THE BLOG
06/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Acting in Time on Climate Change

One of the things that has struck me more than anything else in directing the NDN Green Project over the last year and a half is how events have so often outstripped policy. Last year when oil prices were spiking, contributing to the economic crisis that erupted in the fall and probably adding to uncertainty in the auto market that caused sales to collapse when the financial crisis struck, Congress debated a host of measures to check commodity index speculation, change drilling policy and accelerate the rollout of alternative fuels. None came to fruition in anything close to a timely manner. Indeed, with the exception of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that moved on a fast truck only because of the dire shape of the economy, Congress has rarely been able to act in time.

Acting In Time happens to be the theme of a series of conferences, papers and thinking emerging from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Dean David Elwood who served in the Clinton Administration coined the term to describe the difficulty of acting in time given the rapid pace of change in the 21st Century and the all too 20th Century pace of government. Acting in Time on Energy Policy is also the title of a new book published by Brookings Press released today that distills the work of Harvard scholars on energy policy and tries to answer the question of how can the pace of policy action be accelerated to match that of the 21st Century.

The book contains a variety of prescient articles by experts on their respective topics, all with deep practical knowledge and experience in developing policy that works. Thus, William Hogan, a key architect of those approaches to deregulation that have worked, discusses electricity policy reform, Daniel Shrag discusses the critical issue of carbon capture and sequestration, John Holdren, the President's new science advisor, together with Laura Anadon discusses how to accelerate innovation in the energy field where the US has fall far behind other countries, Henry Lee writes about oil security, Max Braverman about the question of acting in time in general and Kelly Gallagher, the editor of the volume, discusses the critical issues of how to Act in Time on climate change.

The latter question is especially vital and time sensitive and, in many ways, driving action on other issues. Scientists indicate that there is a large direct cost in terms of emissions and higher temperatures to delaying action even one or two years. However, the political cost may be even higher. As I have written, conditions have never been more auspicious for action on climate change than they are this year with a new Democratic president in office who has made energy policy a priority, strong Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and Copenhagen looming as a deadline. If Congress fails to act this year, the prospect for action will dim. As Holdren, Gallagher and others argue, trying to create the perfect legislative fix must not stand in the way of acting in a timely manner.

This week The House Energy and Commerce Committee also began markup of climate change legislation introduced by Chairman Henry Waxman, Chairman Ed Markey and others. The back and forth at the hearings has been forceful, indicating the seriousness of what is at stake and also indicating that there is a better than even chance that the House will do its part to move this historic legislation.

As Congress and stakeholders debate the issue, they will do well to remember what Ellwood has identified as the importance of Acting in Time on an issue that effects the health of the planet.

There are far too many examples of failing to act. On the other hand, every now and then Congress gets together and does something historic. Right now, the stars could not be more in alignment.