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.