THE BLOG

Time for climate hawks to take to the hills?

11/30/2010 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's the path forward for those who support a robust response to
the danger of rising greenhouse emissions? It's always fun to toss ideas
around, and I look forward to reading my fellow participants'
contributions. To be more than an intellectual exercise, though, policy
development must issue from a clear understanding of power dynamics.
Climate hawks' fatal weakness has always been their attitude toward
power, which has wavered between naiveté, diffidence, and disdain.

Conservatives have successfully demonized cap-and-trade, rendering it
politically toxic for at least the next several years. In response, the
new vogue in energy circles is to campaign for massive public
investment in cleantech R&D. And who could oppose that? It sounds
reasonable and bipartisan. Then again, so did cap-and-trade in the
1990s, when centrist environmentalists and Republicans developed it as a
market-based alternative to command-and-control regulations. Will
public investment meet the same sorry fate?

Technology-firsters are convinced things will go differently for
them. But cap-and-trade's defeat owes less to policy -- the particular
balance of penalties and incentives in the legislation -- than to the
simple fact that climate hawks lack the social, political, and economic
clout wielded by those who benefit from the fossil fuel status quo.

As originally conceived, the climate bill was a wonk's dream,
bristling with policies from carbon pricing to technology investments,
consumer dividends, renewable power mandates, and efficiency standards.
(Look up Rep. Ed Markey's (D-Mass.)
iCap bill sometime.) Far from the "little tweak far upstream" Alexis describes in his introductory essay,
it was intended as a frontal assault on the status quo. But for all the
policy grandeur, there was never a realistic strategy to overcome the
interests of legislators arrayed against change. By the time the assault
reached the castle gates, the bill was mangled beyond recognition. Even
its supporters were somewhat relieved to see the bill put out of its
misery.

It is now painfully clear that, given the manifold dysfunctions of
American politics (filibuster abuse, unrestricted corporate money), the
energy status quo is too powerful to take down in direct conflict. It
would be a mistake to cluster together under a new banner and provide
another fat target. It's time to heed the lesson America's revolutionary
militias learned after they took a few drubbings at the hands of the
British Redcoats: Disperse. Take to the hills. Run and gun.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have assembled a coalition in
support of R&D investment, to their great credit. Yet they claim a
peculiar priority for that undertaking. "All questions, political and
economic, return to questions of technology," they assure us. If only we
could escape the vagaries of culture and politics so easily.

It's true that the world's energy systems are shaped by the relative
costs of different technologies. But it's equally true that those costs
are shaped by the distribution of economic and political power. Cost is a
cultural artifact -- the result of a contingent set of economic models,
market regulations, political connections, and consumer habits -- as much
as an objective feature of technology. Dirty-energy incumbents have
spent the last century rigging the rules in their favor. Efforts to
change costs must attend to sociopolitical and economic reform as well
as technological development.

A resilient movement will conduct guerrilla warfare. Diverse groups
and coalitions must defend the EPA, develop innovative clean energy
financing mechanisms or smarter market rules, go directly after the
nation's biggest polluters in boardrooms and courtrooms, work to raise
gas taxes or roll back fossil fuel subsidies, defend and expand state
climate programs like California's or smart-growth plans like
Portland's, start or fund cleantech businesses, and advocate for feed-in tariffs, a national smart grid, electric vehicles, and new building efficiency standards.

The effects of a distributed, networked insurgency are impossible to
predict and difficult to discern even as they unfold. It's impossible to
know in advance where resistance might give way or ground might be
gained, so profligacy and opportunism -- not parsimony and efficiency -- are
the watchwords.

There may come a time to muster back together behind a single,
dramatic, sweeping plan for change, but not until the coalition has
built considerably more bottom-up power. What climate hawks need most
now is a nimble, networked pragmatism, focused ruthlessly on wrenching
power from the hands of fossil fuel incumbents and deploying it on
behalf of a healthier, more democratic energy regime.