A Way Forward: Climate Hope in a Prison of Despair

Holman, Despair of the Defenders of Jerusalem, Wikimedia

Now that the prospects for comprehensive climate legislation with a carbon price and/or serious clean energy funding are off the table for the foreseeable future, that really leaves only one strategy for substantial emissions reductions — the direct method.

Energy economics expert and long-time guest blogger Craig Severance, has a review of what might be possible, which I excerpt below.  The full piece can be found on his blog.

Most emissions of warming gases come from our equipment and buildings.  We need low carbon equipment and systems to heat and cool our buildings, produce and use electricity, to transport us, and to make our goods.

This is a tall order — we have to switch out, retrofit or stop using almost everything.  Yet, that’s the real task.

Now that Congress has rejected the economic tool, we need to remember what this is really all about: equipment and buildings.

The Direct Method. Setting a carbon price is not the only way to get better equipment and buildings.  Instead, we could do something like — directly requiring better equipment and buildings!  Some examples:

Vehicle Efficiency Standards. President Obama earilier this year announced greatly improved fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles, including for the first time heavy trucks all the way up to 18-wheelers.  “It’s possible in the next 20 years for vehicles to use half the fuel and produce half the pollution that they do today,” the president said.

Appliance and Lighting Efficiency Standards. While Congress debated climate and energy bills ad nauseum, the appliance industry and efficiency advocates have quietly advanced new efficiency standards for a wide variety of common appliances and lighting. On Tuesday, August 3rd, a major agreement was announced to advance improved Federal efficiency standards to achieve deep cuts in energy use. Many of the new rules can be adopted without Congressional action.

Renewable Portfolio Standards. Dozens of states have set requirements that electric utilities must generate a set percent of electricity from renewable energy. Colorado will achieve 30% power from renewables by 2020, while California achieves 33%.  The fossil fuel industry is running scared, and is funding an Initiative to revoke the California renewable standard.  Citizens from around the country can defend California’s law, and work to strengthen their own state laws.

Efficiency Reduction Standards. The Arizona Corporation Commission is now leading the nation in energy efficiency, last month adopting a requirement that its electric utilities achieve a 22% reduction in electricity use by 2020.  The bipartisan plan was adopted unanimously.  It requires major Arizona utilities to help their customers retrofit their buildings, plant shade trees, install more efficient air conditioners and appliances, and cut peak load use.

EPA Regulation of Greenhouse Gases.  A 2007 Supreme Court case mandated that EPA consider if global warming gases should be regulated as air pollutants.  EPA is now finalizing proceedings under this Endangerment FInding.  Pollution control regulations expected to emerge will likely prohibit the construction of any new coal fired power plants in the U.S.unless they capture carbon dioxide.

EPA Regulation of Sulfur Dioxide and NOx. EPA regulation of greenhouse gases may not touch older coal-fired power plants.  However, EPA’s long-awaited toughening of traditional air pollutant standards such as sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide are expected to push many utilities to retire older coal plants.  This is already occurring in Colorado –see “Colorado Shows How It’s Done.”

New Building Energy Efficiency Codes. The single most effective measure in the House Energy and Climate Bill was the proposal to require all new buildings to be dramatically more energy efficient. Simply put — stop building things wrong.  While Congress scuttled this idea (it wasn’t even in the Kerry-Lieberman Bill), states and cities can now pick up the mantle and pass these building codes.

Choose the Right Battlegrounds.  The U.S. Senate has proven to be the most entrenched center of power for special interests who wish to block action to solve our energy and climate crises.

Having stormed this Fortress of Fat Cats and been rebuffed is not the same as losing the war.  There are other battlegrounds where climate action can now be victorious:

States and Localities. As noted above, the most effective measures have been adopted at the state and local level.  Perhaps because they cannot print money, these governments have adopted very practical and effective laws.  Local and state governments will now be the major battleground for climate action moving forward, particularly new energy building codes and strengthened Renewable Portfolio and Efficiency Standards.

The Courts. The EPA is now mandated to regulate greenhouse gases precisely because environmental groups pressed the issue successfully through the Supreme Court.  The courts will surely be needed again to keep the pressure on and to clarify the areas which EPA must move to regulate.

Corporations. Corporations who adopt Climate Action Plans are not just socially responsible — they also save a lot of money.  Putting green on the cover of the Annual Report as well as green on the bottom line is a winning strategy.

In the image above, Hope in a Prison of Despair is carrying a light.  If there is to be Hope, there must first be the light of understanding to find our way.

We see this light very clearly now, and it can lead us onward to effective actions.

Craig Severance is co-author of “The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power” (Praeger 1976) and a former Assistant to the Chairman and to Commerce Counsel, Iowa State Commerce Commission.

16 Responses to A Way Forward: Climate Hope in a Prison of Despair

  1. Rockfish says:

    I think this is a smart perspective. Thanks for posting it.

  2. BR says:

    When I read “the direct method”, I was thinking you might suggest, finally, to explore a range of approaches advocated by environmentalists like Derrick Jensen – ones that are not part of the usual polite, watered-down discourse.

  3. wag says:

    Slightly off subject, but I thought this Calvin & Hobbes cartoon perfectly mocked cap-and-trade opponents: they’re like 6-year olds complaining about having to clean up their room.

  4. Yes, the direct method is working in the U.S. Even cities are getting into the act. I am encouraged to believe that all the energy initiatives Severance lists will work and are now working. They will get us off to a good start. But Obama needs to be the chief cheerleader!

  5. homunq says:

    Again, the fight in the Senate is not over. With filibuster reform and a 50-vote threshold, a good law is still possible. I agree with all the strategies mentioned here, but not with giving up on the Senate.

  6. mike roddy says:

    Good post, Craig.

    Since there is more willingness to implement action on local scales, why not prepare a fact sheet for local and state governments and utility companies? Climate Progress may be the best qualified to do it, since you have both scientific and policy assets. Included in the fact sheet would be the latest science about climate change, as summarized in the MIT report, the latest Hadley-CRU summary, and others.

    This fact sheet could also provide case studies from abroad showing that energy is viewed as a precious resource in most of the world. It’s critical that we bring our per capita consumption down, especially in buildings.

  7. NeilT says:

    In Germany cities have started deploying Green Zones. If your vehicle is not certified and carrying an official green zone sticker you don’t get in. Ditto trucks. It’s mainly targetted at dirty diesel engines which push out black carbon deposits, but it’s effective. People actually have to look at their options when they buy if they’re going to live or work in a city with a green zone.

  8. Jeff Huggins says:

    Another Thought: On The Disempowering and Demotivating Influence of Malaise

    Thanks for this helpful post, and I agree that direct approaches can be very helpful. Bravo!

    That said, I’d like to add a few thoughts …

    First, I have a speculative theory on one aspect of the present situation, for consideration: As we sometimes hear, many pundits and pollsters try to explain part of what’s going on, in the public mind, by saying that “the economy” and “jobs” are higher priorities for most people than the climate and related issues. So, they explain, the people want the politicians to fix the economy FIRST (in a way that actually heals the employment situation and raises all boats, it should be added) and THEN to address the climate change matter.

    (Of course, this thinking, whether held by the public or not, misses the fact that addressing the climate and energy issues will actually be very good for the economy, if done wisely. But the point I’m getting to is a different one …)

    This thinking views the public — and (importantly) the public’s degree of passion and activation on various issues, or lack thereof — as reflecting a “rational”, explicit, one-thing-at-a-time mindset. The very modest and tepid degree of visible public activism associated with the climate problem is explained, according to this view, by the fact that the public want action on the economy and jobs first.

    Something tells me that this is far too simplistic of an explanation and that, indeed and unfortunately, a more real explanation is more troublesome and has even greater implications, as follows:

    I think that the very modest, tepid, subdued degree of passion and activism displayed by the vast majority of the public has a great deal to do with the feeling of “what good will it do?” In the face of corporate leaders who seem not to care, and a political stalemate brought about by a party that values “no” more than solving problems, and a government that seems ineffective at breaking that stalemate and getting important stuff done, and an economic situation that seems to present us with questions about whether our system is on the right track or needs some rather fundamental adjustments, and news media who are either ineffective or seem to place more emphasis on advertisers and profit than on “the public good” — in short, in the face of such a mess — people are wondering, “what good will it do if I get active and actually put my foot down?”

    If things are seen as “out of control”, and if our major institutions just “aren’t making sense”, then the resulting public malaise gets in the way of the normal and healthy activism that would otherwise be taking place. Well, that’s not quite the right way to put it. Perhaps this: If key public institutions just aren’t working, and display fews signs of being able to work, then the personal choice to NOT be active, or speak out on key issues, can seem like a “rational” and understandable choice. And/or, the resulting malaise can undermine one’s healthy “will to act” even before it gets going.

    This understanding doesn’t say that “If the government fixes Issue 1 first, then the public will get sufficiently active to insist that the government move on to address Issue 2”.

    Instead, it says that the public is deeply, deeply frustrated, and has lost much of its healthy energy, and will probably NOT get active on the singular issues — the economy, climate change, the war, etc. — until the major societal institutions — i.e., the government, politics, major corporations, the media — start to behave as effective, intelligent, responsible ADULTS!

    In other words, it may very well be the case that the public will not be able to “get active”, to a healthy and effective degree, on singular issues — even the very important ones — until the institutions show credible signs of sanity, responsibility, and effectiveness. Of course, if the major institutions don’t begin to show signs of sanity, responsibility, and effectiveness, then (sooner or later) growing chunks of the public WILL react to that, and “speak out”, loudly. But that will not have to do with particular issues, nor will it be very coherent, and parts of it may not even be civil and safe. In other words, if the institutions and their leaders allow things to get to the point where there is a large-scale “general anger” with the “overall situation in the United States”, to the point where large numbers of people actively express that anger, well of course, that would be unfortunate, and that would be a deep failure on the part of those leaders.

    There is a very interesting album by Laurie Anderson, titled “Homeland”, that contains two songs that shed light on different aspects of the present situation, I think. They are great songs, and the points that they artistically suggest are worth considering, carefully. One is called “Maybe if I fall asleep”, or something like that. The other is called “Only an expert can deal with the problem”, or something like that. I recommend listening to them, and to the whole album, which is quite thought-provoking.

    In George Orwell’s “1984”, the “proles” are confused, demotivated, passified, and dehumanized by the Orwellian nature of their governing institutions and media. For the most part, they have no hope, so they don’t do anything to change their situation. Period. Winston does something, and we all know what happens to him in the end, too. Our situation isn’t as dire (no comments please), but some of the same psychological factors may be at play, to a lesser degree, on the public en masse today, hampering positive and responsible activism on the core issues.

    If this is the case, there are implications for ways to move forward. If our institutions are seen as being “broken” and ineffective, temporarily anyhow, by most of the public, then getting people sufficiently active on the climate and energy issues faces that hurdle, along with all the other hurdles we already know of. This doesn’t make the task impossible, of course. But, as with any task, it helps to have a genuine UNDERSTANDING of the situation that one is trying to address. If the problem is “jobs first, then climate”, that’s one thing. On the other hand, if the problem is “I’m concerned about the climate but don’t think it will do any good for me to actively express that concern, or DO something, until our institutions and leaders show some signs of intelligence and responsibility”, that’s another thing. I tend to think that a growing number of people are falling into the latter category.

    Cheers for now,


    P.S. — By the way, are there any Julia’s out there?

    (Sorry for that!)

  9. Andy says:

    Great article – thanks for posting.

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    How about ‘The Pragmatic Way’?

    Republicans have blocked a comprehensive climate bill for now. And if they increase their head count in the Senate they could block a bill for two more years.

    With some concerted efforts we might be able to get where we need to be without one single ‘solve it all’ bill.

    Remember the Equal Rights Amendment, the never passed amendment which would have guaranteed equal rights under any federal, state, or local law could not be denied on account of sex? Perhaps not, since it didn’t pass. But by working piecemeal we’ve just about gotten to the same place. Passing the Lilly Leadbetter bill last year was one final small step that was needed to finish the job.

    Perhaps we should worry less about the very large bill not passed and concentrate more on piling up small successes which will sum large.

    (Great post, Craig.)

  11. Gord says:

    Yup. Another way will be required.

    “Reason is and aught to be the slave of the passions” – Hume

    We think we are reasonable as a species but such is not the case. We are emotive as David Hume observed almost 300 years ago. Modern brain research using fMRI machines have confirmed and elaborated upon this insight.

    Along with all the good things in the above post, Global Warming will have to inspire the Global Consciousness to do something about it. I’m not being a ‘flake’ here other than to make the point that if people are going to be involved in the solution(s) on a global scale; global populations will have to be motivated emotionally as a precondition to a globally successful outcome.

    In my darker moments I fear that ‘reason’, that is, human rationality, may provide us with the greatest impediment to success. It would be such an irony … that quality which has allowed us, as a species, to come so far, so quickly, provokes us to ‘reason’ ourselves into oblivion.

  12. Leif says:

    If you have no work and asked to pick between jobs and climate actions, well it looks like a loaded question to me.

    The questions should be: Do you want a job that pollutes the environment to the point of humanities, surely civilizations, survival? or Do you want a job that provides green renewable energy and enhances our struggle to save the planet?

    I would love to see that one polled with demographics.

  13. Bob Wallace says:

    Gord – I certainly don’t think you flake. Humans are rather poor at preventative action. We pretty much have to force people to get vaccinations and few save for retirement.

    In general people don’t get worried about their boat sinking until they experience water up to their knees.

    The really troubling thing about climate change for me is that by the time our climate change ‘knees get wet’ it’s likely to be too late to turn things around.

    Hopefully more people will start to see the signs around them and become more concerned. Extreme weather, loss of polar and glacial ice, changing agricultural patterns – some will see.

  14. BBHY says:

    Great post, except “Efficiency Reduction Standards.” I think he was going for either efficiency improvement or electricity reduction, not efficiency reduction.

  15. ToddInNorway says:

    Thanks for the cool-headed, rational, get-the-job-done angle here. My guess is that the Obama admin. has a similar strategy in play now with the EPA as the implementer and front-line soldiers. The solution to AGW is in its core a technology transition from carbon-intensive to low-carbon technologies. In the ideal world, this would happen because the price of carbon-intensive products would include all their externalities, both environmental damage AND geopolitical (read: oil wars and military interventions)effort. The low-carbon products/solutions would win hands down in this ideal market. We unfortunately will not get that. We will instead get a very active and enlightened regulator who will give the prescriptive technology choice signals in the absence of price signals.

  16. dave rollo says:

    Actually, economics IS at the heart of the problem.
    The growth paradigm must be challenged, and defeated if any real
    change is to occur. Technology is fiddling at the margins.
    The real issue is the commitment to infinite growth on a finite
    planet – an impossibility.

    Growth is over. Period. Any rationale re climate that does not include this
    premise will be ineffectual.