith.

    To Dan: I have some very good friends who have become deeply depressed by the enormity of this problem, friends whose careers have involved energy efficiency and renewable energy and who have not been able to overcome the hard resistence of the fossil industries and consumer intertia. And who now think, “If only they had listened…” I take heart in the fact that while we’ve seen this kind of interest in “green” before, it seems to be much more powerful and pervasive now. It will have to be. Group action is a very good thing, psychologically and politically.

    In fact, some of us baby boomers are wondering why more groups aren’t taking to the streets right now. But that’s a subject for another time.

  5. Ron says:

    Bill,

    You propose “a package of regulations and market mechanisms”, like carbon pricing and re-distribution of subsidies. I guess you didn’t really mean “unleashing” the market. You meant to say ‘shorten the leash’.

    Does this deal come with higher taxes, too?

    Maybe you should compare notes with the peak oil hysterics. They also are saying we-are-all-going-to-hell-lets-pass-some-laws, but their doomsday scenario involves running out of fossil fuels. It’s interesting to note that if the global warming folks and the peak oil folks are both correct, right about the time the climate starts to really heat up fossil fuel production will begin to fall. A natural correction. That might give you a bit of optimism.

    If one or both of those scenarios does come to pass, we’ll need less government taxes/subsidies/regulations/tariffs/pork and more actual advances in technology – which is one thing a minimally-regulated market can provide much, much better than government. An ‘unleashed’ market would provide alternatives to fossil fuel use. It would have to. Who else can provide such things? Government? Are you serious?

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    Ron,

    Can we stop painting with such a broad brush? Please?

    Unleashing the market is exactly what a lot of people concerned about GW or peak oil are proposing, and it can be done with the right kind of government action. If you assume that all government market intervention shortens a leash, then you’re making a sweeping, and incorrect assumption.

    For example, if the government institutes a feebate system on cars–you buy one that gets over X MPG and you get a rebate, you buy one that gets under X MPG and you pay a gas guzzler tax–then the government is inarguably intervening in the market, but it’s doing so in a way that gives the car companies and consumers tremendous latitude in responding to that intervention. The car companies will have a huge incentive to make more efficient cars, but the government wouldn’t dictate which technologies to use (i.e. it’s not “picking winners” as critics like to say). The government would set the strategy (more efficient cars) and leave the tactics (how to design and build them) up to the market.

    Why should the government do this? Simple: We know that change is needed to adapt to the realities of both global warming and peak oil. But if we wait for the market to initiate that change through its only mechanism–a change in prices–it’s already too late to avoid much higher costs to society as a whole in terms of both monetary and non-monetary impacts. In other words, we can be smart and start making changes now, before the market forces us, and it will be in our own best interest. And one of the most effective ways we can take such proactive steps is through good public policy.

    Of course government can screw things up. I’m the last person who would deny that or say that we should turn all important decisions over to the government. But good government policy has a place in our adaptations to global warming and peak oil, just as individual consumers, businesses of all sizes, non-government organizations (religious groups, charities, universities, etc.) do. These are large, extremely serious problems that require contributions from all parts of society.

    And one more thing–please don’t assume that everyone who thinks peak oil is a serious problem (including me) are card carrying members of Apocalypticons, the people who think we’ll all die, shivering in a cave, within 10 years. Those people are just as nuts as the ones who think the climate isn’t changing or that we have an infinite supply of fossil fuels.

  7. Steve E. says:

    Excellent observations, Lou.

    There is, as well, a significant part of my thinking which identifies with Ron’s libertarian philosophy, but it is important to avoid absolute and rigid systems of thought. Heck, if the self-declared energy policy and climate expert whom Joe Romm intends to debate next week (an ExxonMobil subsidized US Army nurse) can crony her way into Virginia state politics, then we certainly do need to be vigilant about all government activities.

    But that is not the end of the inquiry. As for purely free markets, and if you want to get pissed off while at the same time subtly enlightened, rent the movie “The Corporation.” And on that thought, even if we have to buy some gasoline, there is no excuse for any of us patronizing the Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, or Texaco brands given those corporations’ track records. Conversely, albeit part of big oil, both BP/Arco and ConocoPhillips have comparatively much better records and offers of leadership on these issues.

    (As an aside, to Ron, you’d enjoy “Empire of Debt…” by Bonner and Wiggin.)

    We all need to remember we are not only voters, but consumers, community members, and our children’s (and their generation’s) educators. We do what we can…

  8. Ron says:

    Lou,

    Your idea of a ‘feebate’ on autos sounds good at first look, if you’re one of those people who still believe that government incentives work. But it’s really very short sighted.

    If it were to be based solely on miles per gallon, instead of the ‘carbon footprint’, then the policy good easily wind up doing more harm than good.

    A recent study, for example, rated the Prius as having a much bigger ‘carbon footprint’ than a Hummer! You saw that report, right? Based on that report, subsidizing Prius sales would have a negative impact on global warming.

    Of course, the report could be wrong. But why should we think that a similar government study would be better?

    But let’s say that we had the true, complete picture of every automobile’s carbon footprint. It sounds good, I guess, to encourage sales of one and discourage another, but at rock bottom you are taking money from some people and giving it to others. What is your moral justification for doing that?

    Let’s ignore for the moment all the basic economic arguments against it; and all the evidence that says government programs are inefficient and wasteful; let’s focus on the idea that people and their money are a resource that can be tapped ‘for the public good’.

    How do you justify that? Are you one of those people who feels that the end justifies the means? That it’s okay to rob some people to help others?

    Sorry if you think I’m using a too-broad brush, but I’m not going to let you white wash the idea of higher taxes and prices, even if your goal is nothing less than saving the planet. I’d really like to hear your answers.

  9. Bill Becker says:

    Ron,

    Back in the days that I worked for the Department of Energy, I wrote speeches for the Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, including her defense of DOE’s budget for those technologies.

    Conservatives in Congress in those days were vocal in their opposition to corporate welfare and picking winners, so I wrote a speech in which the Assistant Secretary offered Congress a deal: We would give back all subsidies for efficiency and renewables if Congress repealed all subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy.

    The Assistant Secretary never gave that testimony, of course. But it comes to mind as I read your articulate arguments against higher taxes and government interventions. I would be delighted to join forces with you in demanding that all subsidies to established, mature and well-financed energy industries be repealed, that subsidies be reserved for gestating technologies clearly in the national interest, that the subsidy system be reformed so that it is much more intelligent about what it incents, and that the savings from repealed subsidies be used to lower taxes. I would even consider a scenario in which all government subsidies for energy technologies are phased out, once the critical renewable energy industries have been given a reasonable time to establish themselves in the marketplace.

    I doubt many people on the Hill, no matter what their politics, would sign on to that trajectory, however. The fossil and nuclear industries expect and will lobby to the death to retain government “intervention” in their industries. They are not in the business of encouraging a free and effectived market by removing these distortions.

    I won’t trouble you with all the examples in which federal government intervention did good things for the environment, the economy and national security. Or the many market imperfections that keep it from being the effective mediator of consumer choice. I’m sure you’ve heard them all.

    But I will contend that the idea of removing federal influence from markets is a fantasy, unless we get rid of the federal government altogether (an outcome you may not oppose). By virtue of its size and its consumption of goods and energy, it is a major market influencer, and it would remain so even if we eliminated everything but the Department of Defense and the military services — whose functions most people believe are a legitimate role of federal government.

  10. Earl Killian says:

    To add to Bill Becker’s points in response to Ron:

    Even in a theoretical world where it would be possible to eliminate government influence on the market, it would be undesirable. Markets find solutions that maximize certain objective functions. Some think they do pretty darn well in finding near-optimal solutions. But the more important question is not how good are their solutions, but whether the objective function being optimized is the correct one. Indeed, every Economics textbook in chapter 1 points out that the objective function being optimized by existing markets is flawed. The textbooks then go on to ignore the problem. An example of flawed objective functions in Econ 101 chapter 1 are what economists call externalities. Global warming is an externality to Economics (which should really be called, as a result, “tunnel-vision Economics”).

    A major philosophical justification for government intervention in the market is so that the market is finding solutions to appropriate objective functions. One way to do this is to make things like externality costs visible to the market. Another is a command and control method (e.g. CAFE standards). I prefer the former approach, but both can represent improvements over “laissez faire”. The real tragedy is to do nothing, and let markets pursue the wrong goal.

    Let me end by recalling Garret Hardin’s observation on this subject:

    “Picture a pasture open to all. It is expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on [this] commons…. What is the utility…of adding one more animal?…. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility [to the herdsman] is nearly +1…. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1. Adding together the…partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to the herd. And another; and another…. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that [causes] him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited…. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
    –Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, 1243 (1968), p. 1244 as excerpted in the 1 May 1998 issue

  11. Earl Killian says:

    On Ron’s “A recent study, for example, rated the Prius as having a much bigger ‘carbon footprint’ than a Hummer!”:

    The “study” Ron is talking about is, not surprisingly, disturbingly flawed. First, there was Art Spinella’s CNW Marketing Research’s Dust to Dust report, and then James Martin, president of the 60 Plus Association, wrote an Op-Ed citing this report, and claiming the Hummer was better than a Prius. Others later amplified on Martin’s piece. Let me very briefly look at them in turn.

    First, the Dust to Dust report:
    Look at the single parameter that has the biggest effect: estimated lifetime. The Hummer H1 has an estimated lifetime of 379,000 miles. The Toyota Prius has an estimated lifetime of 109,000 miles. That factor of 3.5 makes an enormous difference, since everything is done per mile. Given what I know of Prius lifetimes, the 109K looks like a hatchet job. Given what I suspect of a GM product like the Hummer, the 379K is probably quite optimistic. Also, CNW used 29.9 MPG for the Prius. I know the Prius is not 55 MPG (just look at the real driver average data submitted and reported at http://www.fueleconomy.gov/), but neither is is 30 MPG. Where do they get these numbers?? As another example, let’s look at the same car, available as a hybrid and non-hybrid: the Honda Civic. The Hybrid has an estimated lifetime of 113,000 miles, the non-hybrid is listed as 178,000. Again, where do they get such numbers? The authors seem to want to skew their case when it comes to hybrids. There is a plausible argument that hybrids should have longer lifetimes than their ICE twins, since they put less wear on a lot of the vehicle systems (e.g. brakes, transmission, etc.).

    Art Spinella gets pretty simple facts wrong too. In one article, he is quoted as saying that the Chevy Aveo “delivers the same fuel economy as a Prius, but at half the price.” At
    http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/sbs.htm
    you will find the new EPA MPG ratings are now live. If you compare side-by-side the 2007 Toyota Prius and the 2007 Chevrolet Aveo you get
    Prius 48 city, 45 hwy, 46 combined, driver data 46.0
    Aveo 23 city, 31 hwy, 26 combined, driver data 28.4
    How is 28 MPG the “same fuel economy” as 46 MPG? This is seriously flawed stuff.

    Second, on the James Martin piece:
    Please note that the Op-Ed is long on evocative descriptions, but contains almost no data. That’s because the data is so different from the pictures the author paints. The plural of anecdote is not data. Martin makes a big deal about 1,000 tons of nickel being moved to Japan to make NiMH batteries, and writes about the devastation caused by the Sudbury nickel mine. As far as nickel mining wastelands, I don’t doubt it. I have yet to hear of any mining operation that wasn’t a disaster in some way. But look at the facts. World Nickel production was 1,425,509 tons in 2005. The 1,000 tons attributed to the Prius is not the cause of Sudbury mine environmental devastation. Why single out the nickel for batteries when batteries are tiny users? In fact, 60% of nickel production goes into making steel according to Wikipedia. Possibly the Hummer, with all of its steel, is more responsible for the Sudbury mine devastation than the Prius.

    The U.S. drove 2.7 trillion miles in a recent year (cars and light trucks). If we all switched to Hummers, because the author seems to suggest would be environmentally friendly, then that 2.7 trillion miles would require 252 billion gallons of fuel to be moved, which would weigh 757,009,346 tons. There seems to be a factor of almost a million between that mass and the 1,000 tons Martin attacks, but the nickel gets singled out. Sheesh, these people sure have chutzpah to make an argument like that.

    Those 252 billion gallons of fuel of course would represent 2.4 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. This is environmental? Perhaps we shouldn’t count the O2 portion of the CO2, since that came from the atmosphere in the first place. Even then, the author seems to be suggesting it would be OK to add another 673 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere each year. Put another way, each vehicle would be responsible for 13.7 tons of carbon added to the atmosphere if we followed Mr. Martin’s recommendation and drove Hummers. That kind of pales in comparison to the 3.2 (H2) to 3.6 (H1) tons the Hummer itself weighs. And it launches this much carbon each year, for each of its 10 year life (25 years if the 379,000 mile lifetime is believable).

  12. Ron says:

    Bill,

    Please trouble me with a few examples in which federal government intervention did good things for the environment.

    Earl,

    My point in mentioning the CNW study was to show how little we actually know about the subject; that a ‘feebate’ program would almost surely get it wrong.

    I’m not a numbers cruncher like some of you guys, nor would I have access to the pertinent numbers, but consider this: Catalytic converters turn carbon monoxide into [what used to be called 'harmless'] carbon dioxide. Correct? How much carbon could we save if we banned the things? What would be the trade-off in pollution vs. reducing GHG? Anybody care to wrap their head around that problem?

  13. Earl Killian says:

    In reply to Ron:

    Carbon Monoxide eventually turns into CO2 in the atmosphere. Catalytic converters speed the process to prevent the damage CO would do before this conversion would have happened without the converter. CO is also an “indirect” greenhouse gas: “Carbon monoxide has an indirect radiative forcing effect by elevating concentrations of CH4 and tropospheric ozone through chemical reactions with other atmospheric constituents (e.g., the hydroxyl radical, OH) that would otherwise assist in destroying CH4 and tropospheric ozone.”

    The CNW report does not prove that a feebate program would “almost surely” be wrong. Indeed, even most partially wrong (in the sense of not perfectly reflecting the underlying externalities) feebates would be better than none at all, since they would help shift the U.S. vehicle fleet toward vehicles that use less gasoline. Voltaire’s good vs. perfect observation is appropriate here.

  14. Joe says:

    Earl:
    Great post. The CNW study is laughable — I’m writing up a blog post on it now.
    Joe

  15. Ron says:

    So where’s the good study. The one we could base the ‘feebate’ program on?

  16. Ron says:

    Okay, then. No good study has been done as yet. Is that correct? So who should do this study, to base the feebate program on, and who will be made to pay for it?

    Also, can’t anyone point me to a few cost-effective, good for the environment, federal actions that have been done?

  17. Roger S says:

    You don’t seem serious about wanting an answer but a few cost-effective policy measures:

    *The 2007 diesel rule requiring particulate filters on new on-road vehicles
    *As cited above the Clean Air Act tailpipe emissions standards which brought catalytic converters into widespread use
    * Banning lead from gasoline
    * Ozone and PM air quality standards
    * Landill methane capture
    * Incinerator air quality standards

    All of these policies have massive public health benefits which benefit many at a cost to a more limited set of industrial players (and dispersed financial cost to society as a whole). The CO example above is quite foolish- nobody wants to trade CO2 for CO or particulate and end up killing more people. For now the idea is to combust cleanly and find ways to combust less through efficiency.

    If you want to read about Feebates, do a google or google scholar search- it’s been studied for years.

  18. Dear Mr. Baker,

    I noticed you used a goal of 450 ppm. Isn’t that too high? Hasn’t Dr. Hansen published research that suggests that 380 ppm is the limit?

  19. porno izle says:

    I’m curious about something you said above. How does one go about ‘unleashing the market’, while simultaneously bringing the federal government’s regulatory power to bear..

  20. If you love your kids and if you regard God’s creatiion as anything mildly worthwhile, or if you simply want to continue to ensure whatever monetary investments you have, then push hard for increased energy efficiencies and carbon limits now. Push really hard.