I recently appeared on the Mike Huckabee Show to talk about cap-and -trade legislation which I support. A live studio audience booed me vociferously. The Governor, whom I had admired, patted my hand and promised me safe passage from the building. Friends at home wondered what I'd expected. After all, those shows are political theater and the subject that day was about a policy conservatives currently love to hate.
Still, I did expect better from my Huckabee appearance because after all, Governor Huckabee himself supported cap-and-trade just two years ago. Senator John McCain, the GOP's recent pick for President, was among the first to propose the policy. Senator Lindsey Graham, nobody's pocket liberal, is a maverick supporter of cap-and-trade today. And let's not forget, cap-and-trade was developed by conservatives.
I think this is a key point about the policy itself which has been forgotten in the current debate. Cap-and-trade sends a clear, consistent market signal: companies that reduce their emissions will make money; companies that choose to continue to pollute may still do so, but they must pay a fee for the privilege.
As American Electric Power CEO, Michael Morris, said on the show, most American businesses prefer a market-based system to EPA regulation. Cap-and-trade allows companies flexibility on when and how to reduce their emissions and keeps government out of micromanaging corporate decisions. If some version of cap and trade does not pass, then agency command-and-control is the alternative, and I find it hard to believe that many conservatives support that.
Strangest of all, though, was that an audience of conservatives - a typically common sense, solution oriented, patriotic crew - cheered repeatedly for some version of "We can't." We can't know for sure whether pollution is speeding climate instability. We can't afford to clean up our act. We can't change our way of doing business.
Hogwash. We are the United States of America. We put a man on the moon, we brought down the Berlin Wall, we fired the imagination of generations and the productivity of nations with computer chips, the Internet, bio- and nanotechnology. We are the most innovative nation in the world. We can do anything we set our minds to.
So, I can only conclude that we are having the wrong conversation. Rather than talking about climate, which has been remarkably politicized, let's talk about energy. We can all agree that electricity is fundamental to our economy - it lights our homes, runs our appliances, powers our computers, and fires our industries.
But remember: the average age of a coal plant in the United States is over forty years and the average nuclear plant has operated for thirty. Three-quarters of our transmission lines are at least a quarter-century old and the bulk of those were built to serve limited service areas, not competitive regional markets that will move power efficiently and keep our prices lower.
Utility analysts agree: we will spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new generation and transmission by 2030 to keep the lights on, with or without cap-and-trade. The question before us is not whether to invest but how to invest.
Conservative investments will maximize the productivity of the energy we already generate. Consulting giant McKinsey reports that ambitious energy efficiency could eliminate over $1 trillion in waste, save consumers hundreds of billions of dollars on their bills by 2030, and supply as much energy as the entire U.S. nuclear fleet does today. Bonus: it would also avoid about a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions annually, the equivalent of taking the entire fleet of U.S. passenger vehicles and light trucks off the road.
Conservative investments will also maximize the use of local, inexhaustible fuels. Fossil fuels will run out; as they do, prices will rise and become volatile. (Remember $4 gas?) In contrast, renewable fuels like wind are locally available, cannot be exported, never run out, and have a fuel cost of zero. The U.S. Department of Energy reports 20% of our energy could be generated by wind by 2030, providing lower long-term energy costs, avoiding consumption of 4 trillion gallons of water, and improving U.S. energy stability and security. Bonus: it would also avoid emission of 825 million metric tons of greenhouse gases through 2030, the equivalent of planting over 19 billion trees.
Together, energy efficiency and renewable energy have the power to build a bridge to our energy future, keeping prices lower and improving national security as we go. If, as many observers expect, the global economy does put a price on carbon, then the United States is well positioned to thrive in that future. That is the conservative approach - it conserves our money, our energy, and our options.
To move ambitiously toward that future, I suggest we turn down the volume on Al Gore and Bill Maher, on Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh (and yes, on Mike Huckabee). Listen instead to the quiet, level voice of your own common sense. We have the tools, the ingenuity, and the political will to act - together - today.