Breaking the Logjam on Global Warming

10/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jay Mandle Professor of Economics, Colgate University

Al Gore has challenged the United States to obtain all of its electrical energy from renewable and carbon-free sources within ten years. That challenge is as welcome as it is unusual among prominent politicians. However Gore fails to grapple with the obstacles that stand in the way of our avoiding drastic global warming while at the same time continuing to experience economic growth.

The brutal fact is that the cost-effective technologies necessary to replace fossil fuels in the production of electricity do not yet exist. A recent issue of The Economist magazine details the fact that the technologies associated with wind power, solar power, bio-fuels, geo-power and the capturing and storing of carbon dioxide emissions have not advanced sufficiently to make them cost-competitive with coal, petroleum and natural gas.

Among the alternatives, nuclear power comes closest to representing a cost effective option. However continuing concerns about the safety of nuclear plants and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste storage and disposal plague the industry. In addition, the prohibitive cost of constructing a nuclear facility has limited the industry's attractiveness to private investors. In combination these factors explain why nuclear energy today supplies only about 16 percent of world energy production.

Under these circumstances, the argument that the government should fund research in the development of green energy is very strong. Almost certainly, the benefits resulting from such investments will exceed their costs. Success will mitigate global climate change, enhance United States national security and benefit the economy.

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the petroleum crises of the 1970's the United States government did dramatically increase its funding for research and development in renewable energy. The budget for this ballooned in constant dollars from about $34 million in 1974 to almost $1.5 billion in 1980. However 1980 marked the high water market in this regard. Funding declined dramatically in the 1980's and stayed essentially flat thereafter. The government has not sustained the kind of financial commitment that is required for renewable energy technology to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

This pattern of stagnation was not dictated by voter hostility toward government-supported research and development. Indeed, polling data make clear that Americans strongly favor investment in new energy technologies. But public pressure was not sufficient to offset a serious structural flaw in American politics, the disproportionate power of big campaign contributors.

Since 1990, individuals associated with the oil and gas industries have contributed $220.4 million to politicians running for office. This contrasts with the comparatively paltry sum of $3.4 million provided by people connected to alternative energy production and services firms. The simple fact is that the advocates of alternative energy sources have not possessed the clout to sustain Congress' investment in renewables. In our "play to pay system" the start-up firms and innovators committed to clean energy have been outsiders looking in. Their ability to influence legislation has been correspondingly limited.

It is unrealistic to think that start-up firms and fledging industrial innovators can match the campaign contributions made by the big petroleum interests. We need a more democratic political system if we are going to be able to move on to a fossil fuel-free future. Such a future therefore requires that advocates of clean energy and clean election join in a firm coalition in support of each other's goals. Such a collaboration will strengthen each side and could result in the kind of movement necessary to achieve both a democratic and environmentally friendly society. Indeed, our future rests on our ability to create such a movement.