Climate Change the Loser in November Elections

Joel B. Stronberg, 5 August 2012

No Matter Who Wins in November, Clean Energy Climate Change Will Be the Policy Stepchild

I do not presume to know who the new President will be or whether the House and Senate majorities and leadership will be changed or maintained.  I am confident, however, that no matter the outcome, the political pollution that hangs over Washington will remain and that very little positive action will be taken to address the daunting and evermore threatening consequences of climate change by the next President or Congress.

I admit to being disappointed in President Obama’s unwillingness to be more aggressive in proposing and pursuing a series of broad national policies on climate change. Policies which include more support for the development and application of clean energy systems as well as those concerning sustainable agriculture, more stringent air, water and land pollution regulations and the more efficient use of natural resources.  It must be remembered that climate change is more than just energy.  Programs like Advanced Research Project  Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy, stable tax policies and investment support for private sector entrepreneurs in fields as far ranging as clean energy, IT and agriculture are essential.  Although such investments are not without risk, e.g. Solyndra, early stage capital is critical to the growth of new enterprises that contribute most to sustainable alternatives and economic growth.  The greater risk is in not addressing the problem– either through neglect or the pursuit and/ or maintenance of traditional policies which support a carbon dioxide economy.

To be sure there have been problems in the past in the federal effort to assist in the financing of new enterprises and the commercial application of emerging technologies but these are problems of execution and can be fixed through better management practices and working more closely with private sector experts.  Venture capitalists recognize and accept the risk of failure, understanding that the three companies that succeed will make up (financially) for the seven that do not.

To be sure there are costs attributable to regulation and providing loans, loan guarantees and tax credits to emerging technologies.  However, the price of inaction is ultimately much higher in terms of healthcare, national security, disaster insurance, rising food costs and the economic losses incurred by coastal cities from rising ocean levels than will be the price of failing to support the growth of the entrepreneurial class and the creation of a sustained federal framework which advances sustainable development.  Moreover, there are significant economic benefits associated with innovation in terms of investment opportunities, job creation, the initiation of new enterprises, rising tax revenues and the avoidance of dealing with more severe problems in the future.

Rhetoric is not a substitute for action. I am of aware that the President has had other pressing matters to attend to, e.g. healthcare, the economy and his re-election, and that any series of broad climate change proposals would basically be dead on arrival (DOA) in Congress.  DOA or not, the issue must be given prominence and rational integrated solutions offered as it encourages dialogue and identifies the issue as a principal priority. Often in the wake of defeat the seeds of success are sown.  Although Secretary of Clinton failed in her bid to get her healthcare proposals through Congress during President Clinton’s Administration, it brought the issue before the American people as never before and was a precursor to the passage of recent healthcare legislation.

Time is of the essence, however, as meeting the climate change challenge is not something that can occur quickly. Change of this magnitude can only be described as a cultural change and such change takes time.  The longer we wait, the more intransigent the problems and the more difficult their solution.  Therefore, it is past the time to clearly establish sustainable development as a national priority.

To his credit Mr. Obama has used his executive and moral authority to address some portions of the climate change puzzle. However, the fact remains that the U.S. has made little progress in this area during his first term in office.   Should he be awarded a second chance I do not see this changing for he seems unwilling to dedicate the same energy to this issue as he has to healthcare and the economy.  In my view the current Administration has had a tendency to be too insular and intellectual.  As a community organizer Mr. Obama should understand the importance of active engagement and visible leadership.

The President would do well to remember his community organizing experiences and to follow the example of Teddy Roosevelt, a leader who was an intellectual unafraid of confrontation and not nearly as willing to allow others to do his fighting for him. Mr. Roosevelt was not only supportive of conservation but as a “trust buster” knew that large entrenched interests, e.g. the coal, oil and railroad industries, were unlikely to exercise social responsibility without a lot of encouragement or confidence that it would expand their accumulation of wealth.

The President at least recognizes the reality and consequences of climate change putting him far ahead of Mr. Romney, who along with many Republican members of Congress, refuse to even acknowledge the issue other than as an excuse to flog it as a spurious liberal idea put forward solely to support the desire for a larger and more intrusive federal government.  This puts both candidates at odds, albeit in different ways, with a wide demographic of people, e.g. Republicans, Democrats, corporate executives, small business owners, students, retirees, labor and military leaders, who the polls show are increasingly accepting of the fact of climate change and its negative social and economic consequences.

It is ironic in some ways that the last group of individuals and institutions one would think of as leaders in the sustainability field is the Department of Defense (DOD).  Yet, DOD more than any other federal agency has invested heavily in alternative energy.  The reasons are fairly straightforward. The Department is the biggest user of power in the U.S. and understands that alternative energy will decrease both its operating costs and its vulnerability.  The greatest numbers of casualties that occur in conflict zones are related to supply lines; it takes massive amounts of fuel to power vehicles, provide electricity to command posts, medical facilities and power for electronic equipment.  The distributed nature of alternative energy, its near constant availability, e.g. solar and wind, and advancements in nano technology which makes equipment lighter and power sources wearable, i.e. woven into clothing, saves lives and increases mobility.

As importantly the nation’s defense leaders understand that natural resources, not just oil but water, minerals and arable land, are more likely than political differences to be the source of future conflicts.  A sustainable world is a safer world.  It is particularly ironic, therefore, that many conservatives in Congress and the media have expressed strong resistance to the DOD’s efforts to diminish the impacts of climate change by encouraging technological innovations in support of sustainability.  Such resistance manifests itself many times over in civilian sector debates about the benefits and costs of sustainability measures and programs.

The federal government’s failure to craft and implement comprehensive climate change policies negatively impacts the nation’s standing in the international community and allows others to ignore the issue based on the argument “I will, if you will.”  Leadership by example speaks much louder and eloquently than leadership by lecture.

A systemic problem of the times

The lack of federal action on global climate change is actually part of the systemic problem reflected in the micro political climate of the nation’s Capital; a problem which appears to be getting worse and is preventing substantive federal action on most major matters of the day. Politics have never been pretty but rarely have they been so petty.  As a long time climate change professional working mainly at the federal level I can tell you that structures of the federal government may be magnificent on the outside but are ugly on the inside.

It is no secret that the division between the political parties has become more vitriolic over the past decade and that federally elected officials are more interested in pursuing partisanship than pathways to solutions; solutions which require compromise, at the least a modicum of maturity and a willingness to work together.  As a consequence of the increasing chasm between the parties, we have become a nation of cliff dwellers.

Over the past decade the inability of Congresses and Administrations to work together has made Pennsylvania Avenue a highway to hell and has forced the nation to lurch down it in an effort to avoid myriad pratfalls caused by the constant failure to reach reasonable and more permanent accords on pressing matters.  I am not talking here about mere potholes in what should be the route to a prosperous future but deep and deadly sinkholes which threaten to swallow the nation whole. Substantive and stable legislation could fill these holes, if only the powers that be would come together to establish concrete foundations upon which more permanent solutions could be built.  Instead most agreements are stop gap measures of shifting sands.

Today’s cliff dejour is the looming matter of the automatic budget cuts set to kick in as a consequence of the last minute avoidance of falling off an earlier cliff—that of raising the budget ceiling in 2011.  Because the House and Senate could not manage to come up with a unified bill and in order to prevent shutting down the government, they enacted a stop gap measure raising the ceiling.

The legislation included a provision establishing a Joint Committee of the House and Senate charged with the responsibility of finding and proposing a combination of budget cuts and revenue enhancements to lower the deficit; cuts and revenue sources which could then be acted upon by the full Congress.  Not trusting themselves, the Congress included in the deal a mandate that if the Joint Committee could not come to an agreement an automatic across the board cut in federal spending would be triggered.  The Joint Committee could not agree and now Congress finds itself and, as a consequence, the nation hoisted on a petard of mandatory actions which indiscriminately cut policies and programs.

The cuts are to begin to take effect beginning in January of 2013.  Estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, the Federal Reserve and independent economists predict that these mandated and indiscrimi-nate cuts could easily result in zero economic growth next year. GDP in 2013 is projected between 1.2 and 1.5 percent at best. The impact of the across the board cuts and the failure to decide the fate of income and business tax measures before the end of the year is estimated to cut between .5 and .7 percent from the predicted growth number; this is under the best of circumstances.  Unfortunately, the year 2013 is unlikely to be characterized by the best of circumstances.

Under such conditions I cannot believe climate change will be a priority, unless made so by a large and diverse constituency.  Partisan or not, politicians maintain their positions by being responsive to those to whom they are responsible. Therefore, the key to substantive federal action rests with motivating constituents to convince their representatives that addressing climate change should indeed be a national priority.  Once given the will, the way becomes possible.

The prospect of the present fiscal cliff is already taking its toll on the economy.  Private investors—whether businesses, venture capitalists, retail stock investors or homebuyers–are unwilling to act in the face of uncertainty.  It is likely that some temporary comprise will be worked out after the November elections.  Inevitably the compromise will repeat the cycle of last minute temporary legislation avoiding one cliff only to face another six months or a year down the road.

A perfect example of the “new normal” in Congress of passing temporary measures has just been seen in the passage of a Continuing Resolution (CR) that will keep the government running beyond September 30th, the close of the fiscal year.  The action was required because Congress was unable to agree on required appropriations legislation.  Although the CR will avert a government shut- down, it will expire about the time it will be necessary to raise the debt ceiling again and does not solve the problem of either the fiscal cliff or the need for additional action to keep the government running for the last six months of the coming fiscal year.  Each party is holding the hope that the results of the election will give them leverage in future budget and tax debates.  It would appear that the new Congress has its work cut out for it dealing with all of the issues the previous Congress will be leaving behind.

The failure of the current Congress and the Administration to make concerted and concrete decisions on near-term crises hardly bodes well for making the hard decisions needed to confront the longer-term problem of climate change.  The run up to November’s presidential and Congressional elections has provided ample evidence that the partisanship of the past will continue into the future and that the political environment will remain as polluted tomorrow as it is today.

Hope for the Future

There is hope, however.   Partisanship makes the task harder but certainly not impossible.  This is actually a parallel situation to that which recently occurred at Rio+20, where the delegates to the Summit were only able to write what has been called the world’s longest suicide note, while actual progress was being made during sidebar meetings between NGOs, private sector corporations and philanthropic organizations.  These unofficial participants at the Summit made substantive commitments to lower their carbon footprints, to dedicate time and resources to working with communities in planning and implementing sustainability projects and using the power of social media both to educate and to innovate.  They also dedicated themselves to placing continuing pressure on federal governments to become more fully engaged in finding and supporting solutions in other than in a rhetorical way.

For the moment and into the future, it would seem that it is up to “we the people” to solve the problem.  Empowering and motivating the broad spectrum of constituents to develop the breadth of policies and programs needed to meet the climate change challenge, therefore, falls more heavily than ever before on the shoulders of individuals, private sector companies, state and local governments  and NGOs.  I believe the shoulders of these organizations are broad enough but that the cooperation of the federal government would greatly benefit the task which lies ahead.


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