07/23/2012 08:40 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

Climate Change and the American Political Agenda

Just as the movie massacre in Colorado reminds us that the assault weapon ban has not been discussed in the presidential campaign, the intense storms and heat this summer remind us that climate change is a phrase that seems to have been banned on the campaign trail. The ability of powerful economic interests to control America's political agenda is not news, but the degree to which facts and science are willfully denied seems to be getting worse.

Climate has never been an easy issue for the American political system. We do much better with problems that have a geographic home, can be seen and felt, and have an immediate visible impact. Toxic waste, oil spills, and hydraulic fracturing can be seen and their impact is immediate. On the other hand, climate change is caused everywhere and its impact is in the future. Before climate science became the target of ideological idiocy, the American right developed market-based methods of moving away from fossil fuels. One of the most creative methods was something called cap and trade. The idea was to raise the price of fossil fuels in order to speed that day that renewable energy could compete with fossil fuels on price. Not a bad idea and we came pretty close to adopting that policy with the Waxman-Markey bill in the U.S. Congress.

Unfortunately, the Tea Party arrived, the climate deniers gained legitimacy, and cap and trade was renamed Cap and Tax by the nuts that took over the U.S. House of Representatives. While both Obama and Romney know that global warming is proven scientific fact, neither want to mess with these folks and go "off message" during this volatile and uncertain presidential campaign. Precious time is being lost, and more and more greenhouse gasses collect in our planet's atmosphere.

Climate change was never going to be an easy issue, and as the point of crisis has arrived, one of the problems has actually been the occasionally shrill voice of some of our climate scientists. They correctly see the danger of climate change, but do not see the political dangers that can be posed by sudden economic change. Some advocate policies that would imperil the world's economy. There is no question that we need to transition to a fossil fuel free economy. The issue is how, and at what pace? An immediate reduction of fossil fuels to the levels suggested by some climate scientists (for example, 350 parts per million) would reduce economic consumption and production, set off a world-wide depression, and stimulate mass political instability. Politicians concerned about retaining power would never allow the world's economy to be slowed down to prevent climate change and so there is no chance that such a sudden and dramatic reduction in fossil fuel use would reach the political agenda. Given the technology of mass destruction that can now be deployed during periods of extreme political unrest, the impact of human-induced climate change must unfortunately be compared to the impact of human-induced warfare.

While the transition to a fossil fuel free economy must be gradual and implemented with care, it still must come. Public policy in this country, Europe, China, India and Japan must start moving in this direction. While international meetings such as the recent one in Rio hold out little hope of leading this transition, other arenas hold out more promise. Many local governments, such as the C40 cities led by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have begun active efforts to reduce carbon generation. Corporations all over the world are becoming more energy-efficient and increasing their use of renewable energy. In our own country, during fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011, a total of over $100 billion of incremental government resources were allocated to renewable energy research and development. While these resources were short-term, investment continues outside the U.S. and the price of solar power continues to come down while the price of most fossil fuels continuing to rise.

As David Leonhardt wrote recently in the New York Times, the focus of climate policy in recent years has been to lower the price of clean energy rather than raise to price of dirty energy. Cap and trade, carbon taxes and other forms of regulation are being supplanted by policies that directly promote renewable energy. This is a strategy that I have been discussing for some time, and while it is not technologically feasible now, it will be before too long. As oil and coal become less plentiful and more difficult to extract and transport their price will rise. As renewable energy technology develops and is adopted, its price will fall. Eventually, renewables will be much cheaper than oil and coal. Fossil fuels will go the way of the tape cassette. This still requires government intervention, but does not require command and control government regulation or a carbon tax. While those policies remain a good idea that would speed the transition, they are not an absolute necessity. The government interventions required are investments in the basic science and engineering of new renewable energy technologies and on tax incentives to encourage individuals and businesses to adopt these developing technologies.

Which brings us back to presidential politics and the sounds of silence from the White House. As the country has turned more and more against government, the Democrats have essentially adopted the policy perspective of the Reagan administration and the Republicans have continued to move as far as possible away from the idea that government has a legitimate role to play in a civil society. The national political center has moved dramatically to the right. The problem for the both parties is that the world is not getting simpler: environmental sustainability, the global economy, the aspirations of impoverished people, the communications capacity of the Internet, terrorism and the growing technology of destruction both create and possibly help solve a set of vexing problems. Unfortunately, these problems cannot wait for the hidden hand of the free market to be solved. Government has a key role to play. Not the big bumbling government associated with the federal bureaucracy, but a leaner, more agile government that knows how to partner with the private sector to solve problems.

I am fortunate to live in a city that in a struggle for survival has learned how to do just that. It makes lots of mistakes, but New York City's very active government is in a growing partnership with a wide range of private for profit and nonprofit organizations. And our Mayor continues to campaign for gun control, public health, and environmental sustainability nearly every day. But national polls tell us that these themes are not likely to resonate with voters in November. And mistrust of the competence of the federal government continues to grow. Proposing a "moon shot" renewable energy initiative and goal is simply not in the cards this fall. I know that a national political campaign is probably the last place one would begin a serious discussion about the significant challenges facing the United States of America, but how about an election eve victory speech? Or maybe a State of the Union Message?